Every now and then one is gifted with an experience that expands one’s perspective and changes just a little bit the way the world appears. My recent trip to La Paz to visit Kaya was one such experience for me. My wife Amanda and I spent a week in La Paz, seeing the city and soaking in the wonderful work that the Kaya staff are doing. Led by the Program Director in La Paz, Ximena Alarcon, and Kaya Board Chair, John Eggen, throughout the course of the week we were able to see and experience the range of work carried out by Kaya.
Two experiences from this week in particular sat deeply with me and led to greater reflection: spending time with the boys in the residential homes and visiting the streets of El Alto, where many of the homeless children served by Kaya originate.
After some time acclimating to the city and visiting the Kaya Center, we paid two visits to the residential homes for boys. Overlooking La Paz from the outskirts, here the boys are able to experience not only shelter and security, but also the nourishment that comes from family life. Immediately upon our arrival I was moved by the sense of comfort and peace that was evident among the boys. From the simple ways they laughed at the lunch table, played outside for hours, or proudly showed us around the houses, it was clear that this isn’t just a residence for these boys, it is home. Here they are given not only shelter and security, but also guidance from the family in residence and new “brothers” to grow up and develop with, in many ways like siblings.
The Kaya boys’ homes The boys playing soccer
The results of this support over time were exemplified in a Kaya graduation ceremony one night following a visit to the boys’ homes. Cesar, now in his early twenties, left the streets eight years ago to live with Kaya in the Residential Program. Kaya supported him as he matured, completed school, attended university, and recently secured a position as a consultant with a major international firm. During the graduation ceremony stories were shared from his teenage years to the present, and he was given an emotional sendoff by the staff. All of the other boys were in attendance, and Ximena told them that she looks forward to one day having this ceremony for each of them.
Cesar (in the checkered shirt) at his graduation
On the Streets of El Alto
The other poignant experience of the trip for me was time spent on the streets of El Alto. Positioned high on a plateau overlooking La Paz, El Alto is both more populous and more chaotic. Here there are two million generally poor people squeezed into a small space with very little government oversight, resulting in high crime, drug use, and prostitution. This is also where many of the homeless children either begin living on the streets or eventually end up.
We visited El Alto twice, once during the day and again during the middle of the night. During both visits, we looped through the city checking the places where homeless children tend to take shelter. During our first trip in the daytime, after stopping at a few places we visited an arcade that is popular among the children. Just outside, sitting under a vendor’s counter, were two young homeless girls.
The girls were crouched down with their knees pulled up looking sullen. Both were dirty and disheveled but otherwise could have been any other young girls. Compared to other experiences with homeless children, these girls struck me as looking particularly sad and vulnerable. Everything about them, from their messed-up hair to their bent-over posture, seemed to convey hopelessness. What the details of their lives are like, day to day out there on the street, I struggle to visualize.
A picture of the girls outside the arcade, taken discreetly by John Eggen
Our second visit to El Alto took place late at night. Once again we looped through the city, checking the popular shelter locations. After a little while we encountered a young girl named Josefin.
On one of the more crowded streets we saw a small figure curled up on the floor of an ATM booth. John approached with Carla, Kaya’s Outreach Lead, and quietly knocked on the door. At first she wouldn’t speak, but gently and persistently they coaxed out some words, including her name and age. She was thirteen, and she had been staying here for "a while" - this ATM booth was her spot at night. At one point she stepped out onto the street momentarily, and I was shocked by how small and thin she was - she looked more like eight than thirteen. The thought of someone so young and fragile out on that street every night alone gave me chills.
Josefin in her ATM shelter
Reflecting on these experiences, I am struck by the contrast between the two encounters: on the one hand, the experience of the peace and joy of the boys’ homes and on the other, the harsh environment for these young girls on the streets. While Kaya does what it can to support girls like Josefin, it is currently unable to provide them with the safety, shelter and family support of a residential program. This contrast brought home to me the importance of developing such a Residential Program for Girls, so that Kaya can offer girls like these another alternative to life on the streets just as it does for so many boys, one in which they can be little girls again: have some peace and security, go to school and play, and make goals that they can hope to achieve.