Tuesday, May 26, 2009
A Volunteer's Experience on the Streets
Eunice is a volunteer working with Kaya in Bolivia. Here, she reflects on her first night out with the street outreach team.
My First Night Walking the Streets of El Alto
After a stressful trip into the city because of a protest (all the streets were closed and I almost didn’t make it), I ended up meeting the rest of the street outreach team in El Alto around 9pm and walked the streets with hot chocolate and bread, looking for children begging, walking around, sleeping, whatever… until about 12am. It is the beginning of winter here, and especially in El Alto, with its high altitude, it’s a very cold night. The following are some snapshots of what I saw / experienced (names changed for confidentiality):
* Julio, the first child I meet, a small boy kneeling between two vendors, with a small bag of “bonbon” chocolates to sell. No smile, but looks at us with huge eyes and responds with slight nods. One of the regular teammates thinks that he is being physically abused at home, for he responds very “poorly” to touch. First one to break my heart.
* Outside the arcade, a bunch of children come out for hot chocolate and bread. These children aren’t picky – they don’t have choices. It is such an incredibly SIMPLE meal, but they treasure every moment of it. Juan sits on the sidewalk; he’s a little older with wild hair. I ask him what he does during the day, “trabajo en el minibus.” (“I work on the minibus” – basically is on a “mini” bus all day, yelling the stops so that people will get on). Oh. That’s why his voice is so hoarse that I can barely understand him. He must lose his voice everyday after yelling all day long to earn perhaps a little over a dollar. But all these children are so responsive to all the questions I ask them. They’re simply children.
* Omar & brother: Omar… 8 years old, his brother 11. Sitting against a wall along a pathway, begging. Beautiful eyes and cute, squeezable cheeks. Hands SO COLD, I simply held them in my hands to warm them up a little. One of them, he is clenching on for dear life to what I think are a couple of coins. But he lets me warm his other hand. So quiet, so obedient, so engrossed in watching what’s going on around him. Broke my heart again.
* 3 boys, running around streets with CRAZY cars (we first found them along the same pathway, begging for money, but they got excited that we were there) – this should not be a child’s playground. NO! One boy, carrying a black bag wherever he goes, shoves his hand into a pocket then shows his friends all the coins he has. Later, I see him shining shoes… “Ah. That’s why he had so much money, and that’s why his hands were SO BLACK.” Later, I talk to a teammate, “they seemed so happy, so carefree”. He answers, “No. It’s but a mirage of what their childhood should have been like. They get glimpses of it when we are there. But it’s all a lie.” A lie.
* Two homeless men sleeping literally on top of each other in a tiny hole under a bridge reeking of human waste. Half their bodies stick out (waist down), and they look precariously close to falling out. We wake them up and give them food – they cry as they tell their stories – when is the last time anyone touched them and listened to their stories? Now I understand why the homeless in America are said to be RICH.
* We squeeze through an opening in a gate in the middle of a highway under a bridge. Here we find a row of cardboard boxes with a few rags lying around. But no children yet, it’s a little early. This is where some of them live. On cardboard boxes in the middle of a noise / gas infested highway. It’s getting really cold. There’s not a single blanket.
* We find Daniel sleeping alone in a grassy area surrounding a statue. We wake him up and he hungrily eats the bread. Only afterwards, does he look up and ask for my name. He’s 20. During the day, he walks around the city. But he’s just a child. He’s afraid of pain so he won’t even let us treat the infected wounds on his knees. “Gracias, hermano. Gracias, hermana,” he says to each person there.
* We pray before we call it a night. I pray, “God, love them. Make your love real to them. I don’t know how, but envelope them with your warmth. Let them not feel the cold surrounding them tonight. LOVE them. GOD. Please. Let them know Your love.”
“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” 2 Corinthians 4:1