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Oakland native ‘pays it forward’ as Maryknoll volunteer in Bolivia

Former campus minister at Seattle University helps Maryknoll volunteers succeed in Bolivia

•  A mission of empowerment and care for Oakland’s poor
•  A philanthropist and a Presentation Sister to be honored for service to St. Mary’s Center

Parishes in Berkeley, Pittsburg welcome new pastors

Relics of St. John Bosco visit Salesian High

Secular Carmelites host open house to acquaint laity with community

How to study theology and keep your day job

St. Mary’s College hosts lecture on ‘interfaith engagement’

Cardinal Newman’s beatification a teaching moment for colleges

Interfaith leaders denounce anti-Islamic actions, rhetoric

Pastor, border-town mayor address conflicting interests

Widow of slain rancher wrestles with immigration issues

Jesuit rebuts reasoning in new book by Stephen Hawking that God didn’t create universe

Bill would end shackling of pregnant prisoners

Catholic University grad to play Lincoln

Manhattan Declaration supporters call for 40-day prayer, fast

Sister Mary John Minetta, SHF

placeholder September 20, 2010   •   VOL. 48, NO. 16   •   Oakland, CA
Oakland native
‘pays it forward’
as Maryknoll
in Bolivia

Megan Lewis, a graduate of St. Mary’s High School in Berkeley and Seattle University, holds Victoria at Pedacito del Cielo, a home for infants and young children in Cochabama, Bolivia. The home is part of the work of Niños con Valor.

Youngsters at Pedacito del Cielo listen to Tia Evelin as she teaches them about vowels.

“What motivated you to become a lay missionary for Maryknoll in Bolivia?”

Megan Lewis pondered the question between caring for little Victoria, who needed help reading, and feeding Mateo at Niños con Valor in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Then the 22-year-old Oakland native answered.

“Ever since I can remember, my teachers, my parents, my CCD instructor at St. Monica’s in Moraga, the Christian Brothers at St. Mary’s High, and the Jesuits in Seattle encouraged me to serve others, especially those who are impoverished, disenfranchised, and neglected.”

Her year of teaching at Oakland’s Northern Light School after earning a degree in international studies at Seattle University in 2009 reinforced those values.

“Every morning I read Albert Schweitzer’s words from a plaque on my desk: ‘I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.’”

So she decided to become a lay missionary with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. “I told myself I was ‘paying it forward,’ giving of myself to others, and being a person of service,” a way of life she saw modeled in her cousin, Father Wayman Peter Deasy, a missionary for over 50 years.

A fluent speaker of Spanish, Megan chose Bolivia because of her desire to make a real difference in the lives of children. Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, has an indigenous population of more than 50 percent. Many of its young people have been traumatized by poverty and disease; many have been abused, neglected, and abandoned.

Megan Lewis reviews homework with Mariela (left) and Adriana at Corazon del Pastor, a home for girls operated by Niños con Valor in Cochabama.

Some find their way to Niños con Valor (Children of Value) in Cochabamba. Many are victims of AIDS/HIV, either orphaned by the disease or suffering from the virus themselves. Some have other serious health concerns. Still others are dealing with the emotional issues of abandonment and neglect.

“In 2007, there were no homes or daycares geared towards kids with HIV and other serious health issues,” said Tyson Malo, executive director of the program. “Our initial goal was to provide a sense of value for all kids, especially those further on the margins. The need is huge.”

Niños con Valor, which is funded by private donations, contributions from churches and a sponsor program, works to meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of these children, empowering them to move beyond their circumstances, and to realize their full potential.

Twenty-one girls live in Corazon del Pastor, a home for older girls, while 13 children and infants occupy the residence named Pedacito del Cielo. Many are victims of AIDS, and, therefore, have been turned away from public schools and other programs.

Motivated by the belief that every child is a unique creation of God with innate value, Niños partners with both governmental and non-governmental organizations to improve these children’s lives through education and health care.

It also works to combat the discrimination that is so prevalent against those living with AIDS/HIV. “Bolivia is on the verge of an HIV epidemic, especially with the rising street population,” Malo explained.

“When you live in a place where poverty is in your face — families eating nothing, eight-year-olds living on the street sniffing glue, kids being abused in homes — the motivation is the need,” he said of his work. “We don’t just offer a handout, but we truly walk with the people.”

Megan and Ana create a handprint art piece at Corazon del Pastor. Many of the young girls at the home have been impacted by AIDS or have been abandoned.

Niños reaches out to the impoverished of Cochabamba and its rural communities providing economic assistance, clothing, food, solar ovens and help with fixing and renovating deteriorating homes.

In early September, for example, Megan, other volunteers and staff from Niños con Valor, and five of the “older girls” participated in Noche Sin Techo, an annual event that demonstrates solidarity with those who are forced to live on the streets and sleep in the plazas. The event protested the mistreatment of street kids, who often turn to glue sniffing and drugs.

“Many of the girls at Corazon del Pastor could be living that horrific existence on those same streets, sleeping on that same cold ground, without a roof and food, love and support provided by Niños,” observed Megan.

Malo, who began his work studying at the Maryknoll Language Institute in Cochabamba, emphasized that Maryknoll volunteers are a vital component of his program.

“Such an important part of our work,” Megan said, “is spending time with the infants and children — giving a hug and an embrace, telling them ‘You are valued and loved and you are important,’ helping with homework and art projects, playing a game, and listening to their concerns.”

Megan, who will live for six months in Cochabamba at the Maryknoll House, smiled as she recalled special moments spent with “the younger girls” playing Uno, Bingo, and volleyball, completing math assignments with Diana and reading to the babies. And she’s trading English phrases with Ana, who is helping Megan with her Quechua, an indigenous language.

Malo also sees the work’s value to the volunteers. “We want to impact their future. The hope and goal is that all volunteers and teams apply their experiences here to wherever they go and whatever they do in their communities and future jobs.”

“Our big plan for the program,” Malo added, is to eventually eliminate the two homes and create Ciudadela Niños con Valor, a community that would house 120 children and help meet the needs of many more boys. He envisions a community of caregivers where young people with any health problems will be provided a home with compassion, love, and care.

“No child will be rejected because of a special need,” Malo said. “The big focus on HIV care will continue.” He hopes the program will train parents and educators and help “transform the Bolivian society’s idea of children and child care.”

This consolidation will also help Niños achieve a degree of self-sufficiency by substantially decreasing costs, growing their own food, and utilizing solar energy.

For further information on Niños con Valor: www.ninosconvalor.org

For further information on Maryknoll: www.maryknollboliviavolunteers.org

(Jeffrey Lewis, who worked for the Oakland Diocese at The Catholic Voice and later taught at Oakland’s St. Cyril and St. Leo Schools, currently teaches history and seventh grade at Northern Light School, a private school on the grounds of St. Paschal Parish in Oakland. With his wife Connie, he recently traveled to Bolivia to explore the missionary work of Maryknoll lay volunteers, including his daughter Megan, working at Niños con Valor in Cochabamba.)

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