A social centre in Bolivia offers support to 220 children and families in need. Silvio’s story: today he works for the same institution that saved him and cared for him when he was a child.
Silvio lives in Cochabamba; he has 10 siblings. His father, who was a miner, died when Silvio was 10 years old. Since then, his mother brought up a family of 11 children all by herself. They lived in a 4 x 5 metre room in a neighbourhood where drugs and robbery were the main activities for children. Now, Silvio works for the Unisol Foundation, the same charitable institution that one day saved him and his brothers from the life of sreet children.
This foundation is also supported by AFN Onlus (an association set up by the Focolare New Families Movement) through specific Distance Support programmes, that offer services to help with the education, nutrition and good health of children, while also seeing to their families and communities to ensure as much as possible that the children’s development takes place in a healthy environment. The implementation of these programmes is coordinated at a distance with competent local staff. But what does the foundation actually do? We put this question to Silvio, whose life story is entwined with that of Unisol, a foundation which today supports 220 children and families in need.
Can you tell us something about your family and your childhood?
“We are a very large family, 11 children in all. At first, we lived in Quillacollo, one of the most dangerous areas in Cochabamba (one of the most populated cities in Bolivia). My father used to work in a mine. He died of tumour when I was 10 years old, and from then on, my mother had to shoulder the full responsibility of all the family. It was the first time she had to look for a job, and she was employed as a cleaner in a school, in another town. To make life a bit easier for her, she was given the chance to live on the school premises, in the porter’s lodge: a small room of 4×5 metres, which became the living quarters for 8 of us. Although this new neighbourhood is better than our previous one, yet it is still a very dangerous one.
Very often, families cannot give the care needed by their children because they work all day, and children easily get into drugs; they deal in drugs or steal to pay for their doses. Many of my schoolmates ended up in gangs, but I still tried to keep some contact with them, even with the most dangerous ones, out of fear that they might take revenge on me or my family! Some of my friends were hooked on drugs. They offered drugs to me too, but I have always refused their offer, mainly out of respect for my mother, who sacrificed all her life for us children, and I always admired her a lot.
But one day something changed…..
“Yes. One day some members of the Focolare Movement came to our school and they offered help to my mother. They gave us snacks and sweets, they played with us, they listened to us, they gave us what we needed. And we felt very happy. As time went by, numbers increased and this led to the idea of finding a place, rather than the street, where we could play, study and be together. Thus, the Rincón de Luz (Corner of Light) Centre in Cochabamba came into being and later, the Clara Luz (Clear Light) Centre in Santa Cruz was also set up.
This changed our lives; for example, it was impossible to find a job for one of my sisters who is deaf and dumb, and we could not afford to make her study. But thanks to the help we received from the Foundation, she was able to get some training, and now she too has a profession”.
In reality, what does the Unisol Foundation do?
“It helps the most needy, especially families. It provides them with food, medicine and school things. It also offers educational support through after-school activities for children;. It organises recreational activities, lunches, snacks and workshops to teach practical and manual work; it promotes recycling and environmental awareness, personal training, sharing experiences,…
After having experienced the care offered by the Foundation, now, you are taking care of children and families in need. What motivates you to keep on doing this?
“First of all, I need to explain a bit more about our situation. In October 2019 there was the presidential election in Bolivia, and immediately afterwards a political crisis followed. This led to a substantial decrease in funds distributed to public organizations. Then, the country had to face the pandemic and the situation became worse. As many doctors and health assistants stopped working because they were afraid of the contagious virus, those who were ready to work in hospitals were offered high wages. Even I was offered a very good job and I was tempted to accept it: who wouldn’t like to have a few extra comforts? But then I realised that money would not make me happy , but living for others would. I felt I had to continue my work at Rincón de Luz…”.
How has helping families changed with the pandemic? And is there anything in particular you would like to share with those who are getting to know about the Unisol Foundation?
“Families are being very hardly hit by the pandemic. Many used to sell goods or food items on the streets; now they cannot do it anymore and so they stopped earning money. Many are losing hope of recovery from this situation. In addition to this, there have been quite a number of divorce cases, and the effects of this on the children we care for are many. At the moment, even my mum is taking care of a child, the son of a couple who have just separated and have practically nothing left. This is our work; we are there to answer for all the needs of these families. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough resources to cater for a larger number of people, even though this is what we would like to do. We also continue to help the families who previously were under our care. Besides other things, we also try to offer them a place where they can relax a bit, because the situation is really difficult. But there are many more people who need support, so I invite all those who are getting to know about the Unisol Foundation to offer help, starting with people who are near and maybe we do not know them, but they are the ones who need our time, our attention and our love.
Edited by Laura Salerno
Laura Salerno’s interview with Silvio (choose English subtitles):