About a little girl I met in Bolivia and the trust she asked of me
It was January 1993 in Cochabamba, Bolivia at an orphanage
sponsored by numerous churches in Alabama and across the country.
I remember trying to read the spanish newspaper in my
limited Spanish reading ability and I was more prepared than most of
my friends as I could at least read a little Spanish. That was what I
thought until we arrived in the big city of Cochabamba. I was 17 and
it was my first time out of my country. Having a few years of Spanish
in high school might have prepared me for most towns in South America
but in Cochebamba, most of those we met knew about as much Spanish
as I did. They spoke a very different Quechuan indian dialect.
I arrived at the orphanage along with 20 others in my college group.
What amazed me the most about this orphanage was its similarity to
group homes in the US, at least the ones I'd seen in Alabama. Each
house had about 6 children of different ages and genders, just like real
families with one or two houseparents (called Mama's). Outside
volunteers would come to the home on a regular basis and were called
Tia's or Tio's (aunts and uncles). The children were amazing. One
still stands out because she taught me about trust and about the
importance of gaining and keeping the trust of a child.
This particular girl was about 8 years old. She was like a little spirit,
so quiet and hard to catch. I never saw her smile and it was a good
two weeks before I she even came over to me and sat next to me, not
talking, she just sat. Like the others, I wore a zippered pouch around
my waist for sunscreen, film, etc. As we stood to say goodbye for
the day, she ran up to me, unzipped my little pouch, and placed
something inside. I couldn't tell what but she zipped it back, looked
right into my eyes and ran off. We had to get on the bus to go back
to our rooms at a La Morada, a church afiliated mission house.
That night, I finally peeked inside the pouch and found a part of a cookie
and a small piece of cake minus the icing. The orphanage had its
monthly birthday party earlier in the day which is where she got the
cake and cookies. This was not a regular meal for the children so
this was a rare possession for her to have offered to me. I had no
idea what this was all about but I left it there, just in case she
checked again to see if I still had it.
I asked around the next day and found out more about this little girl.
It was said that she was used by her family to steal food when she
was maybe 3 years old and since coming to the home, she was
known to hoard food in her chest of drawers, under her bed, and
in other places. I decided that I wouldn't take out what she put
there for anything. She would have to be the one to remove it.
We had another week left there and each day, here came Amalia
flitting from behind a building to behind me and then to right in
front of me. Soundlessly, she unzipped the pouch, looked in,
and zipped it back. She would look at me each time, give what
ooked like a very faint and hesitant smile, and run off again.
Other children would come to us, climb on our shoulders, and
interact with us but not Amalia. She had her own ways of
By the last day of the time we had in Bolivia, we were sitting
around in a circle watching the director and the other houseparents
perform a traditional Quechuan dance when Amalia scooted from
her spot a few people to the left of me and climbed in my lap.
She sat and watched the show and I let her just sit there quietly,
afraid to move a muscle lest it scare her off.
Just before we sat, though, she had come back to me to check and
again, she found the tiny stale piece of cake and cookie. I thought I actually
detected a smile on her face. While she sat there in my lap, I
was reminded of cats that, if they actually decided to grace you
with their presence, you appreciated their attention so much
more for the rarety. I was honored to be chosen by her to keep
something of hers safe.
I was sad to leave the children, particularly 3 year old Freddy and
his funny sayings like "dame lintes" (give me the sunglasses)
or "dame chicletas" (give me gum). I would miss the house
parents' questions about the US and their shy attempts at
speaking Spanish or even shyer attempts at English. But what
I really would miss is seeing Amalia grow in her trust in me and
Having lost so much already, she had to get used to college groups
coming to her orphanage, gaining her trust and then leaving her
again and again. We were there to learn about their culture
and paint their houses. We even painted their stucco roofs
with ducks and other large childlike designs (painted that way
to alert planes involved in drug trades or policing them that
this was an orphanage). To her, though, we must have been just
another group of people who would soon leave.
As we drove away, I caught a glimpse of Amalia looking at our
bus and God only knows what she was thinking. I know that
was an experience that meant so much to me, and not just
because I learned about a different culture and how to help
Bolivians there "trust" Americans by how we acted on the trip.
I learned the importance of being trustworthy to one little
Bolivian orphan who tested me and saw that I kept her trust.
Years later, six to be exact, I was packing for my honeymoon
to Italy and found that little green "fanny pack" as we called it
then. I thought it would be just the right size for walking around
Florence all day, as it was big enough for a small bottle of water,
a camera and a passport. I noticed it still had some things in it
so I took it to the kitchen table and emptied the bag, both
zippered sections. I smiled as I saw crumbs of cake and cookie,
a few Bolivian coins and a map of the city folded up. I wished
I could tell that little girl, who would be about 14 years old by
then, that I still kept her secret and that she was remembered.
I have often wondered what became of her. However, I'm sure
there are more like her there and just as many in my own
Now, as a social worker, I have had children much like her.
They have given me pictures and then checked each time they
were in my office to make sure they are still pinned to my
bulletin board, or left a piece of candy in my top drawer and
looked for it each time they visited (and always found it waiting
And then I had my second son. He too is like a cat.
I am honored when he chooses me to sit on and gives me the
honor to hold his brief moments of stillness. He places things
in different spots in my car and or house and checks routinely
to make sure they are still there, much like Amalia.
I am a person who is normally uncomfortable with stillness and
silence and a bit impatient also. I am not one who can just sit
and I am not silent. However, Amalia taught me there is a time
to be all those things and people with whom I must be still,
silent, patient, to ever earn their trust. I still thank her in my
heart today for preparing me to be a better social worker and
more patient person in general and for being a better mother
to my second son.
For more information about the orphanage mentioned in this
piece, here is the direct link. If you select "prayer friends",
you will see each cottages and the first names and pictures
of the residents. Some are now in college. The child
mentioned in this piece is still there and I was pleased to
see she too is taking college classes. I even have childhood
pictures of some of the older ones still there and I am pleased
with the progress the children are making.
Update 2014-Amalia became the third Villa resident to graduate college in 2012.
One of the children mentioned in this piece- Freddy- was in second year of law school
in 2012. Another child I remember there was the first graduate with a degree in accounting.
After 22 years, it brings me to tears to see me pictures of children full of promise and now to
read that they are actively pursuing careers that will help not only themselves, and their Villa
family but also their country.
(Brandy Ray in 1993 while at Villa Amistad with group from Birmingham Southern College).