SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia – (Mennonite Mission Network) - Through Samuelito Day Care Center, love and laughter touch the lives of many children born into desperate circumstances in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city. This ministry of Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Boliviana (Bolivian Evangelical Mennonite Church), finds much to celebrate in the midst of daily struggles to survive.
On August 31, a grand fiesta marked Samuelito’s first anniversary.
The president of the Bolivian Mennonite Church, Léonidas Saucedo, shared a message of how God uses what the world considers insignificant to create lasting change. Day care personnel and children led worship and performed traditional dances to honor a year of ministry among some of the most vulnerable citizens of Barrio La Moliendita, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Santa Cruz.
"We, of course, know that poverty is a very complex problem with no simple answers," said Margrit Kipfer Barrón, who helped the church begin the day care ministry while serving under the Bolivian Mennonite Church through Mennonite Mission Network. She named colonialism and globalization as two root causes of the system that oppresses the families of Samuelito's children.
"The thing is, we can't undo in a few months what has been done during 500 years of history. What we can do is try to help with the resources we have, and that's often starting with the most obvious needs and then if the oportunities arrive, going deeper," Kipfer Barrón said.
Going deeper includes finding excuses to celebrate life. During its first year, the day care center also threw parties for birthdays, Mother’s Day and even turned a hygiene workshop into a festival. The celebrations also help welcome children who arrive.
Three-year old Darling and her baby brother, Hector, arrived at Samuelito in March. Because their 19-year-old mother was inexperienced, single and had little income, the children were in “a terrible state,” said Yuneth Vargas de Moreno, director of the day care center. “The baby was malnourished and the little girl was very thin. She didn’t talk at all.”
The mother had separated from the children’s father, a drug addict who was physically abusive.
Day care services permitted the mother to resume afternoon classes to complete her education. Mornings, she cleans the school she attends to provide for her small family.
On this day after five months at Samuelito, Darling hugged a toy phone to her ear as she smiled and conversed brightly with an imaginary friend. Hector’s dark eyes that solemnly study his world with scientific intelligence contrast with baby cheeks so chubby they invite kisses.
Samuelito personnel are working with the Darling and Hector’s parents to help them make lifestyle changes.
“We hope our Lord will touch their hearts and that they will be able to understand the great blessing it is to have a child and the responsibility that this implies,” Vargas de Moreno said.
More than 90 percent of the children attending Samuelito live with single mothers. Even if a father plays a parental role, there is often no one at home during the day to care for children while both parents work.
“The little children are sometimes locked up in a room until the parents come home if there is no older sibling to look after them,” Kipfer Barrón.
The day care staff rejoices when their prayers, patience and pedagogy transform lethargic newcomers into children energetic enough to pick fights with others, demonstrating that they are discovering a self with rights worth expressing.
Five educators and a cook – aided by volunteers – make up Vargas de Moreno’s team. The day care facility, housed in the Esmirna Mennonite Church building, and its staff are stretched to maximum capacity by the 41 children that they currently welcome five days a week.
Every Friday a wooden classroom divider must be removed and tables, cabinets, materials and mattresses stowed away to make room for Sunday’s worship. Then, early Monday morning, the lifting and carrying of furniture drains the energies of the Saumuelito teachers even before the children arrive.
The church dreams of buying land and building a more adequate structure to house Samuelito’s children.
Originally from Switzerland, Kipfer Barrón has served jointly with Mennonite Mission Network (Mennonite Board of Missions prior to 2002) and the Schweizerische Mennonitische Mission (Swiss Mennonite Conference) since 1993. She developed many of the dynamic Christian education ministries of the Bolivian Mennonite Church – clubs, Sunday schools, Bible schools, musicals, retreats, and camps.
Because the church places high priority on leadership training, national youth now direct these ministries permitting Kipfer Barrón to invest her energies in programs for younger children.
“In the church, we work so hard to help heal people of the results of poor self-image that are manifested in alcoholism and other addictions, I think it might be better to mold young lives in positive ways rather than attacking ingrained habits. That is one of the reasons we started the day care center,” Kipfer Barrón said.
She is actively involved in the Sinaí Mennonite Church, where her husband, Freddy Barrón, serves as pastor. They have four children.
The Bolivian government supplements staff salaries and contributes dry staples, such as, flour, sugar, rice and noodles for the children’s meals. Mennonite Central Committee’s Global Family program also helps to fund the day care center. The children’s families pay one boliviano a day – about 13 cents.