The sun shines brightly in the dusty Nueva Vera Cruz neighborhood on a mountaintop outside the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia, where hundreds of Quechua and Aymara families have migrated from rural areas in search of work. A rented van transporting eight Latino Catholics from the United States climbs the mountain. They have come on a mission immersion experience promoted by the Maryknoll Discípulos Misioneros (Missionary Disciples) program.
The van stops in front of a large building, Centro Nueva Vera Cruz, which houses the Apoyo Escolar (School Support) program. Here children 4 to 14 years of age who attend public schools receive assistance with homework, a nutritious meal and help to adapt to their new life in a city where the predominant language, Spanish, is not their first language.
Maryknoll Father Paul Sykora, who runs the center and school support program, opens a door within a larger metal gate to welcome the visitors. The door closes automatically, thanks to the weight of a brick hanging at the end of a pulley system that Father Sykora created. The visitors enter a patio that serves as an ecological and recreational space, with pots to grow vegetables and swings made from used tires. A green mesh awning provides protection from the sun, and on the roof, an antenna, made by Father Sykora from recycled material, enables radio reception in the building.
Father Sykora, who served as a missioner for 25 years among the Mapuche people of Chile, arrived in Bolivia in 2009. He embodies the kind of priest Pope Francis asks for: one who goes out to the periphery and smells like the sheep.
“Jesus said that if you do not think like a child, you cannot understand God,” says the missioner from Wagner, S.D. “We are doing basic things here with the people where they are, especially with the children, because they live in a world (the city) that their parents do not understand, but they do understand the values of sharing, of playing together, of respecting others.”
Andrea Chileno, one of the Apoyo Escolar teachers, or facilitators, as they prefer to be called, says, “I’ve been here since I was 10. I was one of the girls who received school support. I had many difficulties.” Seeing firsthand how the facilitators encouraged and nurtured the children motivated Chileno to pursue a bachelor’s degree in educational science.
“Father Pablo plays many roles. He is a ‘father,’ a counselor priest to all the children, he plays with the children. He also takes out the trash,” says Chileno, giggling. “He motivates us, he teaches us about religion, and when we suggest a project, he says, ‘Do it, but do it right.’ ”
One of the children interrupts: “Hi, I’m Marcelo. I like to come (to Apoyo Escolar). It’s fun; we do homework; Father Pablo is very good; I am 11.”
After introductions, the guests walk around the center and share time with the teachers, volunteers and some 70 children here. The visitors talk, play, help with homework and even dance with the children.
“Where would these children be if this support center were not here?” reflects Deacon Leonel Yoque, a Maryknoll mission promoter who leads the U.S. group. “The center provides a space for them, with food, education and fun after school. I was moved at seeing the joy of these children playing with toys made from recycled materials by Father Sykora. Thanks to this ministry, these children have an opportunity to be children, and they are far from the dangers they may encounter on the streets.”
In the kitchen, volunteer mothers prepare the food that will be shared by all. In addition to volunteering, the parents pay a monthly fee to cover some of the program expenses. In return, the program offers them counseling, thanks to a partnership with a local university, and leadership courses and workshops offered by the Maryknoll Mission Center for Latin America in Cochabamba. Some local businesses give the program small donations of food and other school items.
“The program is flexible and tries to respond to the needs and wishes of children and parents,” explains Father Sykora. “We want to provide a creative atmosphere and not just a place to help with homework.”
With disheveled gray hair and beard and wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a baseball cap and leather jacket, the Maryknoll priest looks like an old rock ‘n’ roller or benevolent and hardworking grandfather who knows how to do everything: carpentry, mechanics, gardening. His office is full of tools, recyclable materials, projects to finish, wooden trolleys on the floor and toy planes hanging from the ceiling.
“I am a big boy, nothing more; I never found a reason to grow up,” says Father Sykora.
“He has made all these toys. He likes to teach the children with recycled things. He is the pillar of this place,” Giovanna Reyes, a facilitator, says. “Father Pablo has an hour with the children, especially with the children who need early stimulation. We call it ‘Father Paul‘s time.’ He receives the children, gives them cookies, milk, plays with them, teaches them new things.”
Reyes, who made her first Communion and confirmation at the Nueva Vera Cruz Chapel, has been a facilitator in the Apoyo Escolar since the program began in 2006. She finds her work rewarding.
“Victor Manuel is an autistic child, who, when he came here, did not know how to say ‘mom’ or ‘dad’,” Reyes says. “He just moved his head to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but now he can communicate with people; he can say names. This year he entered school.”
“Many parents feel so satisfied (with the program) that they recommend others to come here,” Reyes continues, as her voice cracks with emotion. “Many people ask me, ‘What are you doing there?’ I am a professional accountant. I am not a teacher, but I love the work because it is a service for the little ones. I am convinced that if we help them, they can be better people.”
Dulce Tovar, one of the visitors, walks over and hugs Reyes.
Read more about Maryknoll Immersion Trips.
Featured Image: Father Paul Sykora welcomes Dulce Tovar and other visitors to the center for children he runs in Cochabamba. Photo by D. Aquije/Bolivia.