Santiago, Chile: This is where OSF began. Sixteen years ago, I started Orphaned Starfish to help thirty-two of the most beautiful, wonderful, hopeful orphans and victims of abuse I had ever come across.
I also committed that I would, year after year, celebrate my birthday with the children of this orphanage, now including some alumni who now young adults with families of their own.
This birthday visit was perhaps the most special. The girls had just been forced to move from their original orphanage to their new home, supported by the amazing Katherine Taha after the original orphanage site had been sold by the nuns. This new home though is full of love, full of sunlight, full of laughing, smiling children enjoying today and looking forward to tomorrow. And it is definitely large enough as my endless games of Hide and Seek with the youngest ones proved. They study every day at the computer center and their English is improving so very much. They want to be engineers, business owners, bank executives, doctors, etc. and I know they will be one day.
We had a huge dinner with some of the graduates, with their significant others and their children. When two of the graduates took out their corporate identifications, both from large banks in Chile, they were so proud and I was even prouder.
Another birthday tradition is to take all the children to the public swimming pool for the last weekend of the summer. To know all the horrific abuse these girl endured before their arrival at the orphanage and to then see them laughing, splashing, doing cannonballs, and having swimming races brought tears to my eyes.
The next day was the birthday extravaganza: they baked me a cake, gave me a framed picture of all of us together, sang loudly and gave me tons of hugs and kisses. There is no better place to celebrate.
One of the highlights among highlights though was the visit to the new home of Paulina. Paulina left the orphanage to have a baby at the age of sixteen. She could have been a statistic, drop out of school, and live on the streets like many others in the community. Instead, she has worked hard, is going to university and will be getting a part time job. She invited me and Dilia to breakfast with her husband and her young boy at the new home that they just moved into. The pride she had in giving us a tour of her modest home and the love she put into the breakfast she cooked made tears build up.
Villa 1-11-14, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Mary Mother of the Village Parish
Bajo Flores, Buenos Aires, Argentina: This is what the worst of the worst neighborhoods in South America looks like. Drug addicts line the drive to an area where most taxi drivers won’t even enter (we have to be dropped off at a gas station ten minutes away and get picked up by the priest). This is where our partners committed that they would get as many of these kids off the streets, help them rehab from their addictions, and help the children of those in jail and suffering from addiction change their lives. This is the Pope’s special place, home of his favorite soccer team and the location of our program is supported by some of the priests he left in Argentina.
The OSF Computer Center here was the first, and is the only, computer center in this neighborhood for the children to use. The access to internet here is their only access to the world outside of their neighborhood. The English lessons they are getting are the only English lessons available. And the children are thriving. They are gaining training in skills that will help them escape their world, escape the violence and have a real future. The look of hope in the eyes of the children, and our teachers, in what is often a hopeless place brought a feeling of accomplishment for what OSF has started here.
No visit here is complete , though, without doing the magic show and balloons for the littles. Lots and lots of giggles, singing and balloon animals.
Colegio Don Bosco
Montevideo, Uruguay: This is one of our newest programs and is quickly becoming the most complete program in the Orphaned Starfish family. This program for at-risk children in Montevideo, one of the richest cities in Latin America but still with a large at-risk population is incorporating all aspects of Orphaned Starfish programs, incorporates all we are trying to do: basic computer skills, incorporating the computers into all their studies and homework, advanced computing skills lessons in programming and other activities, internships, English language programming, the works. The staff here is committed that each student that wants a job when they graduate will get one; each student that wants to attend University will attend. We have worked together to start partnerships with local businesses for detailed training in their businesses and pilot programs will start this year with this goal in mind.
But, as always, OSF is about the children, their hopes and their dreams. It was the first day of school at Don Bosco and the children could not be more excited. The teachers, of our programs and other courses, were so genuinely proud of what we have accomplished together and what the future will hold.
Before we left, there were several hundred kids that had never seen my well-worn magic show or hear Dilia singing to them. In a hallway, classes emptied onto the floors with each child straining to see more. The pure joy, the pure laughter, the pure enjoyment that these children showed was so very moving. When the show was over, they couldn’t wait to get back to learning as well. The complete program.
NEXT BLOG POST: The Caribbean: Jamaica and Dominican Republic