Jason & Caroline Bernhardt
Santa Cruz, Bolivia
We have the privilege of working in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in the Salesian “Casa de Acogida Mano Amigo,” which opened upon our arrival. The purpose of this home is to provide a temporary refuge for orphans, abandoned, abused, or at-risk children, and street kids, both girls and boys, ages 5-17. Our goal is to enable these children to grow in a safe, loving and nurturing environment until a social worker can address their particular problems and find a solution, which is intricately related to the child’s own growth and desire to improve his or her life. We know we will never be able to recreate the unique gift of family for these children, but we hope to provide them with some models for values, virtues, and faith, which we learned from our parents and from the Church. In Santa Cruz there are over 5000 street children and we hope to welcome many of them at one time or another.
It is amazing how quickly these children can conquer our hearts. We are always reminded of the harsh and sometimes violent realities of their history, but then we marvel at their resilience, spirit, and ability to change. Witnessing them flourish, gain self-esteem, and learn the meaning of forgiveness and peace is a unique privilege and gift for us.
We are constantly challenged to find just, appropriate and wise ways to tackle problems, foster unity and order, respond to mistakes, and discover creative methods to thwart disobedience. In this task, the educational principles and charism of Don Bosco – mainly, “education is love” – have inspired and guided us. Fr. Octavio Sabbadin, the Salesian priest who directs the boys’ orphanage across the street from us, Hogar Don Bosco, has also been a mentor for us. His example of love and service are a gift of grace. Still, we are amazed and humbled by the weighty and precious responsibility entrusted to us in the lives of these children.
Constantly welcoming new children, entering into their lives, their joys, their woundedness and their playfulness, and then letting them go makes our job heartbreaking at times. The emotional involvement, attachment and sacrifice required for this letting go were not things for which we were prepared. However, even when we have felt overwhelmed or saddened by the plight of these children, the Salesian daily Mass has sustained us and brought us hope and courage.
We need time to begin evaluating the structures of household administration, budgeting, health care, social work and interaction with relatives, methods of discipline and counselling, training of teenage assistants, recreational activities and most importantly, spiritual education. We hope to begin creative projects of fund raising and branch out to business and public sectors of Santa Cruz and other countries. We would like support for a child-godparent program. The children’s needs are severe. However, we are filled with excitement and overcome by the richness and potential of these works and by the immense task of building this home.
Each child requires and deserves our time, attention, patience, and affection. As physical presence and touch are real signs of love, we are frustrated that with only the two of us serving permanently in Mano Amigo, we are unable to focus on each of our 32 children (at present) as their needs demand. Health issues are always crucial. In our continual crusade for personal hygiene, nutrition and cleanliness of the home, we lack the presence and professional support of a full-time nurse. Many of the children suffer from deep psychological pains and troubles. To help them heal, a psychologist would be an invaluable resource.
After over three months in Mano Amigo, we realize that our time in Santa Cruz is not just the “volunteer phase” of our life, but rather that it will be an integral part of everything we are and do in the future. We love every one of these children, and they give us a distinctive and daring vision for our life as Christian disciples.