La Paz is known for being a city with extreme weather changes. These changes happen quickly, so it is not unusual to experience a large array of temperatures within the same day. It can go from cold and cloudy to intense heat to a thunderstorm all within a few hours. But recently the weather has been getting even colder compared to past years because there has been heavy snowfall in the mountains that surround the city causing low temperatures in La Paz.
As I leave my house in the morning to go to Kaya, I wear a lot of warm clothes. Even with all the layers, I still don’t feel warm enough. As I arrive to Kaya, I see a group of girls waiting outside for the Kaya Center to open. I notice they are only wearing a skirt and white tights, a blouse and a thin sweater. They are dressed in their school uniforms. I shiver just thinking how cold they must be. I assume these are the only clothes that many of the girls own because they wear their school uniforms to Kaya even during school vacations. I have seen a few girls in different outfits but none that provide adequate warmth. As I get closer, the girls smile and yell out my name, but I can see a great sadness in their hearts.
In Bolivia there is no heating, and when we enter the Kaya Center the girls snuggle together to get warm. To help them forget about the cold, I start talking with them. I notice one of the girls is rubbing her hands together more frequently than the others and ask her why. I am shocked and sadden when she tells me her hands hurt because she was washing clothes in the icy water of the river early that morning. This was her punishment for returning home dirty after playing the day before. Another girl interrupts saying, “What are you complaining about? At least your mom lets you play, I had to work all weekend.” Another girl brags that she is not cold at all. Imagining that she ate something nice and hot for breakfast that is keeping her warm I ask her what she had, but my heart sinks when she replies that she only ate a tangerine.
It is not even 9 o'clock on Monday morning, but my heart is heavy as I leave the classroom to go to the office. I feel hopeless that this country can change. I can’t help but think that childhood for so many is sad and painful. After I am in my office for a few hours, I return to the same classroom. As I walk back in, I feel as if I have entered a new room. I see the same group of girls from the morning, but this time they are playing. They are running from one place to another and the sound of their laughter fills the room. Their laugher is so infectious that I find myself laughing along with them. I get there just as the mid-morning snack arrives. This makes the children even more excited. They all enthusiastically raise their hands volunteering to pray for the food, and then the children eat their snack with great pleasure.
Later that day for lunch the cook makes a hot noodle soup, a favorite of the kids. They fill up on a hardy meal. As the kids are getting ready to head off to school, one of the girls hugs me and looks up at me and smiles. In that moment I think, “THERE IS A CHANGE!” The smile on her face is now real. It is a smile that reflects an inward joy and peace. As I say goodbye to each girl, I know they are not the same cold, hungry and sad kids I saw that same morning. Through Kaya’s Prevention Program, we provide children with a safe space so they do not turn to life on the streets. The hours that the children spend at the Kaya Center make a big difference. I am very grateful to be part of these children’s stories and to get to see firsthand their lives being restored each and every day at Kaya Children International.