Santa Cruz, Bolivia
I’ve heard through the grapevine and the fax machine that some people are anxious to hear about my experiences in Bolivia. I’ve been here one month and one week. In some ways it feels like I left home only yesterday, but in other ways I feel as though I’ve always been here. The way the children literally attack me and chant my name "Shannon , Shannon, Shannon" you’d think I’d been here a lot longer than just over a month. But when you’re a little nervous and someone is kind to you and genuinely wants to be with you, it doesn’t take much effort to like them. Especially, if you haven’t met very many people who feel that way. Most of these children are so deprived of love and affection it would break your heart.
My assignment when I arrived here was to work with the one year olds. There are 12 little ones ranging in age from 10 months – 1 and a half years in this group with one exception, Julia, who is 2 and a half years. But she is still in this group because she is physically and mentally delayed. I work from 7:30am-12 and 3:30pm-6pm, except for Monday – my Free Day! This schedule doesn’t include aerobics, English classes and time with all the other kids of course. It didn’t take me very long until I realized my work here was cut out for me. Although, the babies are feed 3 meals a day and changed 4 times, one spoon is used for many children and all 12 are washed with one cloth. Soap…soap is not a household word for the Bolivian workers. My team has been working on improving hygiene and giving each child its own spoon, glass and bowl for meals, as well as soap and water which are used for every diaper change. The administrator here said not to get discouraged because it took the workers 3 years to know how to properly sterilize bottles!!!
The problem of hygiene is improving a little each day. Sometimes I feel like I’m not only a "mother" to these children but also to the workers. Another problem here is that the children are developmentally delayed. Since most rarely feel a loving embrace and ace "just left to do their own thing" it is no surprise. We have no educational toys and the one year olds have no books, so most of the time they just bang the rattles off the floor – that’s when they aren’t biting, scratching or banging the rattles off of each other! When I arrived here only 2 children could walk when you held their hands – now one walks unassisted, 3 have learned to sit on their own and a few new words can be heard. I walk each child around 2 times a day and do exercises with the ones who really need it. All these children need encouragement and stimulation. It’s amazing, the workers are beginning to mimic some of what I do. I’m not saying I’m changing anyone’s world, but I’ll do my best to make it a little better while I’m here.
These problems are very small compared to the one that I encountered as soon as I arrived here. The children were being hit by the workers here, even my one year olds. I’m not talking a little slap either, but a crack across the head that would have hurt me. This "punishment" would occur for something as "bad" like getting off your potty. I told the Administrator I had real difficulty with this and would find it hard accepting such abuse and working under these conditions. She said she was not aware that this was occurring and would bring it up with the workers right away. It did stop almost immediately, at least when I was in the room. I’ve encountered some difficulties, but feel this is a place where I can make a difference. It won’t be easy but it will be rewarding.
If you look at this orphanage, your first impression will be, "Wow, that looks pretty nice", after all that was what mine was. It doesn’t take long to realize that it isn’t that great after all. The children are not happy, but I didn’t come here for an easy time and I’m not getting one. Don’t get me wrong. I like it here a lot, but only because I feel my presence may make a small difference and I couldn’t be happier than surrounded by 80 kids!! Any bets on how many I’ll bring home?
Aside from several strains of bacteria, having a party on my tonsils and a small bout of food poisoning, my health has been great. The weather is strange here (it is winter here now), one week will be hot only to be followed by 3 days of cold (2º C). I think I’ll keep my Bolivian cough until the weather makes up its mind. Whoever said Bolivia was cheap – lied! You can buy whatever you want here, but nothing comes cheap. It’s amazing because there are stores selling Sony stereos, Crest toothpaste and Twix bars. And then on the street, there are women selling anything from birds, to fruit, to toilet paper holders! The city of Santa Cruz is very flat, dusty and has real character. The main "city" looks like it does on postcards. There are women in traditional Indian dress, carrying babies on their backs in colorful blankets. Men who look like they just came off the "Beverly Hillbillies" in dark overalls and white straw hats or rich people who could have stepped off the cover of Vogue. The difference between the rich and poor here is dramatic. If all the rich people gave 10% of their money to the poor, there would be a lot less problems. The culture is very different here. I get exposed to it a little at time, because here at the orphanage it’s more of an orphanage culture than a "Bolivian culture". I have found a few bits of information, though mainly through conversations. Some girls who are in school with our girls from the orphanage are married. Some are as young as 11 and 12 and having children. By 15 many of the girls have babies. The rate of divorce is very high I gather as well. However, the importance of family is stressed here, too. It seems a little mixed up to me! The place has taken a little getting use to as well as the animals, but I think I’ m getting there. We have tarantulas, vampire bats, lizards (a couple live in my bathroom), and so many bugs you could spend days counting them. If you are interested in starting to count them come to our kitchen and count the cockroaches or the "ormingas" – tiny little ants. One time I counted over 30 in our Drinking Water! We also have 5 dogs at the orphanage that only come out at night. They are watch dogs, but unfortunately they watch the wrong people. I’ve already been bitten by one.
I find it hard to even begin to describe the health of the children here. Those I care for are constantly sick; first scabbies, then chicken pox, vomiting, fevers, diarrhea, fungal afflictions, lice and many more unnamed conditions. It’s amazing my health has been so good. However, I do have lice. The lice shampoo that says 100% efficient – lied! I spend a lot of time in the infant room. These tiny little malnourished children spend so much time in and out of the hospital that they should have a room just for us .
The reason I like it here so much and can find a lot of happiness among the heartbreak is because the children have shown me so much courage and unconditional love. It gives me strength. I think I told you about the baby left on our doorstep only one day old with the umbilical cord still attached. Well, apparently I didn’t get the story quite right. He was found abandoned in the street. Sophia, a 10 year old was severely burnt when she was small. Her mother poured boiling water on her. I just found out that it wasn’t for 2 days until she was taken for medical attention.
We have one baby here, Rossy, who is 9 months, but the size of a 3 month old because of malnourishment. We have another baby who was removed from her mother because she’s a drug addict. There are so many stories. You need be only one week here when you come to Fatima and a story accompanies you. And most are not happy stories, either.
There are so many stories, yet I don’t have the time to tell them all. I’ll close with one story about the most courageous child I’ve ever met, Dunia, and her sister Lorena. Dunia was 5 years old and lived at home with her mother and her sister. Her mother didn’t provide for them and Dunia knew that they couldn’t survive under these conditions. So Dunia, a 5 year old, picked up her infant sister and left to try and find better circumstances. Jesus has a special love for children and I believe that he must have been walking and protecting these children. They ended up here, at Fatima, and have been here for more than a year. (Lorena is one of my one year olds.) Dunia, now 7 years old is the only mother Lorena has known. Last Sunday, I took Lorena to church with me. It wasn’t long until she spied her sister and no longer wanted me. For 1 hour, Dunia held and rocked her until she fell asleep. Dunia put a little jacket over her to make sure she was warm. All I could do was hug the two of them. I said I wanted "my heart to be broken with the things that break the heart of God." My wish was granted!