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Latin America Shawn Dispatch


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Home Is Where the Heart Is

Cuzco, Peru
How would you feel if you woke up tomorrow and your family told you that they just did not have enough money to take care of you anymore? In the mountainous city of Cuzco, Peru, there are 6,000 street children, and most of them are not orphans. Their families simply cannot afford to feed and shelter them, so they must live on the streets, begging or hustling to survive. For these children life can be a nightmare, especially here in Cuzco where it is always cold. For many, life is not only hard but also very short. There are almost no social programs in Peru to help disadvantaged children, so there is little hope for kids born into such dire circumstances. However, there are people here doing everything they can to provide not only food and shelter for these kids, but also hope for a future.

Abeja and I met one person that has made a huge difference in the lives of at least a handful of children. Although there are still thousands of kids on the streets in Cuzco, there is not only food on the table and a warm place to sleep, but a family and a loving home for at least the twelve that have been taken in by Jolanda van den Berg. Jolanda, who is from Denmark, first came to Cuzco on vacation and was deeply disturbed by the horrible living conditions of so many children here. She was so moved by this situation that she quit her job and moved here to do whatever she could to help. When she arrived three years ago, she started taking kids off the street to live with her, and now she has her hands full with a family of twelve, and a hotel to run. She opened the Niños Hotel as a way to raise funds to support her new family, and also to raise the awareness of visitors here about this problem.

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Abeja, Jolanda, and I inside the Niños Hotel.
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When Jolanda arrived in 1996, she had a vision of helping the children of Cuzco, but she did not have a place to live and didn't speak Spanish. She moved into a clinic and began taking kids in one by one and started studying Spanish so she could communicate with them. She began raising money by asking friends and family back home to donate $5 a month, and found that many were willing but it was not enough money to realize her vision. So she began to think of ways to raise money. Since Cuzco is the tourist capital of South America, a hotel seemed like a good idea, and she began to raise money to buy one. She was surprised at how fast she was able to raise money and in January of last year, she bought a hotel and began renovations. By July, she was able to open and her first guests started arriving. Now the hotel is full and she has to turn people away.

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Living in luxury at the Niños Hotel!
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Although she finds her new family life extremely rewarding, it certainly has its problems. Running a hotel and being the single mother of twelve both seem as if they would be stressful enough by themselves, but doing both at the same time seems almost impossible. Some people in the community here have been skeptical of this project, thinking that she has some ulterior motives, such as using the kids for labor. Some people even thought that she actually wanted to sell them. The kids themselves, although for the most part well behaved, have the problems you would expect from children with such difficult backgrounds, such as violent tempers, drug and alcohol abuse, and emotional problems related to sexual abuse. With all of these factors, we had to ask if it all wasn't a little overwhelming. Jolanda, however, brushes off such questions with a smile, and simply says, "We are a real family."

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"We are a real family," says Jolanda about Jose and the rest of her "children".
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Since the kids are not really siblings, Jolanda decided to take in only boys to avoid further problems of relationships in the house. She originally had wanted to teach the kids about the hotel industry, but has found that there isn't enough time between school and karate lessons. Furthermore, she did not want to fuel the rumors that she was just using children for work. All twelve of the boys are enrolled in karate, which has really helped to boost their confidence, and they attend the Puklasunchis School, which is a private Swiss school here in Cuzco that allows parents to pay for their children's education on a sliding scale according to income. The profits from the hotel go towards supporting the kids, and each of the twelve boys has a room named after him with his picture painted on the wall inside. This is to remind the guests that they are helping the community while they enjoy their vacation.

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Jolanda, Jose, and I hang out in the beautiful hotel courtyard.
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You would think that with all this Jolanda would have enough to keep her busy, but in her tireless efforts to better the lives of street children, she has two more projects planned. Soon, she will open a restaurant for children that will serve 100 free meals a day to kids with nowhere else to eat. Some of these kids will also be able to attend programs at the Puklasunchis School. She also wants to open a bakery that will help raise money for this cause. Both Abeja and I left our meeting with Jolanda feeling inspired and in awe of just what a difference she is making. You can find out more about the Niños Hotel by checking out the website and you can write to them at ninos@correo.dnet.com.pe.

Shawn
 

Kavitha - A Clean Slate
Kevin - Working for a Living
Monica - She's at the CO-pa, CopacaBAAAANAAA!
Abeja - Guardian Angels
Making A Difference - Debt, Debt and More Debt!
 
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