Visiting Theo Raaijmakers

During our travels of South-America we had the pleasure of meeting Theo Raaijmakers, as well as seeing Raaijmaker’s Amanecer Project firsthand. The first meeting alone bore many stories about the street children he is now helping. Quite hefty indeed! For two months we had been on a rather carefree trip, but here we learnt the harsh realities of Bolivia. The harsh realities that we, as backpack carrying travelers from a safe and fortunate environment, had no knowledge of whatsoever.

8 AM, April 3rd, 2014, we are now at Theo’s school where only the children with the most severe educational problems and disabilities attend. These are children who, without people like Theo Raaijmakers, would never have had a reasonable chance of a decent life in Boliva. They are without security, without shelter; these children get no government assistance, because there simply is no safety net for them. It is an awe-inspiring sight, to see these children laugh with one another, under the supervision of enthusiastic teachers who give them a safe place in their precarious lives.

After visiting the schoolchildren, we headed out onto the Cochabamba streets alongside two members of the Amanecer Project’s team. We stopped at a yet unconstructed sports field. There we approached ten children, whom appear to be living behind a concrete staircase. They looked rather unkempt, sniffing glue, some of them as young as seven years old! We sanitized a wound found on one of the children and gave the others drinkable water. Theo Raaijmakers conversed with them, to motivate the children to not sniff glue any longer. This but one of the many places like this that we came across. We were particularly struck by an instance of a young girl of about 15 years of age whose already six months pregnant. During the day she lays in a small park, and at night she sleep underneath a bridge. For us, this kind of life was unimaginable.

That same day we also visited several shelters, where we saw children playing, laughing, eating as well as studying carefreely. What a contrast! Yet these children are in this shelter for a reason: they are usually casted out by their families, even abused – in fact, some of them have drug histories. We heard stories of suicide attempts, illegal abortions and street violence. Luckily, there were also uplifting stories of street children whom are now dentists, carpenters and painters.

In the evening we visited the night shelter. The children of the sports field had arrived to sleep here in safety. Here they have food and comfortable matrasses to sleep – they are not allowed to sniff glue here. They also get some education; this time it was a short 15-minute lecture on robbery and the possible punishments of committing robbery. Although this story might not be necessary for us, it is a different reality for these children whom sometimes have to stoop to robbery because of a lack of alternatives.

After a day filled with impressions, we take our warm showers, eat some M&M’s, and crawl into a warm, clean bed. Here we realize how much we take our privileges for granted.

The next day we met with Juan Carlos, a former student of Theo Raaijmakers, in the inner city. He was extremely honest with us, as he told us of how he was abandoned by his parents and how he lived with his grandmother until the age of six, at which point he became homeless. He made money on the streets by calling out bus-routes and departure times, which you could not look up in that area of the city. However, Juan Carlos also sometimes had to resort to robbing people. This was in part due to the fact that he had to ‘tribute’ money to the ‘older kids on the street’. These ‘older kids’ would bribe the police, in order to prevent the police from forcing them off of the streets. Theo Raaijmakers found him at 8 years old and gave him shelter. Juan Carlos now has a steady job and a lovely family, for which he credits Theo Raaijmakers’ efforts.

Further along the way, Juan Carlos told us many more stories of Cochabamba, while showing us interesting locations. For example, we visited the local prison, walked through the markets, and the more ‘secret locations’ where people play cards, or the illegal animal market. Not to forget the ‘Chinese Market’, where people fence stolen car radios and people buyback their stolen watches. The police seem to turn a blind eye to all this activity, so protesting the crime rate has little effect.

What a peculiar world. The value of life there seems so much lower than in the Netherlands. Theo Raaijmakers, however, does whatever he can to give the disadvantaged Cochabamba youth a meaningful and fruitful existence. From what we have seen, Raaijmakers is, indeed, very successful in his valiant efforts. Sadly, it is impossible to abolish all of Bolivia’s poverty; that would require larger structural changes. Yet, for these children in Cochabamba, Raaijmakers makes a big difference.

Truly, visiting Cochabamba and seeing the fruit of the Amanecer Project’s labor have been some of the most valuable and memorable moments on our trip. We would like to thank Theo Raaijmakers for the wonderful opportunity, not just for us, but for the children of Cochabamba.

Marlou van de Loo, and Rein van de Wouw