2014-02-13 12:49:53

International Womens Day: A woman who puts compassion into action

(Vatican Radio) To mark International Womens Day, Vatican Radio’s female journalists are highlighting the stories of some of the most inspirational women they've interviewed. Here's the story of one courageous woman who puts compassion into action by caring for the cast-offs of society.

Listen to this report by Susy Hodges whose full text is below: RealAudioMP3

I’m Susy Hodges and as a journalist at Vatican Radio I’m always on the look-out for a good interview. I love speaking to people whose life and work is an inspiration for the rest of us, people who are not afraid to move out of their own comfort zone to help empower those with no voice. Nancy McGirr, an American Catholic photographer turned charity founder is one such person. I found out about her when I was reading an article about how a group of young kids from Guatamala’s worst slums were given a camera by McGirr to take pictures showing how they scavenged for a living in a garbage dump. That unusual experiment, which began in 1991, has now evolved into a full-time vocation that has helped thousands of kids to break out of the cycle of poverty.

Called Fotokids, the charity founded by McGirr teaches these children photography, technology, art and design and they are also given a scholarship to take them through school. After reading that article I was convinced that McGirr’s story would make a moving feature for our radio and so I tracked her down and did the interview.

I was not disappointed. ..

“People live in tin huts or scavenged wood, with dirt floors, the fire’s on the floor, they’re one-room houses, maybe nine people will live in one house. A lot of the mothers aren’t literate but they’re very interested in their kids having an education because they know it’s pretty much the only way out of the whole cycle of poverty and it’s the mothers who are really keeping our programme going. When I first started, the statistics for education in Guatamala were horrible. It’s only one child out of six who actually passes 6th grade primary (school) and out of that only two out of ten are girls.”

McGirr’s grit, determination and boundless compassion for the needy shines through all she says. In recent years, she’s also started a number of projects especially aimed at girls, recognizing that they face even greater hurdles than boys in breaking out of that dead-end lifestyle of the slums.

And an inkling of those extra hurdles facing girls came very early on. McGirr told me that whilst most parents were eager for their children to become involved with the Fotokids project, she remembers a very reluctant father with two girls who had to be convinced of the importance of his daughters getting a proper education.

“They were working in the garbage dump and the father said to me, ‘well, you know, she’s a girl, I mean she can learn to count at home’ and I thought, Oh No! and so that’s when I sent (Dominican) Sister Raquele. She went down then and talked to him for a while and got him to relent and then (later) of course, he was really proud because I had his two girls, the two sisters and they were No. 1 and No 2 in their class.”

Clearly, I thought, this is not a woman who backs down when the going gets difficult. What also struck me was the close-knit family nature of this organisation. McGirr says that several of the older children that have passed through the Fotokids project are now working for her.

Her involvement with the Fotokids project has changed McGirr’s life but even more importantly , her charitable work has given a bright future to so many kids who were considered the cast-offs or dregs of society. As for McGirr, despite the huge and ongoing challenges of her work, she’s in no doubt about the rewards of helping these kids:

“I think the greatest rewards are like anybody’s greatest reward – it’s having personal relationships with these children and seeing them grow and seeing them blossom, seeing kids that couldn’t express themselves speaking in front of a group, reading Pablo Neruda, becoming excited about learning. These are the pay-offs for me. These are things that make me happy and these kids are my family and so, of course, what you want is, you want the best for them.”

McGirr’s inspirational story lingered in my mind long after I did the interview. Here was a woman with both courage and compassion. A women who put into practice Christian teaching about reaching out to the poor and needy, and who is giving them the power to transform their lives. Bringing her story and others like her to a wider audience is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.

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