Local doctor helps ‘street children’ find new home

<a title="Photo by Courtesy
Dr. Chi Huang hugs one of the children who now lives in a home built by his Bolivian Street Children Project.” href=”http://www.wickedlocal.com/lincoln/archive/x833719877/g258258dcbbb0f1b7c2128af60c267985a86eee073f005f.jpg”&gt;Huang4

By Courtesy
Dr. Chi Huang hugs one of the children who now lives in a home built by his Bolivian Street Children Project.

Local doctor helps ‘street children’ find new home

By Mira Vale/Correspondent

Thu Jun 26, 2008, 08:36 AM EDT

Eleven years ago, Dr. Chi Huang could have gone anywhere. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Huang had completed residencies in both pediatrics and internal medicine at some of Boston’s top teaching hospitals. But instead of continuing on to a traditional, and lucrative, medical career as many of his colleagues did, Huang took the path less traveled, opting to work with a humanitarian aid organization.

After writing to hundreds of such organizations, Huang, a Lincoln resident, chose to take part in a program that sent him to South America to La Paz, Bolivia, where he would work with the city’s many homeless and abandoned children.

“Part of it was my own personal rediscovery of why I went into medicine,” Huang said. “The main reason I went to Bolivia was actually for myself, to get off the ‘train track’ and away from fame or wealth. I wanted to make a difference.”

Huang spent four months in a domestic program to prepare himself for the journey and then flew down to Bolivia for the remainder of the year. Huang described his first month in La Paz as “incredibly frustrating,” because although he was working in a local orphanage, he was not afforded the opportunity to work with the children he most desired to help — the children living on the street.

Huang finally got his wish when he met a boy who had once lived on the streets of La Paz. The boy took him around the city at night so he could meet the children.

“[Meeting and helping the street children] was challenging and disturbing.” Huang said. “On the street, there were kids sleeping in their own fecal matter, in their own urine, in sewers, getting beaten by police and other kids.”

Sadly, poor living conditions are only a fraction of the hardships these Bolivian street children face, Huang said. 

He was able to meet the children only in the middle of the night because most of them must stay awake until sunrise, sniffing paint thinner to keep warm.

In his nights on the streets of La Paz, Huang began to form relationships with the children he met. As he treated their various illnesses and injuries, he also tried to help the children cope emotionally and spiritually. Some nights, Huang and the children would simply play soccer together.

“I tried to bring a little bit of childhood back into their lives,” he said.

At the end of Huang’s time in Bolivia, he asked one of the children what she wanted of him.

“She asked me three things,” Huang recalled. “First, that I remain present in their lives; second, that the street children be given a home; and third, that I share the story of these children.”

These humble requests became the basis of Huang’s continued mission in Bolivia as he founded the Bolivian Street Children Project, a nonprofit organization committed to saving and improving the lives of the children on the streets of La Paz. Now director of Boston Medical Center’s Pediatric Global Health Initiative, Huang spends part of each year in Bolivia in a continued effort to rehabilitate the children he meets. 

The organization has funded the construction and maintenance of three homes to transfer the children off the streets. Huang described the philosophy of the homes as a “holistic approach to the health and welfare of these kids.”

“We try to allow the kids to reach their full potential,” he said.

Each home has a psychologist and a youth pastor, who help the children cope with their histories of abuse and neglect. In addition, the homes host workshops and mentorship programs to help the children gain the skills they will need to continue their education or to find a job. Recently, the organization received a donation that allowed them to purchase computers for the homes.

“We hope this will help the kids become tech-savvy and increase their future job opportunities,” Huang said.

Despite the success of the Bolivian Street Children Project, Huang stressed that the process of rehabilitation is difficult for each and every child.

“The kids usually run away two or three times before they become a more permanent fixture in the homes,” Huang said. “It takes them anywhere from six to twelve months to get totally integrated.”

In the future, Huang said he hopes to add another three homes in order to better serve the children. Huang said he is also working to raise awareness of these children and their plight, most notably through the publication of his 2006 book, “When Invisible Children Sing,” which is available in bookstores and at the Lexington and Concord public libraries.

In the epilogue to his book, Huang wrote, “Our lives are short and fleeting. What is the legacy we leave behind? Maybe my legacy is a few square blocks of La Paz, Bolivia, where all the children have homes.”

Visit www.BolivianStreetChildren.org for further information on the project’s history and goals, as well as opportunities for donations and volunteer work.

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