Santa Cruz, Bolivia
I will attempt to tell you a bit about what I have experienced, learned and felt in the last 7 months. Believe it or not, it has been 7 months since my arrival in Bolivia. I have a feeling this letter will be a bit ‘random’, but how else could you summarize 7 months worth of life with the poor, abandoned children of Bolivia in a few pages.
I’ll start with our latest (our = Erin, co-volunteer with me at Centro Tutelar, and I) accomplishment. On February 5, 1996, I’m proud to say that 22 of our children began school!!! Erin and I worked long hours looking for a school that would accept a pretty large group of children ages 5 to 11, who had no previous schooling, no family history or known birth dates. Some have just a nickname and no family name, and all who would potentially bring “trouble” to the school, because of their backgrounds and previous lifestyles (before coming to the orphanage). The school was in danger of being shut down because of low enrollment and so we sort of “scratched each other’s backs”. So out went Erin and I to buy school supplies, uniforms, shoes, socks, textbooks, etc. for 22 CHILDREN. Trust me this was not easy…think about buying just pants…all the different sizes, lengths, etc. and then trying to bargain so you can get a price you can afford, and buying it all without having any of the children try anything on until you get home!!! It was just like having 22 of your own children go to school. The night before we ‘worked’ late doing all the nail trimmings, ear cleanings, haircuts, (yes, I gave about 14 haircuts that night – I’m an expert now!), trying on uniforms, and all the other school preparations. I was exhausted. All I could think of was how easy it would be for me in the future to get one or two of my own children ready for school!! A little note related to school…one of the children known at the orphanage only as ‘Gordi (Gordi being a nickname derived from ‘gordo’, the Spanish word for fat… yes, he is a bit chubby!!), now carries my last name. He was registered in school as Gordi Ferrer. I was both proud and grieved by this.
Along with joy there’s always sorrow in Bolivia. I have learned this by now. In the midst of getting everything ready for school, we had yet on more infant die in a nearby hospital. That brings the count up to three in my short time at Tutelar. Sebastian, who was a little over a year, died of third degree malnutrition and dehydration. Erin handled all aspects of the burial, from dressing him to buying the small coffin to laying the coffin in his grave. Looking back, Erin and I realized that this child had arrived at the orphanage strong and healthy just a few months back.
The infant care area at the orphanage has always been distressing for Erin and me. We have seen everything: babies falling off the changing tables and out of their nibs, babies lying on their own vomit and/or diarrhea for hours, children and cribs infested with flies, children crying with arms out for hours just needing some attention-not to mention the braises, skin infections and open sores on their bodies. The baby-sitting function is performed in a mechanical fashion; change this baby, move on to the next, prop up the bottle for this baby, insert bottle into mouth and on to the next crib. In their defense, I have to say that with so many babies (currently we have approximately 20), the one, two or three baby-sitters on duty (depending on how many are at work on any particular day!!) do not have much time to cuddle and play with the babies. And the pay offers no incentive. They make US $50 A MONTH! This translates (let me practice my accounting skills) to US $600 A YEAR !!! Their work day is approximately 12 hours give. This is low pay even for Bolivian standards!
Well here’s some good news I can share…We received a walker from a doctor from Michigan, for Johnny, a 6 year old who we believe has polio and cannot walk unless someone holds him. With the shortage of staff and volunteers there isn’t always someone that can take Johnny for a walk, so the walker has been a great blessing. We are now trying to train Johnny to use the walker in hopes that he can move around the house on his own in the future. With financial help offered by a group of international women, we have also been able to hire a social worker. As a British international-aide coordinator told me a few months back: “Without a social worker, an orphanage such as this one becomes a dumping ground”. Only a social worker has the training and authority to go out, visit the children’s homes and relatives, if any and determine which children are able to go home to their families or which need to be transferred to a permanent orphanage. Tutelar is only supposed to be a temporary home for children who have recently gotten lost or been abandoned. Since we have not had a social worker until now, there are children who have been at Tutelar for as long as two years!! Having the social worker brings us hope of a better life for some of the children.
This is what life is like for me in Bolivia. On any day, there is laughter and joy, tears and sorrow, blessings and curses. I wouldn’t change it for anything. However, there has been a lot of pain and a lot of sights that I will never forget. I have often asked myself, “what keeps me going?” It’s the daily love I receive from the children, the hugs, the kisses, and the smiles. It’s knowing that I have to be strong because they are weak, that I have fight for them because they are defenseless, that they need someone to trust and love and they have given me the privilege of taking that place for a short time.