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Giving Children a Chance
Surviving on the streets as an orphan or unaccompanied child is one of the most harrowing experiences imaginable. For these children, moving from the streets to safety often seems like an impossible dream.
A Chance In Life – a New York-based non-profit run by Legatus member Gabriele Delmonaco – has been making these dreams a reality for children in Italy for over 71 years. ACIL operates Boys’ and Girls’ Towns (BGT) outside Rome, and the organization recently added communities in India and Ethiopia.
ACIL continues to be a lifesaver for thousands of children. Sation Sema and his sister Sonila from Albania experienced it firsthand.
“In 1997, there was a civil war in our country,” Sation said. “I was 12 years old at that time and we had no future. You could either join a gang or get buried six feet underground.”
Sation boarded a rubber raft bound for Italy with 30 others. Once he arrived in late 1997, he went to Naples and began to work as a window washer in the streets.
“An Albanian saw me and wanted me to get a better life,” he explained. “He introduced me to a priest, Fr. Peter, who brought me to Rome’s police headquarters. From there, they brought me to Boys’ Town.”
Boys’ Town was founded after World War II in Rome by Monsignor John Patrick Carroll- Abbing, an Irish priest working at the Vatican.
“According to Monsignor Abbing, there were 100,000 orphans living in the streets of Rome after World War II. Most of them made a living by shining shoes or stealing,” said Delmonaco, ACIL president and member of Legatus’ New York City Chapter.
Apparently one incident during the war really shook Monsignor Carroll-Abbing. After an airplane bombing, he saw a three-year old child trying to wake up his dead mother.
“Another person walked by and whisked the child away,” said Delmonaco. “It was then, in 1944, that he decided he had to do something about the war orphans. He went to Pope Pius XII in 1945 and was given a papal blessing to start this program.”
Monsignor Carroll-Abbing flew to the U.S. and began fundraising among Italian Americans. His visits spurred the creation of a non-profit organization in the United States, which was initially called Boys’ and Girls’ Towns of Italy. Eventually, Monsignor acquired extensive properties in 1953 and 1956 outside of Rome where they exist to this day. Last June, after the addition of communities in India and Ethiopia, the board of directors changed the name to A Chance in Life.
“After the war, a group of Italian Americans, including my dad, became involved in the reconstruction efforts in Italy,” said Mauro Romita, ACIL’s chairman of the board. “Monsignor Abbing came to New York and ended up staying at our house. I would listen to him tell stories about how the children in Italy were wearing cardboard for clothes.”
The first building he rented for orphans in 1945 was near Rome’s central train station.
“He called it the ‘Shoe Shine Hotel,’” said Delmonaco. “But he noticed that some kids were running away after staying there. He finally caught up with one of them and asked why he’d left. The kid said he was used to being independent after living on the streets. He didn’t want someone telling him what to do. After this, Monsignor Carroll-Abbing decided to create a new model where the kids themselves were in charge.”
Boys’ Town was founded with this model of selfgovernance. The children are in charge of the city with the help of adult supervisors. The child who is elected mayor appoints commissioners of finance, public works and recreational activities. The mayor conducts assemblies in which the “citizens” organize and critique the daily life in their “town.”
“Self-governance empowers the children by letting them take responsibility for their lives,” Delmonaco said.
As the years passed, the situation in Italy changed. Italian orphans no longer live on the streets. Instead, the country has been flooded with unaccompanied minors coming from Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
When Sation arrived in Boys’ Town in 1997, he contacted his parents to tell them his whereabouts. Nearly 18 months later, his 16-year-old sister Sonila escaped Albania and came to Girls’ Town.
“I went to Boys’ Town immediately to see Sation,” said Sonila. “When we saw each other we started to cry like crazy.”
“The experience of Boys’ Town was great because I was able to learn things: How to use a computer, how to interact with people from different countries,” Sation said. “There were kids from Albania, Ethiopia and Somalia, but we didn’t see them as separate from us. We saw them as brothers.”
The most important skills the children learn are self-reliance and leadership. Sation was elected mayor of Boys’ Town where he learned to exercise this skill in a real way.
“When I arrived in Girls’ Town, there were 25 of us girls living there,” said Sonila. “We were from Albania, Ethiopia, Morocco, Bangladesh and India. Everyone had their story. Some were fleeing abuse, others war. But in the end, we all saw each other as sisters.”
Sonila’s peers elected her mayor of Girls’ Town.
ACIL works with each child to determine their abilities. The more studious children have the opportunity to go to college. Others finish high school with a vocational track, learning mechanics, ceramics, how to run a pizza shop or a beauty salon.
Sonila received a full scholarship to the College of New Rochelle in New York where she earned a master’s degree in nursing. Today she works as a nurse practitioner in New Rochelle.
Sation came with her in 2002, finished his high school degree and went to Iona College in New Rochelle. Today he works as an interpreter/translator in New York City.
ACIL recently has opened towns in Ethiopia and India. “Last year, we opened a town in Ethiopia to help young Africans before they decide to cross the sea and get abused and exploited,” said Delmonaco, noting the current situation of migrants trying to get to Europe.
ACIL helps 400 children in Ethiopia, mostly girls. One program aids 100 handicapped children who go to school and learn about entrepreneurship. Another helps girls who live too far away to walk to school. They’re given housing. A third program supports 200 orphans.
“We are trying to raise funds to build an auditorium that would become a center for theatre and music,” said Delmonaco.
And in October, ACIL opened new towns in India, helping 900 children in 10 institutions. Monsignor Carroll-Abbing was fond of saying that children need “a chance in life.” More than seven decades later, his organization is still giving youth that chance.
“It opened the door to a huge world for me,” said Sonila. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for Girls’ Town.”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.
Learn More: AChanceInLife.org