01-07-2006 - Traces, n.7


The Beautiful Road
Here is the story of those who formed the charitable center called “La Strada” in a parish on the periphery of Milan in the 1980s, their encounter with friends in the Movement, and the growth of an experience that faces and gives an answer to the needs it meets, in the words of three who undertook this adventure at its beginning

by Paola Bergamini

Described here, the journey of a group of friends–a young surveyor with a good job and a “fixation” for social work, a pianist fresh from the Conservatory who decided to do civil service with Caritas, and a nuclear physicist who had left scientific activity and was asked by a friend to help reorganize a charitable work–all of whom converged on Via Salomone, in a high-risk neighborhood on the periphery of Milan, in the parish of San Galdino, where the associate pastor, Fr. Giancarlo, had founded the “La Strada” association in the 1980s to deal with the perennial problem of drug addiction. But what really unites them is their shared passion for man, and above all the encounters with Christian friendship that have marked their lives, happening for each by a different road. Around a table in the headquarters on Via Piazzetta, they told Traces how, bit by bit, charitable works budded and blossomed, always with the method of sharing the needs that reality put before their eyes.

The beginning
and the new needs

“I was 24 years old,” begins Gilberto, “when Fr. Giancarlo proposed opening a community center for drug addicts in Inversago, Italy, in a villa that had been donated to him. I left my job in an oil company and with some friends I threw myself into this adventure. I stayed there for five years, during which time I got married and my first daughter was born. At a certain point, I realized that I had to make some choices, especially for my family. In addition, La Strada was taking new roads to respond to new needs and we felt the necessity to manage this unforeseen growth.” “Yes, that was also a crucial moment for me,” intervenes Diego. “I was coming to the end of my civil service, and notwithstanding my initial idea that this period would just be a parenthesis, I had decided to remain with these friends. As we followed the day center for drug addicts, a series of problems came up, such as how to return to normal life, how to make up for dropping out of school, etc. We were a band of friends working on the needs we encountered. In the meantime, Fr. Giancarlo was transferred to another parish. We realized that we needed a point of reference.” “In those years, in fact,” explains Gilberto, “each of us had a passion for a little piece of La Strada and we kept it going. For example, someone had made available a piece of land in the area of Piacenza, and one of us, Mark, set up a cooperative for nursery gardening. This work has always remained lively. At a certain point, we realized that we needed someone to keep track of all the lines of this complex structure, with the idea of helping it grow. So here, our story has a line of demarcation, the passage from an initially very strong ideal drive to a moment in which we became conscious of the value for which we were working, and this coincided with the encounter with some people from the Movement. They helped us abandon a kind of ‘poor house’ logic, typical of a certain Catholic sphere, and to get to the bottom of the reasons why we were working, in order to respond adequately to the needs.”

Education and assistance
“In 1987,” recounts Valter, “through Vittadini and Fr. Giussani, I met Angelo Abbondio, who asked me to follow some charitable works he was helping along, including La Strada. I saw right away that they were of exceptional generosity and humanity, but risked losing sight of the purpose. I stayed with them, living the method Fr. Giussani had taught me when we used to go to Bassa: encountering the other with his needs. ‘So, what about the boy who’s doing poorly at school, with the alcoholic father and unemployed mother, and they’re homeless? Well, it’s not enough to help him in his studies; you try to find them a home. So, why don’t you set up a cooperative to help people in the same conditions?’ I have always followed this road: when I saw that a little group was interested in a specific problem, I invited them to build their own charitable work. It’s exactly the opposite of what the others do, getting bigger around the single problem. But this is possible only if you consider man in his entirety, and your gaze changes to 360 degrees. Then, there’s the Company of Works motto: ‘An ideal criterion, an operative friendship.’ It’s not by chance that we have always had periodic meetings to discuss the reasons we are working–the concrete needs point to the greater need, to Destiny. This unites the assistant and the assisted. This is the difference between education and assistance.”

A holding company
of hospitality

This is the story. Today, the diversification of responses has created a real holding company. The La Strada group, headed by Valter Izzo as President, is the point of reference for twelve cooperatives engaged in a variety of works of hospitality (see box), from social centers for young people at risk, to a medical studio for marginalized people, artisan workshops in a prison, and a community for terminally ill AIDS patients, among others. Over 400 people are engaged in the various structures.
“All this has been possible,” explains Diego, President of the Galdus cooperative, which focuses on orientation, formation, and apprenticeship for youth and adults, “because of the relationship of friendship among us. When people started talking about networks, we looked at each other and said, ‘That’s what we’ve been doing for years!’ There is no formal bond between one cooperative and another, but it’s natural that we should interact. This is essentially because we love each other and we love others. We want their good–which is also our good. And especially when you’re dealing with young people, this is decisive. More often than not, their difficulty arises from the lack of an adult capable of making a meaningful proposal and, above all, supporting it. They want someone who accompanies them, someone, for example, who’ll call them in the morning at home to be sure they have gotten up and have made it to class. They need someone like two of our operators, who took a plane at their own expense to find a girl who had run away to Sicily. Why in the world would you do it? You do it because of your passion for others.”

Creative friendship
“Here,” intervenes Gilberto, today President of the La Strada cooperative and responsible for managing the social assistance services, activities, and projects, “what makes me stay is a passion, a gusto that makes me feel this work is something of mine. Also, I have to say that the friendship among us and the discovery of ever-new needs also makes you be creative. It’s not by chance that the Academy of Works has recently been created to produce musical events–so Diego can finally pull out his Conservatory diploma and put it to work!” Everyone laughs. “So, in this way, too,” Diego says, “we continue to respond to the desire of all men for ‘the beautiful and the infinite.’” “Another challenge,” Walter concludes, “that reminds me of my father, a soloist in the Navy orchestra. I jumped right in because of the friendship among us. We’ll see you in the fall at the Conservatory.”