Though many street children in Latin America are of Indian descent, few organizations understand the complications of working with these children. For instance, Mayan children reject the hugs that outreach workers are used to give to affection-starved street kids. The Kunas of Panama have no tradition of greetings or small talk, so Kuna street kids seem lost in the introductory banter of a first contact with a street educator. Since most social workers are white or mestizo, cultural barriers stand in the way of effective services for indigenous street kids.
A program in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, addresses this problem directly. Melel Xojobal (True light in Tzotzil, a Maya language), serves almost exclusively Maya street kids. Melels administrative structure mimics the traditional democracy of Maya communities. Children in Melels schools teach staff Chol and Tzotzil, fomenting a sense of pride and deconstructing the traditional power structure. In addition, Melel has instituted a curriculum to instill cultural pride and to overcome the Maya childrens systemic distrust of social service agencies. The child-care center uses Maya mothering techniques.
Shine-a-light collaborated with Melel Xojobal to disseminate its knowledge of indigenous street kids. Mike Feigelson, an ex-Watson Fellow and consultant with McKinsey and Company, worked with Melel to formalize their system, then to turn it into an internet and CD-ROM course, which exposes the western prejudices that prevent street educators from connecting with indigenous children and teach NGOs to serve these kids better.