Marked by love

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COCHABAMBA, Bolivia -

They're the children of children who've been living on the streets. Babies born to drug-addicted mothers. Youngsters who've seen horrible things or been abused.

Here, they find love.

It's a 2-year-old lovingly embraced by a staff member. A baby fed by a woman religious. A 3-year-old encouraged and given structure from his classroom teacher. A child with prosthetic leg helped by a physical therapist.

One child was found in a cistern and given up for dead, left with several disabilities. He's now a thriving, outgoing, intelligent first-grader, thanks to one-on-one support.

Salomon Klein, a home in Cochabamba, Bolivia, supported by the Pan y Amor Program of the Archdiocese of St. Louis Mission Office, is those things and more.

Approximately 150 infants, babies, and children reside at Salomon Klein. Many have been orphaned, abandoned or are at risk. Support meets the expenses for food, clothing, medicine and psychological help. Some of the children are adopted by the time they reach elementary school age.

Many of the abandoned babies have mothers in their early teens. Others are born to women living on the streets. Some of the babies are addicted due to their mothers' drug use. They undergo withdrawal symptoms, and are fed a special milk formula until a blood test shows the drugs are out of their system.

One infant was found naked in a park across from Salomon Klein during a cold, sleet-filled winter night. A neighbor stumbled upon the child, quickly wrapped the child up in his coat and went to the home. A boy was placed in the home after a man saw him being beaten and choked by his mother on the street. He took the child away and jumped in a cab to report it to police. The mother was so high on drugs she couldn't even remember she had a child.

Another child has learning disabilities and a shunt in his head that drains fluid from his brain. A boy was born with six fingers and his feet turned inside. A child arrived after his stepfather killed his mother and will remain until the legal custody process is settled.

The room for babies has wall-to-wall cribs. Staff and volunteers use about 1,000 bottles of formula a day, eight different kinds to meet special needs.

Salomon Klein has restarted its Montessori program after it was shut down for a few years because of a lack of funds to pay the specially trained teachers. The 3-year-olds in the class are well-behaved but curious. Some played with cards that helped them recognize words. Sister Mary Therese DeMoor, a Sister of the Most Precious

Blood of O'Fallon, worked with children on their motor skills, often shouting "Muy Bien" and "Bravo."

Many of the children have had no limits set for them, Sister Mary Therese said. The Montessori process helps them manage tasks, and they learn that everything has a place. So, when they're finished with a learning toy, they put it back.

The teacher, Maria Luz Barnientos, has two classes of 15 students each day. The collaboration with Pan y Amor helps contribute to the formation of each child, something they receive with a lot of love, Barnientos said. "The intention is to accompany the students' human and spiritual formation," she said.

Teachers of first-grade students with learning difficulties provide extra help before the children go to a community school in the afternoon. Their room mother/teacher, Miriam Hunca, is so dedicated to them that she held her wedding ceremony and Mass in June at the home so the children could take part. Benjamin, the boy found in the cistern when he was a baby, recited a poem with vigor and practiced saying and learning definitions of difficult words such as hexagon. He was impressed with the height of Father James Michler, visiting from Maria Reina Parish in La Paz, and said that someday he'll grow up to hit the ceiling.

The facility needs a stream of donations to operate each day. The director, Emma Rayas Ayala, started working at Salomon Klein at age 14. She's been there for 35 years and is known as "the master of accountability" for her record-keeping and detailed accounting of income and expenses. She often begs for funding, seldom taking no for an answer.

The government pays about $1 a day to care for each child. Salomon Klein covers the cost of medicine, surgeries, required blood tests, salaries and much more.

A thick file is kept on each employee, with background checks and documentation, but Ayala said "the most important thing is the love that they have in their hearts and how they treat the children."

Casa Nazareth

Michael enjoys reading, origami, singing, soccer and especially baseball — he's a first baseman.

The personable youngster, 11 years old, is comfortable speaking some English, which is unusual among his peers. He likes to do tricks, including one in which he holds a coin under a plastic 2-liter bottle and has it magically appear inside the bottle.

Casa Nazareth is a home for 25 boys ages 7-13, many of whom lived earlier at Salomon Klein. The boys receive formal education and counseling and are taught to be responsible for the home and for each other. Most of all, they receive stability, love and affection. The staff also works with the families of the boys, so that they may return to their families of origin when family issues have been successfully resolved.

Among those who once lived at the home are a doctor, dentist and architect. Others have jobs in technical positions such as air-conditioning repair and auto mechanics. Several of the former residents return to visit or volunteer. Staff members often are invited to their weddings.

Some of the boys have learning difficulties and some handle challenging school work and attend a prestigious Marist school.

At a classroom session, Sister Mary Therese worked on math problems with one boy using colored pegs and a number game. "Muy bien," she said to him and smiled when he had the correct answer.

A volunteer there and on staff at Salomon Klein, the Sister of the Most Precious Blood of O'Fallon taught many years in the St. Louis Archdiocese, including at St. Clement, St. Paul in Fenton and Ascension in Normandy Schools. "To see these children's faces is to see the face of God," Sister Mary Therese said.

After dinner, the children picked up their chairs and put the dishes away. They watched the movie "Barnyard" in the living room.

Casa Nazareth "restores their childhood," Sister Mary Therese said, noting that many of them were subjected to or saw abuse or had lived on the streets. Playing sports is one way they learn to get along and support each other. They often seek help with their problems from Sister Mary Catherine Feldewert, a Sister of the Most Precious Blood from St. Louis who is the primary caregiver. "She's a good mother to them," Sister Mary Therese said.

Hogar Carlos de Villegas

LA PAZ, Bolivia — "It's my family," Pamela Cuapo said of the staff and residents of Hogar Carlos de Villegas, a home in La Paz that supports 80 children from infants to 17 years old. There are about 25 babies, many of whom have been abandoned and left at the home's doorstep, and 100 girls ages 7-17, many coming from dysfunctional families or who have been abused.

Cuapo, 25, came to the home at age 6 with two of her sisters after her mother died of cancer. Now she has a university degree and works at the home as a receptionist and volunteers there. She is planning to study in another country and has mastered English. Her favorite place is with the babies in the colorful nursery, but she loves working with all the children.

Counseling, medical help, religious education and a safe, loving environment are provided. Many of the girls attend nearby schools. The government pays for 50 children, less than $1 a day and covering only enough to provide a breakfast of bread and lunch of noodles. Donations, however, provide nutritious meals, medical and dental care and much more. Sister Rosario Arnao Chavez, a Sister of the Love of God, administrator of the home, said often the children are from families who can't afford to care for them.

A structure is in place, with the girls learning to study and take on responsibility. Six girls live and work part-time there while they attend a university. Some go to their parents' homes on weekends.

Some of the babies get adopted by Bolivian families. International adoptions are rare, and Bolivia has no agreement with the United States on adoptions.

After playing with some of the toddlers on a playground at Carlos de Villegas protected from rain by a roof, Sister Rosario thanked the donors to Pan y Amor. "Without the help of the Church, we couldn't maintain institutions like this," she said. 

LA PAZ, Bolivia — The mostly junior-high-aged boys and girls bowed their head and said the "Our Father" together, then one boy asked for a special blessing. Afterward, it was time to begin their lunch — soup that was an appetizing blend of noodles, vegetables and broth.

Maria Reina Parish Tutoring and Lunch Program offers 40-50 children a nutritious meal every day, as well as academic formation. Teachers, tutors and volunteers instruct the children in various subjects. Most of the children come from single-parent families. The mothers take turns doing the cooking.

The program has a morning and afternoon session, since students attend school either time.

Maciel Averanga, who has a degree in special education, once was a student in the program and now is one of the teachers. She appreciates that the program includes fun activities such as dancing.

Reynaldo Mamani Choque was working on a language assignment using a dictionary. He said he likes all subjects, but especially math. Someday, he'd like to be an investigator, in the field of archaeology. He likes to learn about dinosaurs, especially T-Rex. Other students at the table also have career aspirations such as teachers, police officers and a psychologist.

In the morning session, one of the boys once lacked self-confidence so much that he wouldn't do his homework or go to the blackboard in class. Now, with the help of the program, he's overcome those fears. Jonathan Huerta, a high school sophomore, said that "the teachers help us with our homework so we can understand it."

In the afternoon session, the mothers at a craft class make items they can sell. Artistic expression is shown in the needlecraft, painted canvasses, weaved baskets, jewelry and more. The supplies come from the Pan y Amor funding and some creativity, such as the newspapers used to create weaved items such as a basket.

Violeta Borda, who has taught the classes for eight years, showed off the variety of items, including an embroidered handbag. Once a member of the class, she enjoys when the women want to learn new things and gets as much out of the class as the moms.

Sister Guillermina Loma Aliaga, a Sister of the Most Precious Blood of O'Fallon, oversees the program. "It's like a family here," she said, pointing out the variety of age groups in the afternoon session. 

Numbers at Salomon Klein

> 150 children

> 58 employees, including 22 in education, four licensed nurses and four auxiliary nurses. A musical therapist, dentist and physical therapist come to the facility.

> Government assistance of about $1 a day per child

> 11 children with special needs attend first grade at the local school, with educational support from Salomon Klein

> 2 children attend a center for hearing and 2 attend a center for visual and motor skills

> 4 children have autism

> 6 siblings from one family reside at Salomon Klein, all with neurological damage 

Raising funds

An Aug. 27 Bash for Bolivia benefit for the Latin America Apostolate and Pan Y Amor program is sold out, but contributions are being accepted and tickets are available for a raffle for $5,000 in home remodeling from Schei Construction Co., Inc. The drawing will take place at the bash, but ticket-holders do not need to be present to win.

For tickets, call (314) 792-7655 or visit www.archstl.org/bashforbolivia.

Sign of love

A sign in the hallway at Salomon Klein states:

"If you find an abandoned child on the road, offer the work of being a second mother."

A hand-written note on the blackboard welcomed an archdiocesan priest serving in La Paz and two journalists from St. Louis:

"With a lot of love to Pan y Amor." 

Helping children

The fortunes of the children in Bolivia, as well as children from similar backgrounds in Colombia, Kenya and Uganda, have taken a turn for the better thanks to people who assist a program of the Mission Office of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Pan y Amor.

Pan y Amor is seeking new donors, especially people who commit to providing $15 a month to help with the care of the children.

The homes and programs supported include:

> Hogar Carlos de Villegas, a home in La Paz, Bolivia, that supports more than 130 children from infants to 17 years old. Many of the babies have been left at the home's doorstep.

> Maria Reina Lunch and Tutoring Program in La Paz, helping about 40 children, most from single-parent families.

> Albergue Nuestra Casa in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a home for abused and abandoned girls ranging in age from 5-16.

> Salomon Klein in Cochabamba, with approximately 150 infants, babies and children through age 5.

> Madre de Dios in Cochabamba, a residence for approximately 45 young girls ages 6 to 17.

> Casa Nazareth in Cochabamba, a home for boys who have outgrown Salomon Klein. There are approximately 25 boys ages 6-12.

> Sayaricuy in Cochabamba, a residence for 40 boys ages 10-16, who are coming directly from the streets.

> Talita Kum Association in Boyaca, Colombia, a home for about 25 girls 3-17 years old. Supported by the Messengers of Peace religious order, it helps girls rise up from the traumatic events they have suffered in their families of origin.

> Eastlands Youth Project in Nairobi, Kenya, supports young men with education, training and counseling to approximately 60 children.

> Broader Vision School in Africa, in Kampala, Uganda, serves children and orphans with a school for preschoolers through seventh-graders.

To support Pan y Amor, write to Pan y Amor, 20 Archbishop May Drive, St. Louis, MO 63119; call (314) 792-7655; or see www.stlouisreview.com/rRV. View "The Forsaken" at www.stlouisreview.com/YDL. 

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