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Swimming, the environment and learning a new language

How does a half American, half Brazilian double Masters graduate end up running a project in a coastal town in Brazil, teaching young people how to look after their environment?

Well, for Jaci Braga – founder of the NGO ETIV do Brasil, which is SwimTayka’s partner in Brazil – it was quite a journey. And it started, in part, with her desire to learn to speak Portuguese.

But before we get to that, here’s how SwimTayka and ETIV together form a great team.

Teaching children to swim in Brazil

ETIV do Brasil first began operating from a large house in Itacaré, partnering with a local church. It works with children, teaching them about environmental conservation. In fact, there is an environmental aspect incorporated into all the programmes ETIV runs.

From small beginnings it grew and last year moved into a new, spacious location next to a mangrove forest, with plenty of room for volunteers to live in and rent. 

“We had two years of running the SwimTayka programme, before Covid,” says Jaci. “In our first year we started small in just our neighbourhood and the next door neighbourhood, and around 35 to 40 children completed all the classes.

“The next year we went big, factoring in transportation, so we could reach more children. Around 100 in total took part, because we were able to bring in children from further away, and we hired pools for the lessons.”

Jaci and her team were even able to reach some of the children who spend their days picking through trash at the local garbage dump, looking for anything of value.

Attending the swimming lessons gave them an opportunity to shower and get clean, as well as jump into a pool, probably for the first time in their lives.

The water stewardship curriculum from SwimTayka dovetails perfectly with ETIV’s own environmental curriculum. Indeed, SwimTayka’s environmental curriculum is being tailored to match the Brazilian children’s experience.

For example, when ETIV talks about fossil fuels and petroleum, they can reference the 2019 oil spill that happened in the area – we wrote about this in a previous blog. This gives the children an opportunity to share their stories about what it was like to see oil on the beach, and how it felt to be afraid to get in the water and to eat the fish which had been polluted.

One challenge for ETIV has been finding qualified swim instructors. In the first year of partnering with SwimTayka, ETIV had to reach out to sports graduates who had swim qualifications. However, going forward they hope to be able to draw on a bigger pool (excuse the pun) of volunteer instructors.

Unfortunately, because of Covid, programmes were put on hold, but Jaci hopes these will be back up and running by the end of 2021, if not then in 2022 for sure. And when they resume, instead of renting pools, ETIV will be able to use its own, which has been rebuilt thanks to the generosity of two local families.

Jaci’s journey to creating ETIV

So how did Jaci end up setting up an NGO in Brazil?

“My father emigrated to the States from Brazil. It was at a time when it seemed much more important to speak English, so he never got around to teaching me Portuguese,” says Jaci. 

“Ironically, I could speak Spanish, but never learned Portuguese. Whenever we visited Brazil, most of my cousins would speak a little English but I could never have a conversation with my grandparents. When I finally learnt the language, after I moved here six years ago, I never forget the fabulous feeling I had at a family reunion and was for the first time speaking to them in Portuguese.”

For Jaci, arriving in Brazil was through a circuitous route. She obtained a BA degree and two Masters and spent the early part of her career in the States as a community organiser in Denver, working with the immigrant population.

In 2010, Jaci went to Washington D.C. to lead the grassroots immigration campaign for two national federations. 

After a year and half of politics in D.C., she decided that it was time to move abroad to live a simpler life, so she sold up and travelled to Nicaragua, where she volunteered and trained as a yoga teacher.

Her next stop off was in Peru, when she became operations manager of an NGO, focused on community and youth development. It was here that she had an epiphany and knew her work needed an environmental focus.

“Peru has the most beautiful sunsets, and I remember one evening as we watched the sun going down, seeing something in the sea, on the horizon. It was a dead whale, tangled in netting, which then washed up directly in front of us. At that moment, I knew I had to do something that would help the environment. I thought ‘this is my calling’.”

Jaci began an environmental programme with the NGO, getting support from the community and working with the local university. 

After two years, Jaci’s Portuguese roots were calling, so – determined to master her Father’s language – she moved to Brazil.

Her first step was, of course, to learn Portuguese. Next, Jaci wanted to replicate her work in Peru but had to pinpoint an area that would benefit from the type of environmental programme she wanted to run, with a strong focus on youth development.

She moved to the coastal town of Itacaré, in Bahia, and ETIV do Brasil – which stands for Education Through International Volunteering – was born.

ETIV started small. “We tried at first to operate through the schools, but with strikes, or cancellations, or holidays this just didn’t always work,” said Jaci. “We got creative, putting out blankets for the children to sit on, and then teaching them about the environment. Then we were able to build our own learning space.”

Today, ETIV is about so much more than just its environmental teaching programme. It has a wider mission, urging the authorities to bring the problems of garbage and sewage under control, and to pay more attention to the quality of drinking water. Even the beautiful mangrove forest behind ETIV is under threat from construction, and ETIV is working hard to protect this.

“Part of our motivation is to teach children to care for the environment and one another. We love Itacaré and we know they do too. It all starts with the children.”

A challenge, but ETIV believes that by working together they can make it a reality. If you are interested in finding out more about the swimming programmes jointly run by ETIV and SwimTayka, or are interested in volunteering, then please get in touch. We would love to hear from you.