Calculus of Service: Orphanage Work in Bolivia

Every Tuesday and Friday from three to seven, we head to Pedacito de Cielo, an orphanage for boys affected by HIV/AIDS that is run by a charitable foundation based here in Cochabamba.  This large house sits on an about an acre of grassy yard between two high-rise buildings and is home to ten boys, ages 1 to 5.  Twice a week, we run a four-hour marathon of carrying, chasing, playing, dressing, eating, and all manner of other chaos that runs from the afternoon nap (ending around 3:30) to bedtime (around 7:30).  Despite its challenges, we’ve found working at PDC to be a very rewarding service opportunity. Our little group of four has turned out to be very cohesive, and we tend to see things the same way on a lot of topics. Service was no exception; in fact, our philosophies of service bear remarkable similarities to one another.

All four of us focused on one single critical reason for service here in Bolivia: to gain a more intimate connection to the community itself. Michael talked about a “broader perspective and deeper understanding”, Steven “a deeper connection to the community”, Quilla “to experience a country in more depth”, and Mark discusses how service helps him see the community as a “living system”.   It would be one thing to travel to Bolivia and discuss and observe its various aspects, then leave with a certain appreciation of the country. It’s entirely another to travel here, and get physically, mentally, and emotionally involved in a real problem of Bolivian society (in our case, children affected by HIV/AIDS).  In assisting at the orphanage we are investing, in some small way, in the solution of a looming problem for this country.  Indeed, people who only know the good things about one another are just acquaintances. It takes a genuine sharing of one’s innermost problems to become true friends.

Our opinions were very similar, but not exactly congruent, when it came to intention and value of service.  We agreed on the point that service without value is worthless, but had varying standards of measuring this value. Mark and Steven brought up, in particular, an external measurement: gauging value on the lasting impact it has on those served. Mikhael, although he also mentioned this external measurement, took a slightly different perspective, putting value on an internal measurement: how he is changed by the service he is performing.  In regards to intention, we agreed on the point that sincere personal intention is important to all of us.  Moreover, the intentions of others are also important, because any service done with selfish intentions will eventually serve the self, not those who need it.

Interestingly, all of us converged on the topic of the relevance of Illich’s speech. The difference between the North American students that Illich describes and us is the fundamentally different perspective involved. Illich implies that the students he dealt with in Mexico were there with certain expectations. They failed to abandon their assumptions about how the world should be and, thus, went into their service with the intention of “fixing” a “broken” society by homogenizing it with the supposedly superior American model.  However, Amizade actively discourages this kind of thinking (this essay was included in Amizade’s journal!). The true value of a trip abroad, it says, is not to change the culture you enter, but to allow it to change you. Therefore, at the orphanage, we work on the terms of our Bolivian hosts, not our own.

Overall, our group speaks almost as one when we say that service is an integral part of our experience here in Cochabamba. It gives us insight into real problems that are present in this culture, and it allows us to be part of the solution. Moreover, it’s not just what we do that is important, but also the intentions behind it and its impact in the future.


Mark, Steven, Quilla, and Michael


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