Most children living in Bogotá’s sewers do not want to leave. They grow accustomed to the waist-deep feces, the stench, the darkness, the water and the rats. As frightening and dangerous as the sewers are, the children feel safe there.
“We take bread and hot chocolate into the sewers so the children will sit down and listen to us while we talk them into leaving with us,” said Alexander Quinche, the lead psychologist for Fundación Niños de los Andes.
The charity began 30 years ago in response to death squads that killed to socially cleanse Bogotá, which has a population of 7.1 million people, of undesirable homeless people and drug addicts. Today, alcoholism, drug addiction, crime and other factors that fuel homelessness and abject poverty for 62,000 people in this sprawling mountain capital city drive some into the stinking, stomach-turning sewers where the children must avoid older impoverished homeless people who prey on them, according to statistics from DANE, a government agency.
Changing the world 800 children at a time requires beds, mattresses, sheets and more. Many of those critical supplies arrived recently when a Bogotá couple now in their eighth year as humanitarian missionaries systematically contacted the city’s charities asking what they needed. Elder Hernán Ostos and Sister Beatriz Alcázar de Ostos forwarded the request for beds to the headquarters of the South America Northwest Area of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Lima, Peru.
“What we receive from the federal government is totally insufficient, so we depend a lot on donations such as the church’s,” Quinche said. “Otherwise, we could not provide proper care or save and re-socialize as many children.”
The missionary couple arranged the donations. Teens from the church’s Young Men and Women organizations in congregations in the Bogotá area took away the foundation’s old, ramshackle bunkbeds and then carried in and put together the ones donated by the church. They also brought blankets, towels, hygiene kits, school supplies and furniture, including desks.
The church makes an oversized contribution in Colombia. Just 1 in 239 Colombians is a member of the church, a total of 205,431. But Latter-day Saint Charities has assisted 1 million Colombians during the past 30 years, including 118,132 children, according to Latter-day Saint Charities. The faith’s leader, President Russell M. Nelson, will arrive here Sunday for a devotional expected to draw more than 10,000 people at Movistar Arena.
At the fulcrum of the church’s giving in the country is Elder Ostos, 79, and Sister Ostos, 71, who evaluate needs and fill requests for equipment and supplies at hospitals and foundations all over Colombia.
Bringing the church’s resources to bear to help save children was a natural.
“They are taking kids off the streets and out of the sewers and delinquency,” Elder Ostos said.
So was helping another foundation in Bogotá, which sits in a vast mountain basin 8,660 feet above sea level. The basin once was home to an ancient lake. Today it is filled with red and earthy-toned brick buildings surrounded by the tops of the eastern splinter of the Andes Mountains. On one bench above the city is La Mariposa, low-income housing painted in brilliant colors and laid out so it appears like a brilliantly painted butterfly above the city.
Another natural outlet for the donations of church members around the world and the humanitarian missionaries is Fundación Niña Maria, or the Little Mary Foundation. Housed in a brown brick building set on stones painted a deep red in the town of Albán outside of Bogotá, Little Mary is home to 235 mentally disabled children, said Maria Victoria, the program coordinator.
“If a person is mentally ill, they are under the protection of family services for the rest of their lives,” she said. “Generally, families don’t know how to manage the mental illness, so many of them abandon them or go to Family Services to ask for help. Family Services sends them to us for protection. Many families never come to see them. We are their family.”
Little Mary runs several workshops intended to help patients make real contributions. On Thursday afternoon, several waded knee deep through 750 hens to feed and water them. Patients do all the work, including collecting eggs twice a day. They eat the eggs in the cafeteria. When hens stop laying, they also become food for the staff and patients.
The children also work in a bakery, a small dairy farm and a sewing workshop. The patients in the sewing workshop have begun to produce lovely, high-quality, hypoallergenic ponchos, shawls, scarves and pillows hand-decorated on the designs of Aura de Garcia, who has worked at the foundation for 11 years. They have launched a startup business, and she pays the patients. She takes them on shopping trips twice a year. They soon will sell their wares on a website, Arte Sanos del Alma, or Art and Health of the Soul.
The building is a former seminary for training priests. The water tanks on the roof, heated by the sun to provide hot water, symbolize the need to economize.
“Our contract with Family Services covers only about 60 percent of what a kid needs,” Victoria said. “The rest of it comes from people like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Few people make donations here like the church does. For us, it’s been very important. To look after 250 kids is not easy. This is very expensive work, and we need donors like the church to succeed.”
Patients range from 9 to 60, but few live long lives because of their conditions or the medications required to treat them. Victoria said one who reaches 35 is an old man at the home. The goal is to help them achieve some measure of social inclusion. For example one man, Camilio, 25, is able to travel off campus to work in a job as a hair dresser and nail polisher. Others are bused to a school. The professional nurses who double as small-group educators teach character values like persistence, respect, honesty, integrity and unity.
Most sleep on beds provided by the church. It also provided many other supplies, including padded pews from meetinghouses that are used in a chapel that doubles as a rest area for staff and a place for patients to watch soccer’s World Cup.
The children in the sewers also live amid garbage that runs down from the surrounding mountainsides with the rainwater.
Saving children from the capital’s sewers began in the 1980s, when the charity’s founder saw a girl with Down syndrome running in the jungle near Colombia’s eastern border with Venezuela. The petroleum engineer took her in, dedicated himself to the plight of the nation’s vulnerable children and launched the organization, which in English is the Children of the Andes Foundation. Today it operates five group homes in Bogotá and two other cities, according to Luis Jimenez, who has worked for the foundation for 12 years.
“Over the years, we have expanded to help children in many vulnerable situations. We take in children with all kinds of problems, from homelessness to drug abuse and sexual abuse. They receive specialized attention and in some of our programs we manage to resocialize up to eight out of 10 of these children.”
The process can last 20 days to years, he said. The girl with Down syndrome is now a woman who was present for a talent show that accompanied the church’s donation to Fundación Niños de los Andes.
“We try to touch their hearts in a high quality environment full of attention,” Quinche said.
Elder and Sister Ostos love the work the foundation does. The couple has been married for 53 years. They joined the church 43 years ago when missionaries approached Hernán Ostos as he waited for a bus. They told him they had a message for him and he invited them to his home later that night.
If they are not the longest-serving missionaries in the church right now, they are among them. Eight years is very unusual for missionary service.
“We like the mission,” said Sister Ostos, 71. “It is very fulfilling. They haven’t released us, so we’re going to work as long as we can.”
The couple are concentrating now on larger efforts — neonatal resuscitation training and providing equipment for mother and newborn wellbeing to midsize hospitals, water wells, vision projects and wheelchair donations.