Kent Forkner is a Board Member for Kaya Children International and an elder at South Shore Baptist Church in Hingham, MA. In early July, he made his first trip to Bolivia to see the work Kaya is doing.
My trip to Bolivia was a valuable opportunity for me to get a personal view of the various operations of Kaya Children International. I had known of the organization and its dedication to street kids for about a decade and I’ve been directly involved for the past 2 ½ years by serving on its Board of Directors. However, I had not yet visited our operations in Bolivia despite being involved in making decisions that help shape Kaya. So, in God’s sovereign way, he provided unemployment earlier this year, which gave me the time to make the trip happen.
In the afternoon on my arrival day, I was able to tour the Kaya Center and see the location from which we are now providing schooling and counseling services to 35 former street kids and current “at-risk” kids. While school wasn’t in session that week, I enjoyed meeting many of the staff members and learning about what goes on during a typical day at the center. It’s a new challenge for the organization to have a few “day students”, that are sent back to their families, and in some cases to situations that are less than desirable, after each school day. These at-risk kids obviously have different needs than those kids who are in our three homes and under our care 24/7. This is a new challenge for our staff and at the end of each day it’s often the case that all they can do is to pray for these kids as they leave our premises.
The next morning, I headed out with our Chairman and Founder, Dr. Chi Huang on a several-hour tour of La Paz. Chi took me to Plaza San Francisco and spent time showing me the various sites where he originally developed the relationships with street kids starting 12 years ago. It brought to life the many stories of deep physical and spiritual need that I’ve heard about from Chi over the years and that led to the formation of Kaya. The organization has grown in so many ways since those early days but at the same time I could still see the same passion in Chi’s eyes as deeply cares for each child on the streets.
Over the next couple of days I was able to visit all three of our houses and meet many of the 30 boys in our full-care program. I was given a tour of each house (Hogar Bernebe, Hogar Betania, and Hogar Renacer) by some of the residents. Each home is nice, yet simple, with the most comfortable room being the family room where each morning the boys gather to start their day and to study the Bible. That room also serves as a place for the boys to just hangout with other members of the house which helps them to gain valuable social skills. Each bedroom has two beds and was very neatly kept as the boys have regular chores and responsibilities around the homes as instituted by Kaya’s “house uncles and aunts”. It was rewarding for me to meet many of these former street boys and amazing to realize that some of the older boys have been living in Kaya’s care since our first home opened in 2001.
One of my favorite memories from the trip occurred when I was teaching a resident of Hogar Betania how to throw an American football -- within minutes he was throwing spirals and I told him (with Chi as my translator) that he now could throw almost as well as one of America’s best, Tom Brady! It was great to see the smile of satisfaction of learning something new that he would likely later share with his housemates.
One of my evenings in Bolivia was spent out on the streets of El Alto with some members from of our volunteer Street Outreach Team - Andy, Michael, Emma, Leslie, Karen, and Deborah. This is a twice-weekly operation of Kaya volunteers. We gathered in El Alto with our jug of hot chocolate and then purchased some bread to hand out to the street kids. We started near the park which has historically provided a sleeping area to many kids each night but is now fenced and heavily patrolled by the police – so no sign of kids at that location on this night. A while later, by the arcade we started to find the usual kids who are known by our outreach volunteers and provided them with food and hot chocolate and a little medical care for those with bumps and bruises. Several members of the outreach team on that night were medical students from the US and UK. Interestingly, this is similar to the services Chi provided as a medical student in the early days of his street ministry.
Later that evening in another of the most memorable experiences for me, we were on a hillside overlooking La Paz, an area where street kids often sleep for the night. They like this area as others tend to not bother them as it’s an inconvenient climb and not the cleanest of areas and despite the fact they sleep on the dirt in 20-degree temperatures. We overlooked the hill for a few minutes and couldn’t see or hear any kids. Then Andy yelled “hot chocolate” in Spanish and suddenly a couple of heads popped up from under rocks and shrubs – AMAZING! They were so glad to see us and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and the laughs with these two boys over the next twenty minutes. The rest of the evening we saw plenty of others in need and spent time with them as best we could.
Another opportunity that gave me a deeper understanding of how Kaya is actually fulfilling its mission was to have lunch with the Bolivian-based leadership staff. Our leadership in Bolivia consists of Pato, our Residential Director, Giovanna, our Head Teacher, and Guisella, our Head Psychologist. Kristin (Kaya’s Executive Director) and Chi Huang hosted a lunch for us which was an excellent opportunity for me to hear first-hand what’s going on at the Kaya Center and in the homes. I was impressed with the depth of the local leadership staff and their desire to care for the children and their ability to carry out the daily work of making a difference in the lives of so many Bolivians.
On my final day in Bolivia, I rode with Kaya staff member, Chi Chi, and eighteen boys in the back of a van on the floor to watch them play in a soccer match against another school at a coliseo (coliseum). Kaya’s boys played their hearts out with great teamwork despite the wide spread in age of our team. What a privilege it was for me to see them play so well together. Not long after starting, many locals stopped to watch the game from the side of a hill. Our team lost but there was no head-hanging on the trip home as they had enjoyed the simple pleasure of being out playing soccer for a few hours.
It was an amazing journey and has given me a new perspective on the deep physical and spiritual needs of street and at-risk kids in Bolivia. Additionally, it emphasized to me that we will never meet all of the needs in the world but what I saw being done in helping meet the many needs of these specific kids is truly exceptional. Frankly, the grace extended by Kaya’s many staff and volunteers to these kids reminds me of Christ’s sacrifice for us – it’s not earned at all but thankfully it’s a gift and a reality.