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The golden children: Bolivian orphanage fosters international bond with Western North Carolina

coverIt’s 6:30 in the morning when 24 hours of travel ends with the plane’s landing in Bolivia, but even through the grogginess it’s not hard to see that we’ve arrived somewhere far, far away from Miami. Snow-crested mountains rise over the outstretched plateau. Drivers crowd the security exit, shouting “Taxi?! Taxi?!” At 13,323 feet above sea level, the air is thin and dry, with any activity more strenuous than a walk on flat ground leaving you gasping for breath.

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But the trek wasn’t over. From La Paz we were headed to a children’s home in Tacachia, a town so tiny it doesn’t even show up on Google Maps. Getting there would involve a day of altitude adjustment in La Paz, three hours in a Jeep traversing 15 miles of steep and skinny dirt roads and reconciliation with the fact that the village’s lack of running water would mean outhouses and no showers for the next four days.

“It’s not an easy place to get to,” Kory Wawanaca Children’s Home founder Carrie Blackburn Brown rightly said. 

But despite the village’s remoteness, fingers of American influence gestured that others had been here before us. The kids, 14 of them aged 7 to 11, proudly spout off the scanty English they’ve picked up from other volunteer groups. They wear clothes featuring Star Wars, Winnie the Pooh and Tinker Bell. Little Iker, 8, can frequently be heard singing Justin Bieber: “Baby, baby, baby oh.” 

In homes throughout this village of 100 people, Brown tells me, bars made by Hazelwood Soap Company might still be  keeping kids clean. The Waynesville Rotary Club brought them down during a mission trip a few years ago.

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“We all want connection with each other, and for some reason Waynesville, North Carolina, and Tacachia, Bolivia, have been connected,” Brown said. “There is a connection, and why not take advantage of a connection?”

The connection didn’t just come about spontaneously, of course. It happened because, just about 10 years ago, Brown, of Waynesville, started building a children’s home in Tacachia. Shortly afterward, they constructed a second one in La Paz for their teenage charges. 

 

Proving the commitment 

The kids who live at Kory Wawanaca — the name means “golden children” in the indigenous Aymaran language — are there because of court order. Maybe their parents are dead. Maybe there has been physical or sexual abuse in the home. Maybe their parents simply can’t afford to take care of them. There are a lot of reasons a kid might end up there, but they all involve some kind of trauma. 

In Bolivia, there’s not a lot of help out there for kids without a home. There’s no foster system — in fact, in the cultural context of Bolivia, with its poverty and high child labor rate, Brown believes such a thing would be dangerous — and the state-run orphanages are basically holding tanks to provide food and shelter rather than homes to prepare children for a future. Regulations make international adoption nigh impossible, so privately run homes like Kory Wawanaca are pretty much the only way to help kids whose parents can’t take care of them. 

The problem is, Bolivians tend to have an inherent mistrust of foreigners working in their country, said Victor Quispe Ballesteros, a Bolivian tour guide with an excellent command of English who has worked with Brown since her first volunteer trip to the country. 

“The Bolivian people, they believe a lot in foreigners, but just for money,” Quispe said. “If somebody would want to work here, no. This is very difficult to believe.” 

It took some doing for Brown to convince people there — in both the church and the government — that she was in it for the long haul when starting the home as a young, single woman. Now the married mother of two with twins on the way, Brown’s life situation has changed, but her commitment to Bolivia hasn’t. Kids in tow, Brown, 34, still spends months out of every year in the country, working with volunteer groups and liberally dispersing hugs to the kids. 

Kory Wawanaca is a place bent on proving that the commitment is real. That purpose extends beyond Brown.  

“I think part of coming here the first time was realizing I just need to be there,” said Amy Jicha, a Waynesville native who made her second volunteer trip to the home this spring. “I need to be available and fun and loving and accept whatever hug is coming my way. Even passively being available makes a huge difference.”

 

A new chain

Every bit of presence adds up toward the larger goal of restoring the innocence and self-confidence that life has tried to steal from the kids at the home. They live like brothers and sisters, attending the village school together — Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. — and they spend lots of time outside hiking, playing in the river and working in the garden. Crime is rare in this remote and tight-knit community, as are the destructive influences found in the city. 

Every year, six or seven volunteer groups come through, the lion’s share from North Carolina. They’ve done a lot of the construction work in the homes, facilities that kids and staff use every day. But Brown is quick to say that their personal impact on the kids is just as, if not more, important. 

“They understand you don’t know them from anybody, and they’re like, ‘Why do you care?’” Brown said. “They feel that love. And these kids, who their own mothers should have felt that way about them, a back has been turned on them, so they need that extra feeling of love. So much has been taken away from them.”

Juan Quenta, 8, agrees. He likes it when the volunteers come, he said, because they make him smile. 

“I like to see the volunteers, because when I see them, I feel happy,” agreed Rosi Caravallo, 9. 

“It’s like having relatives come visit,” said Brown, known to the kids as “Mama Carolina.” “It’s fun. You might get to go for ice cream that you don’t go for on a normal basis. You might get to play a game you don’t usually play with Mom.” 

But the kids take in the attitude of the volunteer groups, too. Most notably, Brown remembers, last Christmas the teens came to her asking to forgo any Christmas presents coming their way so they could give Christmas to children in one of the poor neighborhoods of La Paz. And watching them “give Christmas,” she said, was like watching mini versions of her volunteer groups. The kids played the same games, interacted with the community in the same way as the Americans who’d come to serve them time and time again. 

“We’re creating a new chain,” she said. “We’re breaking the chain of abandonment and abuse and we’re creating a new chain of volunteerism and servanthood and love.”

 

International service, local impact 

All important things, but why go to Bolivia when there are plenty of hurting kids a lot closer to home? 

For one thing, Brown said, it’s important to realize that all poverty isn’t the same. In Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, the per capita income was $2,870 in 2014, according to the World Bank, compared to $53,000 in the U.S. 

That means that poverty in Bolivia is generally more severe than poverty in America, but it also means that a donated dollar stretches further there. Kory Wawanaca’s yearly budget is about $175,000, covering everything from salaries to facilities to food to travel — and the organization provides a home for 25 kids. 

But it’s also true that service abroad and service at home are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they often go hand in hand.

“There are people on the side of the streets here that are just like people on the side of the streets back home, but because this (Bolivia) is out of the norm for me, I’m hyper-aware of my surroundings, and I see it very clearly,” said Eliza Sease, of Waynesville, at the end of her third mission trip to Bolivia. “When I go home, it’s like it smacks me in the face again.”

Jicha agrees. But she also points out that spending time in Tacachia reinvigorates her professionally. A domestic violence investigator in Haywood County, she said it’s sometimes easy to get discouraged, to look at a dysfunctional home situation and dismiss any hope for the future based on the overwhelming odds against a happy ending. 

“I think this is a microcosmic way of looking at how investing in a person and sustaining that can actually change their life,” she said. 

It can change a whole church community, too. It’s done that for Waynesville First United Methodist, where Brown goes, and it’s also done that for Pine Forest United Methodist Church in Wilkesboro, where Kory Wawanaca’s board chair Frank Farrell attends. 

“Our church was a very inward-focused church prior to coming here,” Farrell said. “I think one of the byproducts of being involved in Kory Wawanaca is we got more involved in mission work both locally and internationally.”

 

Telling the story

Brown’s certainly changed her mind about short-term missions since starting the home, she said, admitting that once upon a time she would rather have collected the money that would have gone toward airfare and accommodations than had groups come over. But these days, that’s the furthest thing from the truth, and not only because of the personal impact volunteers have on her kids. 

 “There are a million gazillion wonderful causes out there, but why do we give to what we give to? Because there’s some kind of connection,” she said. 

Coming to Tacachia provides that connection. Former volunteers are her biggest donor base, her most enthusiastic cheerleaders. They’re the reason she’s able to meet her budget every year. 

They also tell the story to others.

“My mom loves Kory Wawanaca and has never been here,” Sease said, but she talks about the home so much her mother feels like part of the community. “You can’t go here and not be excited about it and not talk about it.”

Eric Follie, a high school teacher who attends FUMC, is another one of those supporters who’s never seen Bolivia. He grew up with Brown, and as a military vet he’s witnessed what life can be like in poor countries. So, when Brown launched a child sponsorship program five years ago, he and his family took on 8-year-old Jonatan, who is now 13. They send a check every month, and his kids, 8 and 10, write letters back and forth. He hopes to one day send his kids to Bolivia to meet their pen pal. 

“I think it’s neat to be part of this young man’s life, even if it’s just financially and in letters every now and then and Christmas and birthday gifts,” he said. “I think it’s important. We’re so blessed here it’s a good thing to be able to share that around.” 

And because of Carrie and the Waynesville-Tacachia pipeline, to Follie it feels more like supporting a local ministry than funding a far-off international project. 

“I think it’s important to realize the world is a big place,” he said. 

 

Furthering the bond

Siblings Mari and Ariel Chambi are just beginning to realize how big it is. They’re spending the summer in Waynesville, their first-ever venture beyond the border of their native Bolivia. She was pretty nervous, Mari said, about the plane ride and three-month removal from the familiarity of language and food and family, but she was never scared. Because while America is a foreign land for the Chambis, who are staying with the Brown family, this little corner of it also has little pockets of home. 

“When we’re in the house, it’s like we’re with family and in Bolivia,” Mari said in Spanish. “Everything is calm, everything is normal. But when we leave the house, we’re in Waynesville.”

And Waynesville is definitely different than both La Paz and Tacachia for more reasons than the frequent rain and lush vegetation. Drivers are respectful and will actually wave you across the road rather than nearly running you over. Everything is more organized, and people follow the rules. Doors stay unlocked, and possessions remain in place. The manners are different, too. For example, in Bolivia the polite thing to do is to say “gracias” to each person at the table before leaving — to which they must reply “provecho” — but here people wander away without saying anything. 

“It’s a big difference,” Ariel said, but on the whole, Mari said, Waynesville is “much better than I imagined.”

Mari and Ariel have been working with the home since 2010, after the Methodist church sent their father Germán on a two-year preaching assignment to the Tacachia area. Since then, Kory Wawanaca has become part of the family identity. It’s what they talk about around the dinner table. It’s where they spend their free time. 

“My family’s life has changed a lot,” Ariel said, since their introduction to Kory Wawanaca. Germán is now the home’s executive director. Ariel, 24, had wanted to be a pastor, but he now hopes to stay in Tacachia rather than traveling where the church directs. Mari, 22, is a psychology student who hopes to eventually work with the home too. 

In the U.S., they’re interning with FUMC, hoping to learn something about church organization that they can take back home. But they’re also here in response to a mounting curiosity about this place that all the volunteers to Kory Wawanaca would talk about — and a desire to further the bond between the two places. 

“Someone who hasn’t seen my country can’t understand me like you can,” Mari explained. “If I go to your country, I can understand you.”

 

More than money

The link between the two places is about a lot more than money. It’s about making the theory of international family and a borderless body of Christ a reality, Brown said. As Kory Wawanaca’s kids start graduating from high school, she’d love to give them all a chance to come to the U.S. and see the place that’s been part of their lives for so long. 

“I say I wish I could just win the lottery and I’d never have to fundraise again,” Brown said, “but if I never had to fundraise again then there’d be no reason to keep people a part of it and connect it. 

“I think one of the greatest treasures we have is the connection.”

After all, it’s because of that connection that Kory Wawanaca even exists. 

“When I was starting this, it was people from Waynesville and Asheville who said, ‘You should do this and we’re behind you,’ so I feel like it is their home,” Brown said. “They were there from the beginning.”

Bolivia has seen tons of ministries and non-profits open their doors there over the years, but most of those go defunct within a few years when funding to operate the new buildings runs out. Were it not for the individual donors and churches that support it, that would be Kory Wawanaca, because the home gets nothing from the Bolivian government or the United Methodist Church as a whole. 

It is the volunteers who have hugged kids, hauled rocks, mixed cement and mailed checks who will ensure the home remains to give generations more of helpless children a home and a future. 

“I feel like we were just taking seriously what all of our mentors in Waynesville told us all these years,” Brown said of herself and her husband, “so now it’s your responsibility to take care of this home, because it’s your ‘fault’ that we have a children’s home here.” 

 

Eat a pig, help a kid

Kory Wawanaca’s biggest fundraiser of the year, a pig-pickin’ barbeque event called Hog Wars, will be held in Waynesville this year on Saturday, Sept. 19. 

The day will include bluegrass music, a chance to learn about the home and, of course, plenty of meat pitting eastern-style barbeque against western at the event, to be held at the First United Methodist Church of Waynesville. The goal is to raise $30,000 to support the home over the coming year. 

Sponsors sought. Carrie Brown, 828.231.8661 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. www.kwchildren.com.

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