Written by Anne King, a Kaya Children board member.
I have had a special place in my heart for Kaya children since I first became involved with the program more than 5 years ago. But, in contrast to my enthusiastic support of Kaya’s mission, I must admit, the thought of traveling to Bolivia was, frankly, something I feared. I had fears about water and food safety, altitude sickness, language barriers, and fear for my personal safety. But above all, my biggest fear was “What if I meet the children, and what if God calls upon me to stay in Bolivia to help them?”
Kaya’s community, La Paz, Bolivia, is located 12,000 feet above sea level in a sunken valley of the majestic Andes Mountain range. Half of its 1.5 million people live comfortably in the beautiful protected valley, but those who live in the mountains above, do so in extreme poverty. They face sometimes brutal weather conditions, living in tin roofed dirt floor shelters without clean water, electricity, or heat. I witnessed a contrast between the lives of the valley people and the mountain people of this beautiful region of the world, and it was more illuminating than I could have imagined.
Even more pronounced was the contrast in living standards and opportunities afforded the families and children who participated in Kaya’s programs versus those forced to live on the streets. In the safety of Kaya Homes, I met happy, healthy, children engaged in family activities with the house “aunt” and “uncle” and their “brothers.” At the Kaya Center I saw joyful boys and girls completing their schoolwork and playing soccer and other games. The children are provided hot meals and clean water in safe and sanitary buildings. Despite their difficulties and the language barrier, the children were secure and outgoing and cheerfully worked with me as we both struggled to communicate. At the Kaya Independence Apartments, I watched proudly as the first few high school graduates of the program were training for future careers as an auto mechanic, computer technician, and physical education teacher.
The joy and security of the children I met at Kaya was in stark contrast to the nightmare conditions of so very many children who call the streets of La Paz their home – a place with little humanity, without the love, guidance, or hope for the future that every child deserves. I learned that to sleep “safely” during the day, an eight-year old boy or girl, will pay the equivalent of 30 cents to sleep indoors on the filthy threadbare seat cushions of a run-down movie theater in a dangerous part of the city. I saw at midday, on the side of a busy downtown street, young boys lying down in a confused haze with swollen faces from fighting and inhaling paint thinner. I observed a young mother sitting with those boys holding her perfectly beautiful, curious, and smiling toddler, and I could only wonder if this beautiful child would soon end up on the street like the other children, alone and struggling for survival, or if through the embrace of the Kaya programs we will be able to help him avoid such a fate.
I saw firsthand how simple things like clean water, a school uniform, a warm nourishing meal, and support from educators with homework, basic medical care, and healthy families made the difference between children staying in school and seeking a future, or dropping out. I saw firsthand just how critical it is that Kaya’s programs continue to provide services to the street children of La Paz, and to those children at high risk of becoming street children. The trip I feared to take let God show me the importance of what I was doing and solidified my commitment to continue to advance Kaya’s mission. But where do we go from here? We have made such a profound difference in the lives of Kaya children, but there are so many children in desperate need.
Traveling back from La Paz, I found myself sitting next to a woman, who as it turns out, has spent her entire career courageously working for a large organization that provides leadership in global health matters. I asked her, “How do we make a difference for the children and families we serve through Kaya?” With a lifetime devoted to helping those most vulnerable and with the most need, she encouraged me: Keep making a difference, one child, one family at a time. She said that, over time and with perseverance, small steps provide opportunities, and through those opportunities we do change lives.