The boys from Paraguay

The boys from Paraguay

Taking care of 42 boys in a home for street children in Asuncion was an experience Polly Curtis will never forget.

Friday March 14, 2003
Guardian Unlimited

Mention Paraguay and you draw a lot of blank stares. It doesn’t have Brazil’s carnival, Colombia’s chaos, Peru’s Inca trail or Argentina’s Maradona. It’s the faceless, landlocked little brother that aspires to the riches of its biggest neighbour Brazil, and shares a Spanish dialect with its second biggest brother, Argentina.

What I learnt of the country was through the street kids of the capital, Asuncion, some of whom were lucky enough to end up in a home run by Catholic priests, called Don Bosco Roga after the patron saint of children. It was my home too, for four months.

With the help of a handful of clueless gap year students from the UK, the home gave 42 boys, aged 6-13, a bed, food, basic education and, as they got older, training. The alternative is riding the city’s buses selling penny sweets.

Most of the children there had parents who lived in the city but couldn’t afford to look after them, were in prison, or had left for Brazil to find work. Some had been abused. Most of them had a pretty rough story to tell.

My job was to wake up the children in the morning, oversee their housework, and generally supervise their day. They had chores and school, and a bell rang three times a day for meals. Before bed, I’d give them "coraz√≥n", which literally translated means heart, but to them meant first aid.

I bluffed my way through the basic nursing, teaching and discipline techniques. And I had to learn some Spanish, fast. But the boys patiently coaxed me into their language and their lives. I thought I’d gone there to help them, but they were on home territory, and knew how things worked. I had never even been out of Europe before.

The job was hard and the boys could be really difficult. Some were physically abusive to me, others were just very, very sad and I didn’t know how to help them. Working in an all-boy institution run by Catholic priests was hard, too. Many of the older boys were held in higher esteem than myself and the other women gap-year students. And despite my instinct to kick and scream against it, I had to respect that I was a visitor, and couldn’t and shouldn’t try to change anything. At 18, I felt very, very out of my depth.

It was an immense challenge, and there were times when I didn’t want to get out of bed, but those boys will stay with me forever. Despite their scary and heartbreaking stories, they were just little boys, who were fun, teasing, mean, mischievous and imaginative, all at the same time. I remember one night looking at the stars and asking one of them, Tanelo, whether he could name another planet. Tanelo never got anything right, but this time he had the answer. "Inglaterra, where you come from."

Who did you go with? I found out about it through a friend, so officially, I was there without the backing of an organisation.

What do they offer? In exchange for working there, Don Bosco gave me a small room, food and weekends off. I paid for my own transport and other living costs, which were pretty low.

How much did it cost? I travelled for a couple of months after finishing the placement, and spent six months out there in all. Paraguay was perfectly placed for travel to Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. I spent about £3,000 in all.

Was it worth it? Wouldn’t have changed it for the world.

Any tips? I managed to get a placement without paying an organisation, which saved money, but that left me with no back-up once I was there. However, many gapers that had come out with an organisation complained that they didn’t get the back-up they wanted – there was only one volunteer co-ordinator to look after 30 gapers. I would say that you need to scrutinise the kind of support you will get really carefully, and think about whether you are equipped to work in emotionally challenging circumstances.