URUGUAY: Salesian Father Martin Ponce De León facilitates “Shared Table” initiative to connect with those who live in conditions of social vulnerability
(MissionNewswire) Since 2006, Salesian Father Martin Ponce De León has been a parish priest at the Saint Pius X parish in the Jardines de Don Bosco district of Mercedes, located in the department of Soriano in Uruguay. Since 2010, Fr. Ponce De León has been operating an initiative known as “Shared Table” which serves people with scarce resources who find themselves in situations of social vulnerability.
Through the initiative, Fr. Ponce De León, with the help of volunteers, offers food and shelter to those who are alone, experiencing challenges in life or are living on the streets. He says, “When you see someone lying on the street because of his drunkenness, or who smokes because of his drug addiction, he is always a person, not a thing. He is a person and therefore he has something to offer us. He is a person and can help us, in the measure in which we are able to honor him as a person.”
Father Ponce De León adds, “He is a person and we must learn to respect him starting from the principle that the door of the heart of that human being opens from within, not with arrogance. And there is no need to ask for external changes, but to wait for the big change to make someone smile because at that moment he can recognize himself as a person.”
It is only with this perspective that one can understand the meaning of the “Shared Table” which is not simply a literal refectory or table for the poor. Father Ponce De León explains, “The central elements of our activity are engaging with those people who sit with us at the table three times a week. We know each other’s names, we access those pieces of history that allow us to know. And we respect each of their decisions even if sometimes we do not share them.”
In honor of his years of dedication to the community, the Departmental Administration of Soriano nominated Fr. Ponce de León for the National Award for Citizen Excellence. Father Ponce de León accepted the award at a celebratory event held on Sept. 12.
Uruguay has managed to decrease its poverty rate by almost half since 2007 when the World Bank estimated that 25 percent of the population was living in poverty. Today, the poverty rate is close to 10 percent with the majority of poor residents concentrated in rural towns and villages.
Most rural citizens in the country do not have the financial resources or education and training necessary to find and maintain stable employment. Running a profitable business venture or maintaining a small farm with access to the national and international markets is increasingly competitive and remains largely out of reach, especially in households run by women alone. The majority of rural poor are those most often engaged in non-agricultural activities.
In addition to a lack of education and employment opportunities, access to affordable housing is a concern for many poor families in Uruguay. Many do not have the resources to purchase homes or land to build on, and schools are often so far away children cannot attend.
Youth crime is on the rise in the country. More than 35 percent of crime committed by adolescents can be traced back to a lack of educational opportunities and employment inequality, according to a recent study by the Center for the Study of Economic and Social Reality. The report also noted that crime rates among young people in Uruguay have doubled over the past 15 years and the rate of violent assaults has quadrupled.
Salesians have been working with youth in Uruguay for many years, providing educational and social development opportunities to help them break the cycle of poverty and lead productive lives.
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World Bank – Uruguay