La Paz, Bolivia, Dec 13, 2011–Alberto sprawls across the bed, clutching a teddy bear tightly to his chest. He swings monkey-like from the jungle gym; he slides head first down the slide. He’s brave and strong: the king of the castle in a fleece hoodie and sneakers.
He could be any other gap-grinned 7-year-old – excited to show off his new “stuff” to his guest, CFTC Program Officer Shirley Estevez, who has dropped in to pay him and the other children at Alalay’s Marcelina House a pre-Christmas visit.
But look again: Alberto’s grin sometimes fades to a shy smile, seeking reassurance. His rolled-up cuffs belie the fact that his clothes are second-hand and give him lots of room to grow. That teddy bear belongs to one of his new housemates, and if he’s clutching it a little possessively, surely he can be forgiven: his delight is that of a child who has never before had a teddy bear to hug and who fears it may be taken away from him.
For the past several years, Alberto had never slept in a bed of his own and sometimes he’d never slept in a bed, period. Along with tens of thousands of other Bolivian children – abandoned, neglected or fleeing domestic abuse – his home was a doorway or tunnel or abandoned building. Alberto and his brother, José – along with a small group of other children, some as young as two or three – had only each other to count on. Together, they scrounged food, begged or stole money with which to buy it; and together, they huddled for warmth when the nights in La Paz – the world’s highest capital city, tucked up in the Andes at 3,650 metres – turned cold.
Many are still out there, with no clean clothes, no blankets, no teddy bears in sight. But Alberto is finally safe.
Flash back to late September, 2011, when a small group of Canadian Feed The Children donors visited La Paz as part of CFTC’s 2011 Bolivia/Peru donor tour. They met a very different Alberto: hoodie pulled up, wary eyes staring out at the camera – the gap-toothed grin not nearly as generously displayed. This was Alberto just a few months after he entered Marcelina House – the residence run by CFTC partner, Alalay, where many children like Alberto are first brought to transition from a life on the street to a life of safety, food, shelter and love.
“When I first met [Alberto and his brother José], they had just been found by the police in a busy city square in the middle of the night. They were frightened, withdrawn and trusted no one. With no one to turn to, this beautiful little boy and his brother were forced to face this world alone,” said Shirley.
Then, and still now, Alberto was in the early and fragile stages of transition which can take up to a year, depending on the child and the extent of physical and psychological damage he or she has experienced. José had moved on to Huajchilla Village, stage two of the Alalay process, where children who have gained enough trust to make a commitment to rehabilitation live in a village-like setting. There, in residences among children of the same gender and similar age, they receive health care, education, counselling, and enough structure and support to take their first firm steps to a brand new life.
But Alberto was too traumatized from life on the street to move to Huajchilla with José. He struggled to open his heart to the love and care of those around him. He needed some more time with the social workers at Marcelina House, which is both an entry point and graduation step for those who have completed the Alalay program. Alberto needed to learn to trust, to feel a sense of stability, safety and protection, and to have the time, care and love that are the only things that can ever repair the enormous toll on physical and mental health that abuse and trauma take.
It just so happened that Alberto was staying behind amidst a group of older girls who were graduating from high school after successfully completing the final phase of the Alalay process. These confident, capable and loving young women became Alberto’s big sisters, babysitters and role models, showing him that there was light at the end of the tunnel and that it was okay to trust the adults who would help that light grow brighter.
So Alberto stayed behind to be nurtured and loved, where he could cuddle teddy bears, play on swing sets and know that he would have warm food in his tummy, warm clothes on his back and the warmth of compassionate, trustworthy adults around him. He still needs to learn that those things won’t be taken away – and most of all, to start to believe that he has value; that while adults have failed him before, they won’t again.
As Shirley toured Alalay, watching Alberto resume his childhood, she is both pensive and hopeful: “Unfortunately, there are thousands of Albertos still on the streets: still experiencing horrific domestic abuse, abandonment, substance abuse and neglect. Some of these stories will live in my mind forever, but looking at these children’s beautiful smiling faces, I am amazed at their resilience and their capacity to love. Although he’s not quite there yet, I’m confident that Alberto will soon move to the next phase on his journey.”
Alberto is now receiving health care, warm clothes, nutritious meals. His heart and mind are on the mend – a longer path, and one that is not without risks and potential set-backs. But before long, he will be ready for school and will have the confidence to make friends.