Obituary: Gabriel Benitez Espern

Nobody knows how many youngsters work on the streets of Mexico's cities. Estimates vary between 2 and 5 million. By far the majority still live at home and are sent to earn money by their parents. The contribution made by this army of child workers often represents the most important source of income for the many families living in abject poverty.

It was in Mexico City, talking to the children who lived or worked on the streets, that Gabriel Benitez Espern came to appreciate the extent of the problems they faced. He realised that they have different needs from orphaned or abandoned children. Youngsters who take to the streets, because of family poverty or abuse in the home, have to become totally self-reliant to survive. Some turn to crime, others to drugs but all become addicted to freedom. When taken into orphanages or homes, they rarely stay for more than few days before absconding. To conquer this addiction to freedom was, Benitez considered, the most difficult challenge faced by any street child.

The welfare of deprived children became his concern as soon as he graduated in history from Puebla's UDLA University. He went first to the High Sierra to teach Mexican-Indian children, then, when he was 26, the Fud Abed Halabi Foundation offered him the position of co-ordinator of their social and educational programme in Mexico. Unicef approached him to design the first educational packs on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990), which were circulated to schools and teachers throughout the country.

It was while working with the Fud Foundation that Benitez met his wife, Sarah Thomas, a formidable young woman who had left the British Embassy in Mexico to set up a project for street children. They matched each other well in idealism, good looks and an ability to inspire others with enthusiasm for their chosen work. Gabriel Benitez had an aura of conviction about him. Immediately you met him you knew, without doubt, here was a good man, and his dedication was matched by an imaginative and innovative approach to problems.

Children are drawn to Mexico City from all over the country, and once there they disappear into the urban sprawl and it is difficult to help them. Much better, Gabriel and Sarah believed, to catch them along the way before they drifted into the capital. They chose Puebla, the old merchant town some 60 miles south-east of Mexico City where Gabriel was born, to begin their work.

Any night in the bus station they would see bewildered children who had just arrived, or others, already street-wise, sleeping on the ground. The children kept alive by carrying luggage, selling single cigarettes, juggling or sometimes picking pockets. And always there was the smell of the cheap solvents which they sniffed to ward off hunger and give themselves a high.

Funded by the International Children's Trust of Peterborough, Sarah set up Junto con los Ninos (Juconi) and Gabriel became a fellow worker and operational director of the project. The programme for street children began with Operation Friendship, in which student volunteers and social workers went on to the streets day and night to befriend and gain the trust of the children and to motivate them to change their life styles.

The next stage was building Casa Juconi, a half-way house which Benitez helped design and construct, where children can begin a stable life and acquire the basic skills of cooperation and participation. Wherever possible the children are encouraged to return to their families and support is then given to the family unit. Where this is not possible, children are helped to go to school or take up apprenticeships and training. But always for Gabriel it was "junto con los ninos - together with the children".

The day centre set up next by Juconi offers working children a shower, a meal and emergency medical treatment. Many come in after a morning's work, spend the afternoon on basic education and creative work before returning to the streets for an evening shift. Families are encouraged to come in and are helped to establish production units so that chldren can go to school, many for the first time.

Benitez also organised regular meetings to encourage women to realise their own potential. When local elections were coming up, one group of women who were meeting regularly invited the candidates along to explain their policies. The male politicians arrived, armed with a few platitudes, expecting a silent, respectful audience. But the women had planned their questions beforehand, refused to be fobbed off and in no uncertain terms told the politicians what they would have to do to gain their votes. To Benitez's delight, the women had achieved this themselves. The outcome was improved street lighting and better facilities at the local school.

The success of the Benitez-Thomas project has seen its ideas for helping street and working children replicated not only in Mexico but, encouraged by Unesco, in many countries where similar problems exist.

At the end of last year Gabriel and Sarah handed over Juconi in Mexico to a new director and left for Guayaquil in Ecuador to begin their work over again. His sudden death there at only 34 is a tragedy not only for his wife and children but also for the larger family of street children to whom he brought the hope of a new life.

Gabriel Eduardo Benitez Espern, charity worker: born Puebla, Mexico 6 January 1962; married 1989 Sarah Thomas (one son, one daughter); died Guayaquil, Ecuador 1 June 1996.