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Celebrating the Volunteer Spirit in Asuncion Schools

Asunción, Paraguay - Thousands of schoolchildren in the Paraguayan capital have found a new passion this month: service to their city and pride in the difference their volunteer efforts can make. Wearing bright blue Global Peace Festival T-Shirts with the slogan “Asunción – my city” on the front and “One Family Under God” on the back, 17 out of the 70 schools participating gathered the morning of July 3, 2008, for a final clean up and celebration along Ave Projectada 21 in one of Asunción’s poorer neighborhoods.

Teams of kids from the different school split up to cover the 21 mini parks located along the wide boulevard. Each park had its own character – one would be just a dirt football field, another a grass park, a third set up for volleyball. But all had similar problems --- small mountains of garbage, large and dangerous rocks and stones littered about, and unkempt and unclear pavements along a busy highway.

Some teams armed with brushes and whitewash set about painting clean new edges to sidewalks, and then used the same limestone-based paint to apply an insect-repellent layer to the lower trunks of trees. Meanwhile others cut back branches and pruned trees, and in a typically Paraguayan scene, the wood was carted away not by city trucks but by carts drawn by skinny but patient mule teams.

The cleanup is a joint project of the Global Peace Festival, the Unesco Schools Association and the City of Asunción, led by Mayor Evanhy de Gallegos, now in her second year of a five year term. “The Mayor wants to put Asunción on the international map,” said spokesperson Sra. Gilda Medina, “and events like the Global Peace Festival are important to us.”

Head of a bustling city of close to two million, Mayor de Gallegos’ administration is trying to strike a balance between tourism and growth whilst avoiding the drug and crime problems of Asunción’s larger neighbors, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires and Santiago. “We need to find good solutions for our young people,” said Medina. “The mayor would like the cooperation of the whole city – parents, businesses, schools and government – to keep our children safe.”

Like many capitals, Asunción suffers from the challenges of large daytime populations that stream into the city, use its services and clog its transportation infrastructure, and then leave at the end of the day without having really given everything back to the community. “Seeing these kids making such an effort is an example to all of us adults.” said Medina.

Still, it’s not all work and no play. As the late morning sun beat down and the cleanup came to an end, a band started playing and an impromptu talent contest started, with children from the different schools offering songs and every possible kind of dance to the wild cheers of their friends.

GPF Founder Dr. Hyun Jin Moon and GPF Paraguay co-chair Senator Lillian Samaniego came by to thank the kids for their service, and planted a tree in commemoration of the event. "By your service to your nation, you are creating a revolution,” Moon said. “It's a revolution of heart where people recognize the natural dignity given to us all by God, and we are willing to serve and live for the sake of others."

A press helicopter circling overhead served as a reminder that this kind of civic effort and gathering is still rather unusual in this South American country. However, with a new congress seated from July 1 and the main event of the Global Peace Festival July 5th, there is a tangible sense of new beginning. Paraguay seems poised to move out of the regional backwaters and onto the world stage.