I spent my summer volunteering in Bolivia with ICS Tearfund, and now have a journal jam-packed with ten weeks’ worth of ramblings, anecdotes, thoughts and reflections. If you were to read this notebook, you would know all about a project in Cochabamba called Oeser, you’d be introduced to a team of incredible Bolivian and UK volunteers, and you’d hear about my experiences of living with a South American family, teaching English and learning how to sell a cereal bar in Spanish! I could probably write a whole book about my time in Bolivia, but to keep it brief I’m going to skip most of the details and just take this opportunity to share something that is particularly important to me. However, if you’d like to hear more about the ins and outs, you can either read a blog my good friend Ruth wrote, (https://tenweekswithtearfundoeser.wordpress.com) or ask me face-to-face!
The project Oeser provides grants for 15 children to leave the San Sebastian prison in the south of Cochabamba and come to a nursery in the Villa Candelaria each day. In Bolivia, if a mother is imprisoned for a crime, her child will stay with her in prison until the age of 6. I had no idea how to feel about this system. I still don’t claim to be able to judge what is best for these children; however, I do know without a doubt that it is important that they have the opportunity to go to the Nursery. As volunteers we rotated each week to pick up the children, entertain them on the long bus journey, and take them back again at the end of the day. They would bundle into the Trufi covered in snot, munching away on sweets, and normally shouting, crying or fighting. They were a lively bunch and if anything they were the ones entertaining me! I often felt unsure of what to do, due to both a lack of fluent Spanish, and a sense of hopelessness at the children’s exceptional situation. Each morning on the drive to collect the children I would pray for them, and God encouraged me that all He required of me in this situation, and beyond, was to love the people put in front of me.
I remember one of these mornings in particular because I was really questioning the importance of our role in this part of the project. Psyching myself up to be child-friendly at such an early hour was proving difficult already… then I was handed a screaming child. Thankfully, she calmed down over the course of the Trufi journey and she started to talk and play with me. Until we arrived at the nursery and she burst into tears all over again, pulling hard at my hand to go with her. I couldn’t stay, but the image of her face absolutely filled with fear stayed with me all day. I repeatedly felt stirred to pray for her. On the journey home she sat on my lap again, and this time there was a noticeable difference in her as she told me happy stories about her day.
I found out later that this was her first day at nursery. The first day she’d ever left the prison.
Sometimes God places people before us and simply asks us to love them. God loves this child immeasurably and unconditionally so I felt privileged that, despite my very apparent weakness and inability to change her situation, God could use me to show her His love that day. I feel honoured to have held her and taken her to the gates for her very first day of school, but it still breaks my heart that her mother couldn’t have taken my place, and that she had missed so much school already.
As a team we have plenty of other stories like this where we realised the extent to which these children are deprived a normal childhood as well as some of their basic rights.
Nearing the end of our time at Oeser, the UK girls went for a meeting with the director of the project. We were informed that a key donor had withdrawn funding so the charity would have to cut certain aspects of their work. Sadly, the grants for the children from the prison are the main cause for concern at the moment. We were actually shocked by the amount of money that is necessary to run this scheme for just one year. I’d never considered the cost of education before; I’d never really had to. Even though our target for one year is upwards of £13,000 I do believe that God can work miracles and there is no reason not to try to raise at least some of this money.
Before, I had been upset that the children were forced to go back to the prison every day, but then the reality hit that they might not be able to leave at all. On paper, the financial breakdown of the grant shows that Oeser offers these children: education, travel, healthcare, and food. But I have seen that Oeser gives the children so much more than this: they are loved by caring teachers that are dedicated to teaching them good values, and they have the opportunity to make friends and play in a playground. A chance to just be a child.
I want these children to have the opportunity to know freedom and not be confined to a prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
Thank you for reading this and thank you to everyone who donated to my fundraising for Tearfund or prayed for me while I was away. If anything in this article has impacted you in any way and you’d like to support the project, then there are several ways that you can respond:
-Pray! Prayer can connect us across the world and I believe there is power when we call upon the name of Jesus and cry out against injustice. Please pray for the ongoing work of Oeser, and specifically for wisdom and strength for the Director in this difficult season.
-Come along to our fundraising event and invite friends! There will be a quiz, music, cakes, and a short presentation about the project. This will be held in the hall at Holland Road Baptist Church on 20th November, 7pm-9pm. Each ticket costs £3 and teams can have a maximum of 6 members.