Maria de Lourdes Egydio Villela, better known as Milu Villela, is one of Brazil’s richest women, yet she devotes the majority of her time flying to the assistance of the most poverty stricken. For within her own homeland, 46 million people live below the poverty line.
Daughter of a scientist who had worked with Marie Curie and granddaughter of the founder of the Itau Bank, this elegant heiress, now 55 years old, is part of family who controls one the most important banks in the country: Itau Bank.
In 1994, after having raised two children of her own, she created an association “Despertar” (Awake) whose headquarters are based in one of Sao Paulo’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. The organization includes a school doted with twenty four classrooms, a day care center able to care for 170 infants and an outdoor athletic facility. Each year, approximately 1,600 youths receive career training at the center, allowing the majority of them to find work. That same year, all while rejoicing in the success of the vocational training center, Milu Villela took over the directorship of the Modern Art Museum of Sao Paulo and in less than five years time succeeded in raising the 4.5 million reals required for the renovation of the establishment. She believes that “art is also a means by which society may be improved”, and she has opened the doors of the museum to public school children and has transformed her bank’s cultural foundation into a miniature version of Paris’ Pompidou Center, in which entrance is free of charge for all and receives around 2,500 visitors a day. But Milu’s greatest accomplishment for which she is famous throughout Brazil is her association “Faça Parte” (Be a part of it) which she founded in 2001 after being selected by the U.N. to preside over the Brazilian committee of the International Year of Volunteers.
In November 2002, Milu Villela was the first woman of the civil society to be invited to speak to the United Nations General Meeting about the volunteering cause, thus making the beginning of a new journey towards the stimulation of the voluntary work worldwide.
Her goal: to incite her fellow citizens to become involved in volunteer and educational activities. Which is how some 42 million individuals, from all walks of life, have already replied to her call for help by becoming volunteers, willingly participating in a variety of humanitarian causes. As of this year, the association has published its first hornbook to support the program “Zero Hunger” set up by Brazilian president Lula in an attempt to eradicate the widespread problem of malnutrition and lack of formal education present throughout the poorest populations of the country. Milu Villela’s vocation is above all an attempt to build a society based on fairness and solidarity, and as one of Brazil’s most influential women, she has chosen to devote her life’s work to this worthy cause.
Text by Frederic Neema
© 2003 Frederic Neema
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