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Hugo Chavez Helps South Bronx Youth ‘Rock the Boat’

An area of New York City is enjoying the benefits of a foreign leader's charity. The South Bronx is home to New York State’s poorest congressional district. The foreign leader is a socialist who once called U.S. President George Bush "the devil". Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez visited the South Bronx in 2005, and now he is handing out money to this American community in need. VOA's Paige Kollock reports.

The seventh graders live in a city that is surrounded by water. But for most of these girls, this is their first time on a boat.

And thanks to a Bronx River education program called "Rocking the Boat," they are learning how to row. They also are learning about the river, the environment and the ecosystem that surrounds it. All are part of an effort to help the children to understand their natural world and gain a deeper awareness of their own abilities and possibilities.

Program founder Adam Green explains. "We're not trying to turn kids into boat builders or environmental scientists or ship captains. We're trying to turn them into empowered and responsible adults and real members of a successful community."

The funding for Rocking the Boat comes from a $210,000 grant from CITGO Petroleum, the American arm of Venezuela's state-owned oil company. After President Hugo Chavez visited the South Bronx two years ago, CITGO committed $3.6 million to nine Bronx initiatives that do everything from creating jobs and empowering the community to cleaning up the urban environment.

Boatbuilder and teacher Lenard Ramsook met Mr. Chavez in 2005 and got a t-shirt from him. "I tried to get him to come on the boat, but he didn't want to go," said Ramsook.

The money has allowed the program to build and staff a new facility, buy life jackets and rain gear and hold rowing classes. All they had to do was apply.

Just down the road, the South Bronx Food Cooperative is using a $50,000 grant from CITGO to open a shop that sells healthy and affordable produce to people in need. Zena Nelson won the grant and started the co-op. "If you're a low income person, and you want to have better things in life and no one is really helping you, you're going to take who is giving it to you,” she says. “And not to say that if the devil hands you a dollar, you are going to take it and spend it, but if you understand what is going on, why not take something that you may think is a lemon and make some great lemonade out of it."

Some U.S. politicians wonder why CITGO has chosen the South Bronx as a destination for its charitable impulses when Venezuela has poverty in many of its own communities. They question the motives of an administration that openly speaks out against President Bush.

But the people of the South Bronx say they are happy that help has found its way to their neighborhood, no matter the politics of its benefactor.