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Bolivia: Project Niños


The Center for Global Initiatives collaborated with the Flying Doctors of America in a pioneering and critical project. We were the first non-Bolivian group to be granted access to three Bolivian prisons. Hundreds of children live with their parent(s) in these prisons. We provided care with a focus on general medicine, pediatrics and gynecology. The Center will be embarking on helping these non-criminal yet imprisoned children through a unique and pioneering effort. Basically, we plan (pending funding) to develop and deploy educational and social skills training for educators (there are schools in the prisons!) and guards, as well as parenting skills training and resilience development instruction.


Women's Prison

Women's Prison

I was invited to go to Bolivia and work with Flying Doctors of America to provide medical and dental care to prisoners and their families in La Paz. One of the prisons visited was a maximum security facility for women, Miraflores. The other prisons, not maximum security, were San Pedro (men) and Obrajes (women). While the manifest mission of this trip focused on physical and dental healthcare, it also illuminated the emotional needs of the youngest inhabitants of the prisons, the children of the inmates, for in Bolivia, if you are an incarcerated parent with no one else to care for your child, your child comes to prison with you.


Women's Prison

Women's Room in Prison

In non-maximum security prisons, the families of the inmates are allowed to come and go. The children can attend school, and the spouses may leave during the day. However in Miraflores, no one leaves the prison; even the guards have places to sleep there. With so many of the women needing to provide not only for themselves but also for their children, the prison warden allows them to take in laundry and make and sell crafts to generate money. As for the children, they not only live in the prison, they also have to go to school there. Those children don't get to leave, not for school, not for visits, not at all. So, the things that you and I would take for granted while going to school, such as simply seeing the world or going to market, or to buy clothes do not occur with these children. They are basically on house-arrest and sequestered in this prison.


The teachers in the prison's school approached the pharmacy volunteers to ask for the boxes that the medications had come in. The reason? So that they could use them as toys for the children. They're basically saying, "Can we use your trash, because we have nothing to even play with these kids with. Your trash will serve as our toys." As for the children themselves, even in such circumstances, they displayed a beautiful resiliency which made the unfairness of the situation stand out even more. We saw the obvious dedication these teachers had for the children, as well as the dearth of resources available for them to use with the children. So we began to think of ways to help.


You can fly in to fill a tooth; you can't fly in and fix a trauma. We look at these children in a very holistic way–that we want them to have good teeth, we want them to have good hygiene, we want them to have proper nutrition, we want them to have, as best as they can, in a psychologically healthy environment, to have as much psychological positives that they can. These children are victims of circumstance and while we may not be able to change political structures and systems, we can provide medical services periodically, but we wanted to do something more sustainable.


The answer was to start small. But, what may seem little to one person can be huge to someone with nothing. So, the Center is developing a "virtual" library of tools and resources for the teachers to be able to use with the children in the prison. They do not have internet access, but they do have a computer with a functioning CD-ROM drive. We are compiling materials in Spanish that include coloring-book images, picture cards for vocabulary building, and instructions for activities and noncompetitive games, along with Spanish language journal articles on education and classroom management, and non-violent parenting methods and behavior management tools that could be used by the mothers and guards. This type of teaching tool can be used for years and can be viewed on older computers. Along with the CD-ROMs, the Center will also be sending art supplies like crayons, colored pencils, and paper, as well as printer paper and ink. We can also create updated version in years to come.


The materials will also include activities that can introduce and teach resilience and adaptive coping mechanisms to the children. The activities, designed to teach communication skills, empathy and active listening can be implemented by the teachers and do not require any extra supplies or additional therapeutic training on the teachers part.


The Center's use of expressive arts to address the children's needs is the most unique aspect of this project. We thought creative arts, expressive arts, music–could all be things to bring more life to these children. We want to help rejuvenate aspects of what "school" could bring to these children. We have an orchestra instructor who volunteered to get music to us and once the music is translated, the children can begin basic music education, with or without instruments as you can teach singing and don't need any instruments. We are exploring basic kinds of instruments such as triangles, as well as wanting to learn more about indigenous musical instruments they have there. The Center continues to explore options for funding for the necessary materials and their transport to Bolivia.


The overall perspective throughout these efforts to aid the children and enhance what is already there, not disparage it. Every child has strengths, and it's our job to help find those strengths and then build from them. To this end, the Center plans to coordinate with the teachers in the prison school to find a local music teacher who could come to the school and teach the children music. We are already working with a Bolivian foundation to secure the funding that would be required.


We are also working with a volunteer who is an art therapist to develop art therapy exercises that the teachers can use with the kids to help them express and process their feelings. The art the children create could do more than provide them with a way to emotionally work through their experiences in the prison. We hope that it can aid in the sustainability of the project.


Our thinking is that art would be therapeutic and beneficial for them, and it would provide more activities for the teachers to be able to engage the children with. We then wish to have the artwork of the children (with appropriate permissions) compiled into an art-book. Once the permissions were obtained, the Center would look for a publishing house that could donate the production and sales proceeds would go the prison school in order to pay for a music/art teacher's salary and materials. We hope that this would also result in more exposure for the plight of these children, and hopefully, lead to more help and other opportunities for these children. An added benefit is the pride the children would have in having their art published for others to see and their stories told for others to feel.