After more than a week in the mountains of Bolivia, I’m headed home — back to Richmond, Va., and my life of comparative ease and comfort. As the ground falls away beneath the plane, I’m staring out the window, trying to compose coherent thoughts, but they are lost amid a thousand mental images of the people and scenes I’ve experienced in the last few days.

Our tour guide: An architect rises from poverty

Roberto Andrade’s smiling, confident face keeps flashing across my mind. The Children Incorporated volunteer and architect of our Montero school was once himself a sponsored child. Throughout the week, he’s been our local tour guide and companion, showing us around the city and introducing us to hundreds of children he’s helping on the path to self-sufficiency in adulthood.

The nuns: Septuagenarians lead by example

Then I focus on Sister Pilar. The 75-year-old nun ventures into the darkest slums of Santa Cruz, looking for homeless women and children. She brings them back to live at her bright, spacious villa while the children go to school and their mothers get job training and placement — and then their own homes and a new life.
Sister Geraldina is another 75-year-old nun. Her laughter is infectious and her energy is boundless. I met her at the Montero school, which she runs with an efficiency that belies her warmth and kindness. My whole trip to Bolivia was prompted by Sister Geraldina, who has overseen the school’s expansion from a collection of run-down buildings to a modern facility with space for hundreds of children.

The children: New schools, new shoes and new kittens

And then, of course, there are the children themselves — scores of faces flash across my mind, smiling and shy but curious about me, a new face in their school. At school, there is no evidence of the poverty in which they live — armed with new clothes, shoes and school supplies from Children Incorporated, they are indistinguishable from any other children of the world. They are boisterous, mischievous and cheerful, talking and playing as their teachers try to settle them into their schoolwork after a break.

There were so many Children Incorporated kids in so many schools that I can’t even estimate how many I met. Their faces and names flash before my eyes like pages in a scrapbook, but my thoughts solidify for a moment on Efrain. After three years in the program, he is now a fourth-grader in La Paz. He’s a good student and lives in a one-bedroom home with his mother, three siblings and three kittens. It’s the kittens that he wanted to talk about — they sleep next to him and his brother and, like any child, he is enamored with them. He was also enamored with his shoes — he showed them off with pride and told me about receiving them from Children Incorporated. With three kittens and a new pair of shoes, Efrain smiled like the luckiest, most privileged child in the world.

The professor: A sponsor makes all the difference

I hope he ends up like Carla, and I feel a rush of joy as I think of her standing on the street with her daughter near her grandmother’s fruit stand in La Paz. Carla, now 30, started in the Children Incorporated program at the age of 9 after her parents left her to find work in Argentina. She was raised by her grandmother with help from a Children Incorporated sponsor who provided her with clothes, school supplies and food. Her rise from poverty was astounding — she is now a professor and has her own daughter and she still writes letters to her former Children Incorporated sponsor.

And as the plane rises above the clouds and the world below disappears, I close my eyes and send out fervent wishes and prayers that Efrain’s future — indeed all of their futures — are so bright.

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HOW DO I SPONSOR A CHILD IN BOLIVIA?

You can sponsor a child in Bolivia in one of three ways – call our office and speak with one of our sponsorship specialists at 1-800-538-5381, email us at sponsorship@children-inc.org, or go online to our donation portal, anate and account, and search for a child in Bolivia that is available for sponsorship.