By Shift Marketing Fellow, Becca Burns
It is the end of the second week in La Paz. It is raining outside and I am looking at five guards sitting down for lunch. A guard behind us slowly closes the heavy, paint-chipped door – shutting out the light and rain and I am in a dungeon. I am in a damp and dark women’s prison in downtown La Paz.
Alexis is here with me, along with two other women. One of the women comes here every Thursday to speak with and encourage the women and she has invited us to join her. My hands grip the black bags I am holding a little tighter so that the shaking stops. I am afraid. The black bags I am holding are just a few of the 90 bags we packed for the children living in the prison with their mothers – filled with donated clothing and toys. I try to recall how I got here – how my life turned from living comfortably to feeling anything but comfortable, and why I chose this exactly.
Another uncomfortable experience—I am in a foreign country where I can’t comprehend the language very well. I am in a prison and they place me and one of the other women in a room. They close the door behind us and we are now in the cell. No guard. No idea what is going on. On the other side of the closed door, they pat down Alexis and the other woman and search through the 90 bags.
Alexis and the other woman join us and we walk through the long, rose colored room, past a few inmates standing in line to make telephone calls and out into a courtyard filled with 60 women. They stare, some laugh and others pay no attention. We have one guard with us during this time. She is half my size. I stand out – the tall blond girl – “gringa.”
We speak with the women and hand them the black bags – each with their own child’s name. It is an incredible experience to give them something for their children and to hear some of their stories. When we see the children – filled with excitement about these people who brought them a bag of treats – I realize that all of my fear and discomfort is worth it. I also realize that this is only the beginning for the project.
Our plans for Bolivia were exceeded – overwhelmingly so. We met the strong and determined leaders who will be the face of the project in La Paz. I gathered around tables with new friends and acquaintances for Bolivian traditional coffee time throughout the two weeks. Discussing the project and the next steps we are taking in the United States, we were filled with a contagious energy that kept us up late into the night brainstorming, wondering and planning.
When I arrive, I feel like I am in a dream. Never having traveled to a foreign country, let alone a third world country, seeing the state of poverty is surreal. I see stray dogs running across dirt and stone-stippled streets, homes of brick boxes covered with corrugated roofing, and children selling old newspapers on the side of the road next to graffiti covered walls. Everything is broken – the streets, the buildings, the sidewalks, the cars and the spirits of many of the people. Driving through El Alto after landing and into the city of La Paz, the dissonance between the breath-taking views of the Andes Mountains and the evident poverty is overwhelming.
By the end of the first week, I faced fears I didn’t even know I had before going. I conquered – correction – faced my fear of flying. After being attacked by a dog at the age of nine, I have always been afraid of stray dogs. I walked through the neighborhood with Alexis, her sisters and the random stray dogs to shop at the local market to prepare for the meals each day. Claustrophobic with a fear of heights, many rides up and down the Andes Mountains in buses filled to the brim with people kept my palms sweaty, but I did it. And I didn’t cry.
Week two brought a new love for the surrounding areas of La Paz. We travelled to Valle de la Luna and I walked on the Bolivian version of the moon. Alexis’ dad drove us in his little peta – a Volkswagen beetle – over cliffs and through rural neighborhoods to Valle de las Animas (the Valley of the Souls). Here, we had the most brilliant view of Mount Illimani. I also said a quick prayer that little peta would get us back down safely. One slip and we would have driven off of cliffs up to 500 feet. Conquering fears!
Alexis and I travelled to some of the most impoverished areas in and around La Paz. We visited areas of El Alto and out into the rural Altiplano. We made our way to the fabled Lake Titicaca – the largest in South America (by volume of water). Driving down a dirt road towards the lake, we came across Escuela Soncachi Chico-Tajara. After stopping the jeep, children ran out of the school’s gate entrance and swarmed around the vehicle. Before travelling, Alexis and I packed the jeep with extra clothing and toys just in case we came across any children in the Altiplano. We played with them and passed out toys.
I also had the pleasure of meeting Omar Sanchez. Omar recently retired after 20 years working for World Vision in Bolivia. He is one of the faces for the project in La Paz. Omar is very well connected with the shelters and organizations helping orphans in La Paz. He is also fluent in English so it was refreshing to communicate without a translator. With Omar we planned for meetings with other shelters in the area, gathered information about the children in the specific area of our shelter, and scheduled time to meet with Servicio Legal Integral Municipal (SLIM). SLIM is the organization that will bring the children to our shelter.
Alexis and Omar have since attended two meetings with SLIM and Alexis has been visiting shelters in the area. Our goal is to form relationships with the other shelters as well. We’re all working towards helping these children out of their situations and enabling them to live a life that is fulfilling and sustainable.
By the end of the second week, Alexis and I visited the future site of our shelter. Situated 10 minutes from the church Paraiso de Fe, walking distance to a local school and a few blocks from the community we plan to serve with the community kitchen, it is the perfect location. The view isn’t too bad either – overlooking the entire city of La Paz.
I went down with a few different expectations for the project and with the hope of somehow leaving a mark on the lives of the people I met – encouraging their determination to help and the ways they can develop community with the people around them. And although I hope that is true in some way, these people and this place have left a lasting impression on my life – teaching me lessons more valuable than I could ever have imagined. At times, you have to go outside of what is comfortable in order to really make a difference in your own life and the lives of others. To see the smiles of the children and to hear those laughs and to be in the center of the Andes Mountains was the most invigorating and life-changing experience of my life.
The project is in progress. We are now seeking a fiscal sponsor as we move forward with acquiring 501c3 status and the building of the shelter has begun. A simple idea becomes a plausible reality!