Home Sweet Home

We’ve been back in the USA for just over 2 months now.  It has stopped feeling ‘new’ and started feeling normal again.  We’ve been keeping busy.  The first week back we had two objectives: cellphone and car.  The two most basic things that are necessary to re-enter US society.  After that, Christmas celebrations began and we got swallowed up into family gatherings and traveling.  That continued until Jan. 7th when we were spit out into the world of unemployment and the unrelenting question, “now what?”  I texted my friend that day and said, “today I mentally arrived back to the US.”  She said, “Welcome mentally home.”

That first month I mostly felt a sense of loss, a feeling echoed by this other previous volunteer who worked in an orphanage in Peru.  You don’t want to let go of the people that you still love that are so far away, but you have to let go a little bit to be able to accept it and move forward.  Every time I went shopping after Christmas I found myself just thinking about how much the girls at the Hogar would like everything I saw.  I ended up buying some things and sending care packages to the Hogar.  I realized later that I sent the packages less because they really needed the stuff, and more because it made me still feel connected to them.

In the second month, I am still grieving but don’t find it so crippling.  I can now talk about the girls and our experiences without crying.  And we’re looking forward to the future.   Tom has received a job offer from Boeing to return to similar work as what he was doing when we left, and he will start work the last week of February.  I have signed up for a teacher-certification program to be certified in the state of Missouri to teach high school biology.  While I study, I will subsitute teach and apply for positions to start in the fall.  So our list of achievements is getting longer:  cellphone, car and now, job.  Next month on the agenda is housing.  We are currently leaning on the hospitality of my parents in St. Louis until we can work out the fate of the house we own which has been rented while we were away.

An interesting product of the reverse culture shock that we’ve both experienced is a desire for safety and making conservative choices.  What I mean is that before, when we were both tired of the ho-hum status quo, we were excited about shaking things up and undertaking this big Bolivia adventure.  Now we feel like going to the grocery store is adventurous and that we want a stable and predictable life.  How long this feeling will continue before we get bored again, I don’t know.  Or maybe this is the new norm, it makes me feel old though.

Overall, life is good.  When people ask “how was Bolivia?”  We answer, “challenging but a good experience.  We are glad we did it, and glad we survived it.”

Leaving Montero

Leaving Montero was bittersweet.  While we were looking forward to seeing family and friends after so long an absence, it’s heart-wrenching to say goodbye to so many new friends when our return is uncertain. 

The Sisters were very sweet and thanked us multiple times for our service.  We stayed for Madre Clara’s 25th anniversary of her vows on Saturday, Dec. 8.  It was a beautiful celebration of the huge contribution Madre Clara has made and the sisters took advantage of the ocasion to give us a public thank you. You can see some pictures of our last days on their blog: http://sscjbolivia.blogspot.com/  Scroll down to ‘Bodas de Plata’

Sunday night we went around the Hogar and gave all the girls a hug goodbye.  Then the Sisters had a despedida (going-away party) for us in the convent with dancing and a nice dinner.  On Monday, Madre Rosario arranged for the Hogar bus to take us to the airport so that a leaving party of about 20 girls could accompany us.  The girls were very excited to help carry our bags.

Tom’s backpack was so heavy we had Ofelia and Alejandra carry it together.

They all got in line with us for the flight and apparently caused such  disturbance that they moved us up to the first-class line just to get us out of the line faster.  :)   Then we had to go up the escalator to the waiting area which is always hilarious with Hogar girls since they don’t have enough experience with escalators to know how to step on them.  They hover around watching other people do it trying to work up the courage until airport staff come and make them use the stairs.  We went up to the observation deck since we had time to kill and found one of these huge water bugs up there.

Then it was time to go through security and we had to actually say goodbye.  The girls sang to us “Les damos las muchas gracias”  “We give you many thanks” and I cried a lot.

The send-off party

Then as we were sitting inside after security and customs (and the usual pat-down for drugs) I started feeling sick and well, you know the end to that story.

Arrived safely!

We arrived in St. Louis just past midnight with no problems, no bags lost and mostly healthy.  It appears Bolivia gave us both the stomach flu as a parting gift.  One of the hazards of hugging 100 beautiful little girls goodbye.  Nothing some sleep and clear fluids can’t fix though.  Pics to come… (of the parting, not the stomach flu)


The End is Here

We are now in our last days in Bolivia.  We’ve had a whirlwind last two months, finishing up the school year, celebrating Thanksgiving, doing three god-daughter’s birthday parties and traveling for a week in Argentina.  Now we’re just packing up our bags, celebrating Madre Clara’s 25th anniversary of her religious vows, and getting on the plane.

At 10pm on Monday, December 10th we land in St. Louis and officially end our time as volunteers/missionaries.  It’s been an amazing two years, amazingly difficult and amazingly rewarding.  Since we want to enjoy the last of our time here as much as possible we haven’t been and won’t be updating the blog until we’re settled stateside.  But we promise between now and Christmas to catch you up on all the adventures and fun times we’ve had in November and December.  Thank you for reading our blog, please stay-tuned also for post-service reflections.  We’ve been told the deepest of the reverse culture shock doesn’t hit until 6 months back so check back in June if you’d like to hear how that’s going.  Off to pack, see you all in the US of A!

Happy Thanksgiving!

We just celebrated volunteer Thanksgiving this weekend in Montero.  We had a great turn out; all the current volunteers came plus some new friends.  In total we had 21 people, 2 turkeys, 3 cans of cranberry sauce, 2 pumpkin pies and all the fixings.  Everyone chipped in to make something and/or import something from the US to help make it a success.

Here is a portion of the group with the spread:

Left to right: Monica, Christy, Lorena, Michelle, Tania, Vivian, Judy, Eliana, Me, Tom

And everyone stayed until Sunday so we had lots of time to chat and catch up.  Here’s a picture of all the current salesian volunteers in Bolivia, right before we started saying our goodbyes.

Left to Right, Front to Back:  Katie, Lainie, Maggie, (2nd row) Lorena, Vivian, Tania, Stephanie, Christy, Me, Monica, Eliana, Monica, (3rd row) Judy, Michelle, Tom, Marcos

This was our third Bolivian Thanksgiving and certainly was a time for us to sit back and reflect on how many, many things we are thankful for from this experience.  Thank you to all of our friends and family back home who have supported us while we’ve been here.  Thank you to the Salesians who matched us up with the sisters in Montero and have provided spiritual support.  Thank you to the Sacred Heart Sisters who really took us under their wing and helped us feel welcome.  Thank you to our community of fellow volunteers that have provided emotional support and sanity over the past two years.  Thank you to the many people that have been patient with us while we learned a new language and new culture.  And thank you to God for the many blessings we’ve received through this experience, for picking us up when we fall and forgiving us when we fail.

Bolivian Census

Eerily quiet night followed by a peaceful morning.  Bolivian Census Day.

“For a 24 hour period, starting at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, November 21, all non-emergency offices and businesses have been ordered to remain closed, and individuals instructed to remain at home and await the census taker.  No pedestrians, private vehicles, or public transportation will be allowed on the roads without prior authorization (i.e., a special permit) from the National Institute of Statistics and violators will be fined.”

Today we were counted in the Bolivian census, taken every 10 years.  The questions were pretty routine, where were you born, what do you do, your education level, how many children do you have.  The only unsettling question was how many children have you given birth to that have died.  The guy expected a number and asked twice to confirm it was zero.

It was interesting to see the whole country on lock-down.  We don’t have a TV but I imagine there wasn’t even news today because the news broadcasters had to be in their homes to be counted also.  It’s like we were all just on pause for 24 hours.  I don’t know about the rest of Bolivia, but I used the time to do a really good cleaning of the house.


The joys and sorrows of having a God-daughter #2

Our second God-daughter is Angie (name changed).  She was baptized this past June.  She’s an extremely bright child, although a little timid at first, but we had a lot of fun getting to know her.  She is very verbal and in Kinder was already reading and writing like a second-grader.  Her father always told us he had big plans of her being a doctor and possibly going to the U.S. and clearly wanted us to have some part in that.  Not making any promises, I thought to myself, I’d be happy to help such a bright child succeed in life.

We had lunch with her and her parents a few times and helped host a small party after her baptism.  The father was currently working as a barber but had worked as a grade school teacher in the past.  The mom was taking beauty classes at our Institute and working in the home.  The mother was a little hard to get know, however, as she is deaf in one ear and hearing-impaired in the other.  She often didn’t understand what I said even if I tried yelling.  She had no hearing aid, and according to the father she didn’t want to use one. Knowing that people here a little shy sometimes about seeking medical attention, I just accepted it.  Everything was going well until her mom said she was going home to visit her family for a week over winter break.  It seemed odd that the daughter would stay with her father for a week instead of traveling with the mom to visit family, particularly in this culture, but the father insisted Angie did not want to go.

In Montero, the three of them lived in a rented room that was bed, table and kitchen all together.

The mom’s return date got delayed and apparently the father got overwhelmed with working full-time and taking care of a 6-year-old, so he called us up and asked if Angie could stay with us for a few days.  We said sure and brought her over to our house on Friday after school.  She went to church with me, had dinner with us and I set up the spare bedroom for her to sleep in.  I thought she might like having her own room for the first time but she spent most of the night crying.  I tried warm milk, stories, laying next to her but it turned out to be a long night for both of us.  The next day Madre Inez just happened to mention to me that she wants to talk to the husband of the Institute student who’s hard of hearing.  I said, well I have his daughter here with me and he’ll be by tomorrow to get her.

Madre Inez had heard from Angie’s mom that the husband was physically abusive and had made her stop going to her classes since he said she, “couldn’t do anything well.”  Madre Inez asked Angie a few questions and her responses pretty much confirmed the domestic problems.  She told about how the mom has other children down where her family lives and that Angie had wanted to go with her mom but the dad didn’t allow it.  She told about how the dad will hit the mom whenever she does something wrong.  Even if it’s just that she’s made food for lunch he doesn’t like.  It painted the story of a controlling, abusive husband and we began rethinking everything we knew about him so far.

After this Angie went home to her dad and the mom came back in town but a week later she and Angie skip town.  The dad is distraught and comes to the kinder saying the mom has carried Angie off to the country and won’t let her finish school.  Madre Inez and I finally get down to brass tax with the dad and ask him why he hits his wife and he why he thinks any woman should stay with him.  The dad goes down to try to talk the mom into coming back with Angie but they just go deeper into the country to avoid him.  This is a very rural part of the country with few roads and no electricity.  The mom grew up in this region so she has family members that are helping them.  The dad tries legal means to force the mom to come back but that leads to us getting a call from the office of child and family services.  They inform us that the father is a fugitive from the law and is accused of sexual abuse.

Obviously with this news any attempt on our end to put up with the father ended.  He has come to the Kinder a few times asking for Angie’s report card and official papers but Madre Clara told him we’re not dealing with him anymore.  He gave us some phone numbers to try contacting the mom’s family but they haven’t returned our calls.  The problem is that without the correct papers, Angie won’t be able to enroll for first grade.  But we only want to give those papers to the mother.

As god-parents, we’ve pretty much given up hope of regaining contact with Angie, but we’ll always keep her in our prayers.

The joys and sorrows of having a God-daughter

Our first God-daughter in Bolivia, Maria del Carmen (7) from the Hogar, was baptized just two months after we got here.  She was 5 at the time.  Our Spanish was still rough and communication was awkward at first, but now two years later we have a strong relationship with her.  We see her every Sunday and often bring her gifts of toothpaste, socks, whatever she needs.  I also spend an hour every Sunday reading with her to help get her up to grade level.

Carmen has two sisters, Ana Paola (11) and Saray (5).  Naturally as we started doing things for Carmen like birthday parties or special gifts we would try to include the sisters also whenever possible.  Over time we also started to get know their family.  Their mom would come to visit when she wasn’t working in Argentina.  I sat down multiple times and chatted with her about how the girls were doing.  She was always very emphatic about them getting a good education as she herself was uneducated and had suffered in life because of this.  Their father had abandoned them but we ran into him one Day of the Dead during mass at the cemetery.  He said hi and gave the girls a few coins.  Only the oldest, Ana Paola, really recognized him.  We have also met their aunts when they stop by church to buy the girls snacks on Sundays that the mom was out of town.

Ana Paola and Carmen with their mom at this year’s stations of the cross

The girls talked frequently about the day when they would leave the hogar and get to live in their house again with their mom.   We had already told her that we wanted to swap numbers and stay in contact with her in case she did take them out of the hogar after we left Bolivia.

Then on Friday October 26th their mom died suddenly of a heart attack.  She was probably 32-35 years old.  She had had tuberculosis but beyond that she didn’t have any major health issues of which I was familiar.  She worked as a cleaning lady at a local medical clinic and died while at work.  Apparently the doctors couldn’t save her, although my previous experience with that clinic has been so dismal I hate to say I wasn’t surprised.

Since then, we have tried to step it up a bit being there for all three of the girls.  Their extended family has very much stayed active in their lives also.  On this years Day of the Dead, all the aunts and uncles came to visit the girls and Tom and I got a chance to talk more concretely with them about the girls future.  They also are vehement about the girls staying in the hogar and getting an education.  We traded numbers with them and  promised to try to stay in contact.

Here we are with all three sisters this past Saturday celebrating Ana Paola’s birthday

New Tour Video

Its been a long time since we’ve given you a tour of where we live and work here in Montero, and a lot has changed. We’re especially grateful for all the new things we’ve been able to do thanks to all the generous contributions.  Thank you!

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World Mission Sunday

Tomorrow (October 21) is the annual World Mission Sunday for the catholic church all around the world. As such, we thought it would be a great idea to give all of our blog readers an update on how things are going at our mission site.


The end of our school year is coming quickly; in Bolivia the school year runs Feb – Nov. The kindergarten finishes up classes the first week of November and then has graduation November 13th. Laura has had another very successful year teaching computer class at the kindergarten for the ~300 students each week. This year they have learned the basic parts of the computer, how to move the mouse, click, double click, and drag (while also learning to identify letters, numbers, countries, and other kinder-level activities), and where the keys are on the keyboard.

My (Tom) multimedia class has just started its last section of the semester, video editing, after already completing the photo, graphics, and audio editing sections. This semester the class was popular enough to fill up all the slots, so it was extra busy with making sure all the students were getting enough attention. Looking back, this course has been a great success with several dozen students having completed the grueling five month course. (5 days per week, 2hr per day)

Also at the Institute, Laura is finishing up with her second set of students for the year-long English course. The students leave the class with basic conversational abilities as well as reading, writing and listening skills. Besides the students learning her midwestern accent, Laura makes an effort expose the students to different English accents by bringing in other native english speakers from around the U.S. as well as the U.K.  Most of her students will either be teaching English themselves someday or using their English to work in industry, technical services or international business.

Youth Group

In leading the Infancia Missionera group (roughly translated to child/young missionaries), Laura is helping children from the neighborhood to learn that everyone is called to be a missionary and bring Christ’s love to those in their communities.  Each week she has around 20 children 6-12 yrs old that meet for an hour to sing, play, color and learn about how to be a good person.


Though we don’t have any official responsibilities at the hogar (girls home), the girls there are never very far from our thoughts. On Sundays we each walk one or two girls to mass and sit with them through the service. Laura has also been running a “Venta de Valores” (Store of Values) where the girls receive tickets for showing good values: helping out, being truthful, etc, that can be exchanged for small items like jewlery, kleenex packets, or shampoo. In addition, Laura has been spending an hour each week with our god-daughter Carmen helping her learn to read.


The best news we’ve gotten in the last couple months is that we are getting replaced!  The two new missionaries that the Salesians sent down arrived in August and September and we’re working hard to get them up to speed on everything.

Support Us!

We’re so grateful for all the support we’ve received from family and friends back home. We wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of what we have accomplished without  your support!

As we get set to leave here, we are especially looking at ways to keep the work that we’ve started going even after we leave. For the class that I started, we would really like to get a Bolivian teacher to start teaching it, so that it isn’t dependent on volunteers continuously working here. To make this happen, we would like to raise part of the salary for the teacher for the first year, so that the sisters have some time to budget in this new position. If we can hire someone in the next month, then I will be able to work with her (she’s a former student of mine) to hand off some of the behind-the-scenes stuff.

We are also hoping to raise some money for continuing maintenance for the computer labs. My lab gets used heavily and every semester I usually have to replace a part or two. Laura’s computer lab in the kindergarten doesn’t have to do any heavy-duty computation, but half the computers are 10+ years old and frequently die, we have a goal of replacing a few each year, so that there are always enough working that each of the students in a class (~30) can use their own.

If you would like to donate to support these efforts, please see the ‘Donations’ link at the top of the page or click here. If you want to send a tax-deductible donation to the sisters, please send us an e-mail at the same time, so we can make sure that your donation gets routed correctly.

Finally, please keep us, our students, and the people of our community in your prayers. The people here can use all that they can get, and we have a big transition coming up with our move back to the states.

Want to hear more?

The other part of our mission that we took on when we came down here, aside from serving the people here, was to show what life was like in a developing nation (hence we have this blog!). When we get back, we would love to talk to families, church groups, school classes, etc about our experiences. If you know of a group that would like to hear from us, let us know and we can set something up (teeks99@yahoo.com 314-266-8359).