You’ll have to forgive me for the long silence. One of my good friends from Tulsa wrote to me and said, “I miss you, but as long as the silence is because you’re too busy having fun and being happy, I’m ok with that.” The longer I went without writing, the more my stories and ideas built up and the more daunting it became to try to put words to them. And now here I am trying to put the past six months into a few paragraphs. I suppose we will start with work and go from there, yes?
I’m currently working at an apoyo escolar (after-school support) called Centro Hermano Manolo with the Christian Brothers especially created for children and adolescents who work independently in the Cancha (which is said to be the largest open-air market in South America). These kiddos do everything from construction work and acting as security and muscle (mostly our older boys) to shining shoes and selling gum from baskets to the cars that are waiting in traffic. You will see children all over the Cancha everyday, sprinting around in their school uniforms, sleeping on a piece of cardboard as their mother sells used clothing, or being carried in an aguayo on the backs of their mothers as she pushes a wheel barrel full of pineapple down the road. However, our goal is to work with children who work in situations of high risk, meaning that they work away from their parents for the majority of the time. Legally, children can begin working independently in Bolivia from the age of 10, meaning that they should not be working for anyone but themselves and their families. They can work for a boss starting at age 14. However, we work with some 6, 7, and 8 year olds at the center who sell candies by themselves in the market. Some of our children have never been to school because they do not have birth certificates due to being born in the campo, or there is a mistake on their birth certificate.
When I first was considering working at the center, I asked one of the brothers what his expectations of me were as a teacher, expecting him to say something about curriculum and efficiency. My Type-A-ness was already coming out, looking for gaps and ways to improve, to better use time, to maximize resources and build in practice of basic skills. This gentle Irish brother who entered seminary at 14 said to me, “I expect you to build relationships and know each of them individually.” I faltered. Is there some way to track gains in relationships? The part of me that needed to know that I was somehow making a difference, that it was a measurable thing, cowered at this simple and forward request. And now, having worked at the center for some time, I understand the wisdom in his reasoning. Relationships are what give these kiddos the strength to say no to drugs or alcohol abuse or glue-sniffing. Relationships are what will keep them from turning to a life on the streets. Sandra, the director of the center, once told me that kids often disappear on the streets because they get more love and attention from their companions on the street than their families. We at the center are there to be the safe space, the place where they can go and rest and do a little homework, play an educational game, laugh with a friend.
As an educator for the center, I visit children at their work sites. We play tic-tac-toe with a board made of popsicle sticks and painted bottle caps. We chat about how many clients they had that day, if they’ve eaten, how their friends are, how their family is, if they went to school that day. Often if they are not working, they are at internet cafes killing zombies or playing foosball with their friends. We visit their schools to talk to their teachers about what to concentrate on when working with them. We go to their homes and visit with their parents to get a better understanding of the challenges, to build connections, and empower them in their duties as caregivers. We see that they live on a hill where the water truck often doesn't reach, no bathrooms, all of them staying in one room. In short, the majority and perhaps most taxing and important part of my job is not the homework help (which is everything from the ABCs to explaining calculus in Spanish) or the workshops on self-esteem, rights of the child (edited to include work) or how to manage anger…but rather bearing witness to the lives of these children and families and being a constant and consistent presence.
A big point in the center is that nothing is given for free. If they want something, it must be earned in some way. For example, they pay a third of the price for their school supplies at the center. If they need to print something for school, they pay a small amount. If there is an outing or a trip, they need to pay for the passage to get there. There is even a little “bank” for them to save money and they gain 10% interest each month. There is a brother who cuts hair and some older students who are studying hairdressing at vocational schools. They cut the hair of the children at the center on Tuesdays for one boliviano (the equivalent of less than 20 cents).
The center is located right in the heart of the Cancha on the second floor of the old train station that is now used as a storage space and a place where women sell polleras, which are skirts used by the cholitas here. We have a small room with two long tables, a few chairs, computers for the kids to work on, and a small library of books.
What continues to amaze me about this project is that none of it is obligatory. The children, who are quite naturally independent given that they have their own source of income and freely roam the Cancha, CHOOSE to come to the center and can choose to leave whenever they like. If they come, it is because they recognize that the center fills some need in them: whether that be physical hunger, or hunger for company, or just a need to rest or a desire to watch videos about dinosaurs on Youtube. And at the end of the day, what brings them really does not matter because it brings us together for a time, to share and to laugh and maybe learn a thing or two.
Apparently this is what happens when I don’t write for six months: a news report comes out. But in any case, I am thankful for you friends and rest assured that I am content and grateful for the ways God is working here.
Paz y bien,