A family of three Mothers and some 120 odd sisters (some more odd than others…)
The Hogar is run by three nuns (‘Madres’ or Mothers). They manage and administrate the Hogar, as well as taking an active role in looking after the welfare of all 120 girls. The triumvirate is supported by the two further Sacred Heart communities of Sisters here in Montero, a convent across the road from the Hogar and a house called Santa Clara.
The girls sleep in four large dormitories at the Hogar, each holding around 30 girls. Private space is, as you can imagine, at a premium and often tempers fly. Growing up is never easy, but growing up surrounded by over a hundred other girls is especially tough.
Los gringos locos
Although the nuns run the Hogar, it is the volunteers who spend most of their time on the frontline. The US Salesians have sent volunteers to the Hogar every year for nearly two decades and this year there are three living and working at the Hogar: Lisa looks after the 15 youngest girls (aged from just a few months to five years old), Genesee is in charge of the Hogar’s library and Sarah is responsible for the girls’ medical needs. I get along well with the American volunteers, although sometimes Bolivian Spanish is easier to understand than their American English. Still, it makes for an interesting three-way cultural learning experience..!
Aside from the US programme, the Hogar welcomes all volunteers and visitors from around the world, such as a group of Italian volunteers who visit the Hogar for a couple of weeks every August. I am the second British volunteer to come here and only the third male volunteer in the past ten years.
The Hogar relies a lot on the good work of the volunteers. The Sisters admit that they could not run the orphanage on their own. There is also work to be done at the Hogar and the more hands on deck the better. Unfortunately, space is limited. Lisa’s room is nicknamed ‘a box with a door’, barely big enough to house her bed. A week before she arrived it was a small shower area.
The girls have been unlucky to arrive at the Hogar.
The girls come to the Hogar for a variety of reasons. Many do have a family outside of the Hogar and a number have parents. The reality is, however, that they have had to come to the orphanage because their alternative home is unfit, unwilling or unable to look after them. They might have been abandoned, or have been harmed by a member of their family, or perhaps their family simply cannot afford to look after them.
The girls are lucky to be at the Hogar.
Whatever their background the Hogar is truly a home for the girls. They have opportunities here that they otherwise would not have. The Hogar offers a safe place to live, a decent education at a local school, a structured and loving home.
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America. Once I went with a group of girls deep into the countryside of rural Bolivia. We came across an isolated community in the middle of a jungle and handed out much-appreciated bags of kids’ clothes. Two days later we did the same, but instead of having to travel miles into the back and beyond of Bolivia, we just crossed town and found a shanty town of people in just as desperate need. Can you imagine how poor you have to be if you’re relying on the donations from a local girls’ orphanage?
Farmers, flowers and Disco Jesus
Since arriving at the Hogar, barely a week passes when there’s not some excuse to have a bit of a shindig and there’s no choice for us volunteers but get involved… So far, I’ve danced as a Bolivian farmer, I’ve been a member of N*SYNC and I’ve been made into a giant flower. I’ve even sung to one of the Sisters while dressed up as Jesus which was quite possibly one of the most embarrassing things I have ever done (thanks largely to a voluminous wig which made me look like a Jesus who was been rejected from a 70s tribute rock band who has since decided to join the preaching circuit…).
There are times when I do wonder to myself, ‘how did I ever end up here?’ (such as that infamous evening when I found myself dancing to reggaetón with a couple of nuns, a few American twentysomethings and a hundred adolescent Bolivian girls). I’ve also ended up climbing a coconut tree, riding a horse called Joaquín and joining a girls’ choir. Life here can be bizarre at times.
A thorn amongst roses
In my first meeting with the director at the Hogar she stressed how what the girls really lack is a father figure, and how she hoped that I might fulfil that role. Well, I don’t mind telling you that at the time I was very unsure about this. I could imagine being a friend to the girls, but would I seriously be seen as a father? I’m a 20 year old Uni student and the youngest in my family: what I don’t know about fatherhood could fill the Albert Hall…
And yet, almost imperceptibly, I’ve found myself slipping into that very role. Apart from a few of the staff who work at the Hogar I am often the only male presence around. (My Adam’s apple is a constant source of amazement for the girls and they find it very entertaining to help me ‘swallow it’ by hitting or squeezing it. Funnily enough I don’t find it quite so entertaining myself…).
It is the job of the volunteer to remember the girls’ birthdays, to cheer them up when they’re upset, to ask them ‘so, what have you learnt at school today?’ We’re the ones who have to sit through hours of wretched, repetitive PE demonstrations just to watch one of our girls perform with her classmates. And then we’re the ones that they look to wave to in the crowd. I suppose it was inevitable that I was to become a friend, an older brother and a father to all of the 120 girls almost overnight.
(Not that I would want to suggest that we all get along all of the time – oh no, of course we don’t. Teenage girls in Bolivia still go through all the same growing pains as teenage girls in the UK. Those aged from 11-14 can be particularly difficult and can always be relied upon to be utterly unreliable).
So, I may not have found the ultimate secret to understanding the female mind (yet), but my Salesian volunteer experience has been great so far. I’m being well-looked after, by the nuns and the girls, and they have made me feel very much at home.