Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Leaving my heart in Bolivia!

My experience in Bolivia was as expected – life changing.  I met my Compassion Canada teammates at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on Saturday, March 23rd for our overnight flight to Bolivia via Miami. We landed in La Paz, Bolivia at 5:00am on March 24th and a few of us started feeling the effects of the altitude – 13,000 feet above sea level – breathlessness, pounding headaches, stomach aches, etc. We had a light breakfast at the airport, then a couple of Compassion Bolivia staff (Eddie and Norma) watched all our luggage while we boarded two vans to go to a church service at Project BO173 in El Alto, La Paz.  I was so excited, as I was about to meet one of my sponsored children, 6 year old Marcelo Choque.  Our eyes were quickly opened to the surrounding poverty during the 45 minute drive to the church – stray dogs everywhere, tiny kids going through piles of garbage, broken windows with children staring out of them, etc. Our spirits lifted as soon as we arrived at the project. We hopped off the bus and were greeted by three adorable little girls who gave each one of us hugs.

Then our trip leader Stephanie told me that Marcelo and his family were waiting for me inside the gate!!  What an incredible sight to see little Marcelo all decked out in a suit and tie; he wanted to look his best for me!! I met his father Mario, his mom Ximena, and his adorable siblings, 5 year old Abigail, and 2 year old Marvin – wonderful, loving people. I’d be hard pressed to meet cuter kids!  Lots of hugs and gifts were exchanged, and then I sat in on Marcelo’s Sunday school class and afterwards, we went to the main sanctuary for their church service. The hospitality was amazing! The people were so incredibly warm. Each person at the service walked up to us where we were lined up at the front and gave us hugs and kisses to welcome us. It was overwhelming! I definitely saw some tears in the eyes of my teammates. They were so incredibly thankful that we had come and so loving towards us, even though we were only there for such a short time. We were then wonderfully entertained by an all-female band of folkloric musicians, mostly made up of former sponsored children!
I said my goodbyes to Marcelo’s family – I will see him, his mom and sister again on Thursday at the Child/Sponsor Fun Day in Cochabamba.  Then it was back to the La Paz airport for lunch, then a quick 30 minute flight to Cochabamba, where the altitude is only 8,000 feet, so everyone instantly started to feel better. I think it was the combination of jet lag and altitude that affected people. Once we checked into our hotel, had a rest and a refreshing shower, we were somewhat renewed. Then we ate a delicious dinner in the hotel’s dining room.
Cochabamba seemed to be a lot cleaner than La Paz and the people more well off in the main part of the city where we stayed. It is hard to believe that just a short little distance outside the city that people live in such poverty. After a good night’s sleep, we headed out on the bus to the outskirts of Cochabamba to visit our first child development sponsorship program, Project BO706. Let the tears begin!  I think most of us would agree when it’s all said and done, that the visit to this project had the biggest impact on us of the whole trip. We got off the bus and all the kids and project volunteers were lined up in front of the newly built but very raw brick building, with Canadian and Bolivian flags waving and a big sign made of individual colourful letters held up by kids saying “BIENVENIDOS”, which means “WELCOME” in English. We did not expect to get this kind of welcome, and it definitely blessed me and got the emotions going. The building was made of brick, the floors in the classrooms and main hallway were large, somewhat uneven stones which hadn’t been laid with concrete yet, the windows had no glass, nor were there any doors, and the bathroom was a little squatting hole, but the people were full of joy!!
How does Compassion work in this area?  From my understanding, the project will open, and the pastor and project director will go door to door in the surrounding area looking for the poorest of the poor and asking them if they would like help. If they say yes, there are certain requirements for the kids to join the project and be eligible to be sponsored by people in Compassion partner countries, such as Canada and the U.S. The kids must attend the local school and must come to the project before or after school a certain amount of times per week. At the project, the kids receive tutoring for their school work, various supplies, a hearty meal, a Bible lesson, and so much love and care from the staff who volunteer there. They truly meet Jesus when they are there. So, whether the children who attend are sponsored or unsponsored, all the kids receive these benefits. When a child gets sponsored, the child and their family receive additional health and dental care, as well as letters of love and encouragement from their sponsors. As each child is sponsored, there is room for another child to come join the project as the sponsor’s money has now taken care of the needs of that particular child, who was previously being taken care of with the project’s money.
Pastor Benjamin Quispe shared his story of how it was just himself and his family with a dream. They were praying for land, they wanted to help people, and they started the church by holding services in their own home. Then Compassion came alongside and things started coming together! The project started in August 2012 and seven months later, they have 170 children attending!  So amazing! They started with absolutely nothing with just him and his family involved. He said that they eventually want to have 500 children registered and attending! This really showed me that God does such amazing things when you put your faith and trust in Him. The pastor showed such love, gratefulness, and passion for doing the work of the Lord.  He had such great plans! He showed us the plans that had been drawn up for more buildings, soccer fields etc. – he described it as “this is … that’s where this WILL BE”.  He had no doubts that God would bring these things to pass. They didn’t have money or anything to begin with, but piece by piece God brought everything together and is continuing to bring things together. Such a special moment shared with the pastor, his staff and our team after the children began to go home after school. We were together in one room in a circle holding hands praying, Pastor Benjamin overflowing with joy to the point of tears of gratefulness for everything God has done and so thankful as he prayed with us.  When we opened our eyes, the majority of us were in tears as well.  God is so good; I am truly blessed to be able to see what He is doing at this project.
I was then able to help translate for my dear friend and teammate Katelyn, allowing her to express her thoughts and her thanks to Pastor Benjamin. She wanted to tell him how he really inspired her and that it was just so amazing to see what was happening; she was bawling at this point! He started to cry as well and we all hugged, and he said it is all God’s doing, glory to God. What an amazing experience.
A little girl caught my eye in the class we were sitting in on, such a sweet face, that I decided to inquire if she had a sponsor yet, and was pleased to find out that she did not. I then asked our trip co-leader Sharon to inquire on how to go about sponsoring her. It turned out that little Nicol was Pastor Benjamin’s youngest daughter! And the older girl who was looking after Nicol during the day was actually her older sister Jasmine, so therefore the reason why the whole family came to meet me and take a picture with me. Even if it’s not official yet, they are already thinking of me as Nicol’s sponsor! So amazing! If we think we have nothing to offer or no resources, we are so mistaken – we can still make a huge difference by giving hope to others.
Oftentimes as a Christian, I look at the world just around me in my community or other communities, and I think, WOW, these people are messed up and I doubt I will ever see changes in their lives. This is such a horrible mindset! Lives ARE being changed left and right, God is working! I have a new strengthened faith to bring back to Canada, that God can and will change people here too.
After spending time with the kids at the project, we split up into groups and headed into the surrounding areas for some home visits. Our group went high up into the hills to little Andrea’s house to meet her parents Flavio and Maria, and older siblings Alfredo and Magaly. They all lived in one room, with the kitchen in the other room, with a roof about to collapse. Flavio works hard, but does not earn nearly enough to provide adequately for his family. They were grateful for the help that Compassion was providing to their child, and had faith that God would provide for their needs. Delia, the project worker who accompanied us, broke down while praying for the family, then Sharon prayed for her in the van, as she shared that she is going through some serious emotional struggles being a single mom. I met her beautiful daughter Ruth Belén when we returned to the project to say our goodbyes, before heading back to hotel for a rest and dinner. My good friend from Calgary, Marcelo Soria, came by the hotel to join our team for dinner. We can never find the time to get together in Calgary, so I had to come to Cochabamba to see him (!), where he was visiting his family for Easter.
We are so seriously blessed in Canada, at times complaining about not having this, and not having that. This was such a great reality check for all of us and I pray that it will stick with me for a long time. We have SO much, it’s just unbelievable. It’s so strange to think of how much we have and how little others have. Why were we blessed with so much? Could it be partly because we are to be a blessing to others with what we have? We need to get our priorities in order. Why do we purchase all these stupid things we do not need when we can be blessing others who don’t even have basic things that would make their lives so much easier? It is so strange to come back to a big house with everything you could ever need and more, a loving family and a stable job. It almost disgusts me. I still can’t turn on the TV and see all the celebrities with everything they have. I cannot bear to listen to people complain about how their food doesn’t taste right, etc. … it’s just bizarre!
BO707 – our second day in Cochabamba saw us visiting this project, a Child Survival Program. This is where moms and babies come and bring their 0-3 year olds to learn how to love them, how to feed them and take care of them, as well as how to learn to read for some of them, and to learn skills so that they can make things like clothing and blankets to sell to earn a little bit of money.  I have never seen so many beautiful babies in one place at one time! Lively and healthy and so cute! The ladies carried their little ones around with a thick handmade blanket which they wrapped them in and slung them over their backs – no need for strollers! It was so nice to see what wonderful things were happening at this project. Pastor Pedro Montero spoke about his gratefulness for the assistance Compassion had given them to date. They even sang some praise songs in their native Quechua language.
Then after lunch, we once again split into groups for more home visits. Our visit was with a wonderful mother Catalina, who is so loving and caring towards her children Diego (14), Yerko (12), Carlos (10) and little Alex (2 and a half). She and her husband faithfully attend the project church. On the walk back to the project, we were blessed to visit a woman weaving a beautiful blanket on a rudimentary hand loom. Her daughter brought out a sample of a finished blanket – the beauty of the work was breathtaking, and the photo I took of the daughter holding the blanket and laughing was probably the best trip photo I took! Then we briefly stopped in to visit with Carola and her adorable 10-month old baby boy Mauricio. What a healthy cheerful little guy he was, a perfect testimony to the effectiveness of Compassion’s Child Survival Program.
Day 3 in Cochabamba saw us visiting the Compassion Bolivia field office, where we had a wonderful time meeting all the staff (35% of whom are former sponsored kids, who are now sponsoring kids around the world!!). Now, that’s what I call paying it forward! Nolbertha (a former sponsored child), who heard my sponsorship story with Heiber, wants to interview us for the annual Outcomes journal magazine published in Bolivia. I was so humbled by her offer.
We then went to a restaurant (Brasil Beirut) for lunch before heading over to the Leadership Development building, where we heard testimonies and met with students who have graduated from the Child Development Sponsorship Program and are selected to take part in going through university with the help and support of Compassion. We saw so many successful individuals who grew up in Compassion and are now making differences in their communities! Such beautiful individuals inside and out. I will never forget Brayan, the young man we spoke with in our small group sessions – he was such an inspiration to all of us. And I had the privilege of acting as translator between him and our group – what a blessing that was for me!
Then the big day arrived – the Child/Sponsor Fun Day!!  We arrived at Merical Park in Cochabamba, a local kid’s amusement park. This was such a special day to me and all of my teammates. The kids were all brought with a family member and tutor from their respective project and were waiting to meet us inside the park.  Meeting our sponsored kids for the first time after so many years of writing letters back and forth was so unforgettable!  Marcelo and his sister Abigail ran up to the fence to see me before we joined them inside the park. Marcelo was a lot less shy than when we first met on Sunday!  Next, my sweet little Rossa (4 years old) literally jumped into my arms giving me a huge hug! Then the moment I had been anxiously awaiting – meeting my dear son Heiber after 11+ years of sponsorship! It was such a surreal moment meeting him! God is so good to have finally brought us together. And just before we said our final goodbye, Heiber asked permission to call me “mamita” (mom) in the next letter he writes me; if I wasn’t already crying before then, that sure brought on the tears!
After saying tearful farewells to our sponsored kids, we headed back to the hotel to pick up our luggage (about a third as much as when we came!) and to say goodbye to our dear Cochabamba translators Peter, Evelin, Annina, Jacob, Shirley, Veronica (and a few others whose names escape me right now!), then we headed to the airport to catch a short flight to Santa Cruz. We checked into a beautiful, tropical resort hotel, had a late dinner, and then headed off to bed. At least that’s what most of my teammates did!  I headed down to the hotel lobby for my nightly photo editing and posting on Facebook!
On Good Friday, we visited Project BO377.  Well, nothing could have prepared us for the reception we received at this project. Little 3-4 year olds lined up in a receiving line outside, all dressed in traditional outfits, followed by wonderful dance, musical and drama presentations by each age group.  This is an established well-run project with 600+ kids. Met the most incredible, dynamic and vibrant youth I have ever met in my life, so on fire for the Lord and very bold in sharing their faith. Just a wonderful group of kids! I was so excited to meet sweet Maribel, my newly sponsored 12 year old daughter, as well as her younger sister Nayeli.  Knowing that she will be growing up in this kind of supportive environment is so comforting and gives me peace of mind!
Our last official day in Bolivia saw us visiting Project BO396.  Well, God was definitely saving the best for last, at least for me!!  After spending the morning at this wonderful project playing with the kids, they served us a delicious lunch, then we headed to the craft market for a couple of hours.  But my mind was not on shopping, it was concentrated on meeting my precious 10 year old sponsored daughter Maria Paz, who had not been able to make it to the project in the morning. She literally melted into my arms when we met, a tender and loving gift sent from Heaven above.  She had such a sweet spirit flowing out of her. We got to spend a quality hour together before having to say goodbye. All I can say is that I felt completely fulfilled in that moment, the “icing on the cake” to end my stay in Bolivia on a high note.
I could continue writing until this becomes a novel, but I’ll close off by saying thanks to all our trip leaders and staff who worked so hard at putting this trip together, and to all my teammates who encouraged me and were so full of love.  During our debrief session on our last night in Santa Cruz, our leaders had us all write down our feelings about the trip, and a few things that were shared were: “This week I have been encouraged to have more faith. You can really see amazing things happen when you pray and have faith that it will come to pass. Time is not an issue – it is in God’s timing that things will fall into place.”
We were all so humbled by this trip.  Thank you God, you are so incredibly good to me. I have felt so much love, appreciation and thankfulness (Philippians 1:6).  I am still being moved by the love of my teammates who have been spreading the word about Compassion, making donations to the projects and sponsoring more and more children. There are such beautiful people all around us! I highly recommend Compassion if you are looking to make a difference in someone’s life.  I have definitely been changed.

“Not all of us can do great things, but we can all do small
things with great love.” – Mother Teresa

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