Amistad: The Friendship Mission
by Mark Demler, Amistad Board Member and ministry leader
A once empty home is now again full of life, love, and a family reunited. Casa Esperanza, the Bolivian home supported by Saint Michael and All Angels has recently gone through this significant transition. As they grow and mature, former residences of Casa Esperanza move on to a youth house, continue school, receive job training or go to university. Such is the cycle of life of Amistad—The Friendship Mission.
Recently, Amistad was called to do what this mission has done countless times for over 30 years: activate our mission statement: “To manifest Christ’s love for the poor by helping Bolivian children and families in need.” A guiding principle of Amistad is to unite siblings that have been separated through abandonment. This begins our story with Mathias – 1 year old, Ezequiel – 3, Aylin – 5, Anderson - 6, and Jhair – 8.
Their biological mother and father met each other while homeless on the street at 12 and 13 years old. When they were 15 and 16 years old, they had their first child.
Last December, their five children were taken from them by La Defensoría, and the siblings were split up in two orphanages: San José (Jhair and Anderson) and Salomon Klein (Aylin, Mathias and Ezequiel). Their parents have drinking problems and neglected the children. Their father was in jail for hitting their mother and older children.
In May, the Amistad Mission and Casa Esperanza welcomed these children to their new home and a new Mama – Jimena. An August visit by pilgrims from SMAA found a joyous family learning what it is like to have a loving support system around them. This is what it is like to be a child of Amistad – The Friendship Mission.
Bolivia suffers from the lowest Human Development Index in South America, combination of Health, Education, and Income. 45% of the population lives below the national poverty line. Over 2.5 million Bolivian children suffer from malnutrition, abuse, or abandonment— more than 60% of the entire child population.
These facts contributed to the beginnings of Amistad. In December of 1981, a 44-year-old Trappist Monk named William Wilson made a life-altering decision. After living in cloistered seclusion for his entire adult life, he left his monastery in Iowa to respond to a call from God to live among the poor of Latin America.
Although he embarked on this mission believing he would live a contemplative existence, he soon began to sense that God had a different plan. After two years in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Father William chose a remote and inaccessible slope high in the Andes on which to build a small adobe room where he would seek the Lord’s guidance. Here, in the small village of Aramasí, Father William witnessed the utter destitution of the Quechua natives who filed through his doorway seeking treatment for their many illnesses and diseases.
While he did his best to minister to them, his initial efforts proved to be terribly inadequate. Realizing that God was calling him to action, Father Will contacted a friend in the United States, William "B.J." Weber, for support.
Together these two friends raised the funds to open the area’s first medical clinic and Amistad Mission was created. Since that time, Amistad (which means “friendship” in Spanish) has worked with the people of Aramasí to bring clean drinking water, a medical clinic (now a level one hospital), agricultural development, a Montessori school, a primary school and, most recently, a dam that provides year-round access to water for this drought-stricken village. As the Aramasí community is now largely self-sufficient and the local municipality has assumed responsibility for its medical services, Amistad has decreased our presence and focus is centered in Cochabamba.
In 1990, building on the successes in Aramasí, Amistad Mission expanded its outreach with the creation of Villa Amistad, a home and safe haven for abandoned, abused and orphaned Bolivian children located in the city of Cochabamba.
Beginning with thirty children divided among three houses run by a caretaker affectionately called “Mamá”, Villa Amistad has grown to include eight houses, or families, and more than sixty-five children between the ages of 1 and 16.
In 2004, male and female youth houses were opened near Villa Amistad in order to support our growing teen population. At that same time a vocational training and University program was added. At Amistad, God's children not only come to know the love of a family but also develop integrally through spiritual formation classes, educational teaching, psychological support and medical care.
For over 23 years, Villa Amistad has been a place where children are provided with the support they need to overcome their past and grow into self-sufficient and responsible young adults.
In 2014, Amistad For Families was started to strengthen vulnerable families to prevent child abuse and abandonment. 50% of Bolivian women suffer intimate-partner violence, the highest rate in the Americas. 23% of Bolivian children experience sexual aggression and over 200,000 children in Cochabamba work, often at the expense of an education.
Amistad For Families has addressed these systemic issues and has been recognized by local government as a model of success. Since 2014, over 200 families have been served and 179 parents have completed parenting school (15 sessions). As a result, not a single child of this group has been abandoned to an orphanage.
SAINT MICHAEL'S LEGACY
Since 1999, Saint Michael parishioners have played an integral role in enriching the lives of the children at Amistad. This has been accomplished through visits to Bolivia, active participation in the Prayer Friends Program, SMAA’s donation of previously unaffordable materials for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Program, and Mission and Outreach’s annual partial sponsorship of Casa Esperanza, one of the eight family houses in the Children’s Village.
The long-standing relationship between the children of Amistad and SMAA has grown over the years, and the children of Casa Esperanza affectionately refer to their Dallas friends as “Tío, Tía, Abuela, and Papá” (“Uncle, Aunt, Grandmother, and Father”). This relationship, in turn, has become an important part of the lives of members in the SMAA Prayer Ministry, who actively pray for Amistad and supply prayer partners for the pilgrims while they travel to Bolivia.
As a primary ministry in the Mission & Outreach efforts of Saint Michael, 70 parishioners and clergy have visited Amistad over the years including both adult and youth groups.
Currently, Kelly Reddell and Mark Demler serve on the Amistad U.S. Board of Directors. SMAA parishioners Maria D’Antoni, Richard D’Antoni, Nancy and Barry Crossman, and Todd Foster have also served on the U.S. Board as well as the late Dana Juett—a Board member and Executive Director for more than 8 years.
Sustaining this legacy is important to our Parish and especially important to the Bolivian children in need that are counting on the Amistad Mission to provide a loving, Christian family environment.
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