01-11-2007 - Traces, n. 10

Examples for All

Each Name
Becomes a Story

We have returned to visit the In-presa Association of Carate, Italy, to see how a work can grow when its challenge touches all of us, one by one

by Roberto Perrone

walking through the corridors of In-presa on this day of pale autumn sunshine, I thought about the letter from Vicky quoted by Fr. Julián Carrón at the end of the Beginning Day in Lombardy: “Where is the power of death? It is in the absence of hope and in the lack of love.” And again: “You have a value and your value is great.”
This fine complex in Carate, dedicated to educating youth and to helping them with job placements, embodies the insight of Emilia Vergani. Emilia is no longer here; she died on a Paraguayan road on October 30, 2000. Shortly before, on January 18, 1999, she had founded this work which grew strong with the imprint she left on it. I was struck by an article by Giampaolo Cerri published in Vita (November 16, 2000) that said: “For Emilia, the central issue was not providing welfare but educating, helping everyone find the deep reasons for their own lives, in the daily confrontation with reality.” Shen, a junior high school student, comes to In-presa twice a week for homework help, and he can bear witness to this. One day, he asked what time it was, and the teacher showed him the clock above his chair. Shen confessed, “I can’t tell time, but I would like to learn.” After they taught him, his first comment was, “Now I’ll be able to make plans with my friends.”
In-presa is on the corner of a square in Carate Brianza. There’s a supermarket next door, with a bit of bustle outside on late weekday mornings. The Formenti textile firm used to occupy the site, employing 1,100 people. When it closed down, a farsighted town councilor decided the site’s new functions should include social activities. It’s offices occupy what used to be the tower of the power company.

Time bomb
Jacopo Vignali, President of In-presa Association, graduated in law and continues the work begun by Emilia. A social worker in Carate, Emilia Vergani asked herself a question: “What happens to kids who drop out after middle school?” Answer: they go to work if they find people who attract them. So business people have to be their teachers. Her idea, which she carried out, was that In-presa would keep them both company. This is a district of small and medium-sized firms. The first ones In-presa approached were an auto body builder and a cabinet maker. These were the first placements, and they were not easy.
Jacopo arrived in 2000. He is a friend of Giovanni, Emilia’s son. One evening, he came to dinner in Carate and he never left, staying on to work at In-presa. The first problems he had to deal with were school reforms, which are introduced with every new Minister of Education. Yet they opened the first class of 17 students, whom the social workers described as a group “time bomb.” But the people at In-presa continued, undaunted.

A solid operating dynamic
Now there are 250 pupils and 40 staff members. Together with Jacopo Vignali, there is Stefano Giorgi, the head teacher. I’ve known Stefano for thirty years, ever since the days we used to go to discos together. (When I reveal these youthful escapades, I feel I have ruined a carefully built up image!) These two men complement each other. Jacopo is a solid character, while Stefano is dynamic. Jacopo is a Juventus soccer team supporter while Stefano is a fan of Inter, so they are a perfect match.
The facilities are really first-rate, spacious and modern, having been opened in 2002. They tell me about the wine auction fundraiser with which everything began. They thought it would be a success if it raised 50 million lira, but it actually brought in 181 million. Public money funds the activities, but the facilities were all paid for by private citizens–friends, businessmen, and others. Part of the promotion campaign included sharing letters the kids had written to Emilia Vergani, the founder. Riccardo wrote: “Dear Emilia: Perhaps you do not know me but I know that from up there you are looking down on all of us. I remember the first day I entered this school. I did not know my companions or the tutors, but they made me welcome and showed me affection from the very first day. At that point, I became curious about what you did and how you founded this school.” Giovanna: “I chose the school by chance, but I was lucky. When I speak to my friends who are at other schools, I’m always staggered. Some of their teachers take no interest in them, they don’t have a club where they can get together, and they don’t have a tutor to help them in every situation. Here, things are completely different.”

Diverse offerings and unique students
True, even the focaccia they make in the kitchen of the cooking school is very like Ligurian focaccia, so I could almost call myself a tutor too. Perhaps it is because the cooking teacher, Giuseppe Villa, married a girl from Sant’Olcese, a village above Genoa well-known for its salami (the Varzi salami of Liguria). Riccardo lets me sample it. He wanted to be a mechanic. “But this school suits me better. So I’m going to be a chef.” Riccardo is a student in one of the two three-year courses for assistant chefs.
Here’s a summary of the In-Presa archipelago: 1) vocational training through two three-year courses for assistant chefs; 2) school–work alternation: nine classes for electricians/assistants chefs/mechanics; 3) work placement; 4) “middle school project,” laboratories, where, in agreement with the school, pupils with two or three failures behind, they are prepared for the third-year examination; 5) “bonding,” through one day of a sport activity and two of group living.
These aren’t simple kids. Franca Scanziani, teaching coordinator, says, “You can’t improvise with these kids. In the second class for electricians, a boy was acting strange. The hour before, he had seen a film and told the teacher, ‘It’s got nothing to do with me.’ The teacher retorted, ‘Indifference is ugly.’ The student was brooding on this. So I offered, ‘When I see someone is struck by something, it strikes me too. Why don’t you ask the teacher why he was so was interested?’ A few minutes later, I found him in the corridor looking for that teacher. Some of the kids are here because they want to attend vocational school, but others are here because they come from troubled family and school backgrounds.”

Cared for one by one
Evelina Cattaneo is the person in charge of lectures, two a day, forty a month, with pupils, parents, social services, and owners of businesses. She tells us, “A typical day goes something like this: We have a boy who doesn’t want to be a carpenter. I convince him to try it. He wanted to work in a supermarket, but they sacked him because he didn’t turn up every day.” Break at the café for an espresso. I talk to Lorena Gobbi about the tutors. Vignali had already explained, “Emilia’s idea was that every pupil should be cared for individually. Here, the approach is not bureaucratic but educational.” Lorena: “We do reception and accompaniment above all when they first arrive. We work with the teachers. Discipline is not an end in itself but a way of giving order to their days and their lives. We accompany them on internships, we encourage business people. For instance, there’s a girl who is a second-year assistant chef who’s a bit slack. We call on businesses, try to find an opening, and get her in.”
We’ve now arrived at the dining room, where the kids are providing a sample of their culinary abilities and where Guenda Cioni, who is in charge offundraising, tells me about her son Giacomo. He didn’t want to study but now he has earned his diploma as assistant chef because he felt he was being taken seriously.
The school’s next challenge is the challenge to survive. The new Fioroni (Italian Minister of Instruction) law proposes to replace the regional accreditation from the school (recognized in Europe) and give it a national status. At risk are all the projects for combining school and work, which means 120 kids half-way through their course work. On top of this is the problem of funding. For this reason, a lot of kids, like Michele and Alessio, who met while working on an electrical panel, went to protest at the Pirellone, the headquarters of the Regional Authority. “We are against this law that abolishes experimental courses. We wanted to make it clear we care.” There are people here at In-presa who are concerned about them. Here they’re taken seriously, their value is recognized. There is no anonymity. The faces have names; each name is a story. “These young people deserve more. They need to experience more of the beauty of life,” wrote Emilia. This is what I saw. I have only one regret: not to have experienced more of the beauty (and also the goodness) of the focaccia!