Students build the foundations of Maria Trindade's new home. (Photo by Thomas Ora)
After her husband died during unrest that gripped newly independent Timor-Leste in 2006, Isabel Maria Trindade, 56, found herself living in a tiny ramshackle hut with only her pets as companions.
The four-square-meter bamboo abode was way too small for her. It was also far from what most of her neighbors in Samatae — a village in Ermera district, about 40 kilometers from the capital Dili — would have called a house.
"I was in distress. Ever since my husband was killed, everything has been much tougher," Trindade told ucanews.com.
"As a poor woman, I was left helpless, and almost committed suicide. Being alone I had nobody to ask for help."
Living mainly on a diet of cassava, corn and bananas, Trindade faced malnutrition as well, while her meager income of US$20 per month from looking after other people's cattle was barely enough to buy rice and kerosene to light her oil lamp or candles. She could not afford to pay for electricity.
Luckily, help eventually came from students at the Immaculate Conception College in Ermera.
After hearing about Trindade's plight, college president Father Deolindo de Andrade, along with teachers and students, paid her a visit. They brought her rice, cooking oil and other basic commodities.
She was among 17 needy people and families the school students and teachers chose to assist.
"The most important thing is that they vowed to build and duly built a new home for me," she said.
Her new 24-square-meter house was funded and built by the college's senior high students and teachers next to her old tiny hut. Gone are the leaks as her new dwelling is made of concrete with an aluminum roof.
The newly built home — six times larger than her old place — was blessed in September by Bishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili.
Trindade's ordeal is one repeated across Timor-Leste, with many of its 1.3 million people facing financial hardship.
According to a report by Timor-Leste's Ministry of Finance, about 42 percent of the country's population live below the national poverty line, while more than 35 percent do not have access to electricity.
"I'm so blessed," Trindade said.
Isabel Maria Trindade in her bamboo hut with her pets. (Photo by Thomas Ora)
Selling used materials
Immaculate Conception College was founded in 1983 and has grown to be a respected Catholic school. The school has 973 students, from pre-school to senior high school.
It emphasizes Catholic values to students, such as a commitment to help less privileged people such as Trindade.
"Encouraging them to reach out to people complements classroom teaching," said Father Andrade, who is also parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes Church. "It enables students to learn about real situations and how to solve them."
Another aspect is to teach students to love the environment by disposing of waste correctly — putting garbage in its proper place and recycling. Father Andrade said it's a way to implement Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si', which laments environmental destruction.
Coupling discipline with charity, the priest said students who breached the school's rules or underperformed in certain subjects were asked to collect used soft drink or beer cans.
The cans were then sold at 65 cents to US$1 per kilogram, and during the months of March and April this year, the students raised US$800 to be used for social charity programs — such as building a home for Trindade.
Trindade's new home stands next to her dilapidated hut. It was blessed by Bishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili in September. (Photo by Thomas Ora)
Father Andrade said the students will learn to be more creative in fundraising, such as by selling fried bananas or hosting a singing contest to raise money for community services. "The goal is to build bigger homes for those in need," he said.
Dulcia Denisfatima, 17, one of the students who was asked to collect 50 used cans for underperforming in her multimedia technology subject, said at first she was embarrassed.
"But it has motivated me to study harder," she said, adding that seeing the results of selling used cans for less privileged people made her realize that reaching out to others is also an important part of her education.
Agostinho de Jesus Madeira, 20, a senior high school student who was also asked to collect 50 used cans for getting a low grade in his Catholic religion subject, said his eyes were opened when he realized that the school sanction against him was a blessing for other people.
"I was happy to join the students' body in building houses for other people with the money from selling used cans," said Madeira, the fifth of seven siblings. He wants to become a priest.
Esaurino Madeira (no relation to Agostinho), a 52-year-old ambulance driver and parent, supports the school's way of disciplining the students.
"My daughter has changed after she was asked to collect 50 used cans for failing in one of the main subjects," he said.
Helping less privileged people is not only the task of government or the church, he said, but of every citizen — including students.