Bolivia, Destinations, Social Work

Social Service Excellence: The Valley of the Moon Children’s Centre

February 19, 2012

During our Workaway in Bolivia, Ted and I paid a visiting to a fabulous local social services project in the neighboring town: The Valley of the Moon Children’s Centre.

“The Nursery” as Emma (our host and one of the incredibly humble founders of the project), fondly calls it, exceeded every single one of our expectations. We might have simply hoped to find a roof over the children’s heads, a snack on the table, and a bit of outside space in which to play…

What we found instead was a beautiful and fully modernized operation run not by external NGOs but by the community itself with outstanding management, terrific resources for parents, high quality care and teaching for the children, and exceptional integration of creative, holistic learning in the daily operations.

[The Centre] is located in the semi rural valley of Mallasa surrounded by the red and green Andean mountains. It is about 15km from the centre of Bolivia´s capital city, La Paz. The community is made up mostly of Aymaran Indians, whose language and culture survived the conquest of the Spaniards. Indigenous peoples (who comprise 62% of the total population) of Bolivia have endured a life of social, economic and political exclusion. Often due to prejudices, cultural barriers or fear, indigenous families do not, or cannot, access the health and education services they are entitled to. Families, especially children, are therefore in an extremely vulnerable situation in communities such as Mallasa. -Website

The community gave birth to the nursery in 2004 following an amazing series of events.

Previously, the city of La Paz regularly and illegally dumped garbage in a Mallasa landfill, paying disregard to regulations regarding proximity of waste disposal sites to dwellings.

Women of the community rallied together and blockaded the main road, damming the flow of garbage out of La Paz and protesting the municipal government’s disparaging treatment of their land, their health, and the environment in which they raised their children. After many, many days of standoff and news coverage, La Paz relented, and in retribution for their misconduct, the city ceased its dumping and gave a valuable piece of property to the community for use as an education center.

In addition to the land settlement, grant funding paved the way to turn the piece of property into beautiful facility serving six month to four year old children, providing jobs to local mothers who staff the school and allowing parents of young children the opportunity to seek work during school hours.

Initially, architects were involved in conceptual designs for the structures, but when local parents were consulted, the idealistic plans were scrapped in favor of straightforward, and ultimately very functional and fitting design.

A favorite story: when brainstorming the layout of the main brick pathway connecting the upper kitchen and nursery to the lower classroom, instead of drawing lines on a piece of paper, the builders asked children to run down the hillside, arms spread wide like airplanes, and the path was built along their whimsical, “S” curved route… That main artery serves the site well to this day.

A Bolivian muralist brought beautiful life and color to the project through his donated artwork.

Thanks to donors, new canvas awnings will soon extend over a large paved surface, expanding outdoor play areas during bright hot days.

Early on in the formation of the The Nursery, there were some who advocated for bringing in outside specialists to develop and run the program, but ultimately, the Mothers of the community were tapped as the richest resource. The program has grown up around the wisdom and hard work of the very same women whose protests brought about the initial landfill shut-down; Mothers are the experts in teaching the children, and The Nursery equips them to use and grow their skills.

Our Centre supports local mothers and women so that they can grow both personally and professionally; hiring and training them to be Aunties within the centre itself, or offering skills training in other areas such as traditional handicrafts which they can sell. Women, who are employed or have been trained up, are increasingly able to contribute to the income of the family which raises their self esteem and reduces inter- family pressure and potential stress-related violence. -Website

The Centre places a high priority on feeding the children nourishing meals: “Included in the £3.50 per child that the parents pay in monthly subsidised fees, the children receive breakfast, lunch, 2 snacks (fresh fruit and bread) and an afternoon drink.”

Admirably, the daily changing lunch menu includes a balanced selection of meals made from vegetables, meat, and indigenous organic grains sourced from the Andes.

Various parents comment on improved behaviour of their children, attributed not only to the care and education within the centre but also to a healthy balanced diet. Maxima, the cook, prides herself on the fresh food she cooks, the levels of hygiene in her kitchen, and the care she gives to each child, who she says she loves ‘like each one were my own.'” -Website

Ted and I passed out drinks from classroom to classroom with  Emma and another kind woman, Liz, who came to Bolivia from Manchester, England to volunteer at The Nursery.

The Nursery utilizes The Montessori Method to guide children in their studies, and they’ve been blessed with an impressive array of resources through grant funding and donations.

These sweet children are taught and celebrated, loved and nurtured, and when they “graduate” at four years old, they are able to transition into the local public school in good health and good spirits, with a high level of academic training.

As home schooled kids who were loved and taught well by our parents and the community of home-based-educators we grew up with, Ted and I wholeheartedly appreciated the spirit and work of this exemplary program.

Rather than organizations prescribing outside-in solutions, could sustainable answers to questions of poverty, lack of education, abuse of women, malnutrition, and oppression of indigenous people be found in communities such as these all the world over who are willing to empower parents, build strong, grass-roots efforts, and put faith in the wisdom of the local voices?

We were grateful to observe such an inspiring program setting an exemplary standard for the future of social work among indigenous populations.

Thank you to The Valley of the Moon Children’s Centre for the opportunity to tour their facilities and learn more about their work in the community of Mallasa, Bolivia. For more information on volunteering with their program, visit Up Close Bolivia.

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  • Reply Kirsten February 21, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Incredible! It actually seems like they could teach a few American preschools a thing or two.

    • Reply twoOregonians February 21, 2012 at 2:50 pm

      Absolutely right!

  • Reply Andi of My Beautiful Adventures February 21, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    This fills my heart with SO much joy!!!!!

    • Reply twoOregonians February 21, 2012 at 2:51 pm

      Ours, too! We were so blown away by the quality of the program and the deep satisfaction and pride that the women of the community possessed. Such an amazing example to be able to witness firsthand : )

  • Reply Barb February 21, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    SO…given the adequate resources, it shows that any parent is capable of teaching their own children, given the confidence and encouragement…great article! Thank you for showing us the many opportunities we would never hear about otherwise..

    • Reply twoOregonians February 23, 2012 at 8:56 pm

      Thanks, Barb! : ) We’re so grateful for the chance to meet and see such wonderful people in action. They’re truly an inspiration, and we’ll carry their stories for the rest of life…

  • Reply Magdalen Donlan February 22, 2012 at 6:40 am

    My Goodness! What a great article! Congratulations…

    We have had the privilidge on numerous occasions to visit this beautiful children’s centre in Malassa… and each time we visit this unique centre, a place that is filled with unconditional love, we leave inspired , and full of hope for the future lives of these children who have been given a great start in life., The Children’s Centre is indeed a place of great joy, and the mothers and Tias who work there are a true inspiration, they are not only enriching the lives of these children, but also gaining such self esteem . It is always sad to leave, but we carry in our hearts the beautiful smiles of the children of The Valley of the Moon In the high Andes of Bolivia.

    • Reply twoOregonians February 23, 2012 at 8:58 pm

      Magdalen, we couldn’t agree more! You’ve said it so well, and we will indeed carry their beautiful smiles in our hearts… Hopefully someday we, too, can return!

  • Reply Molly McEwen February 29, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Oh, my gosh… what a terrific story. I would love to go and volunteer with that or a similar school. Truly inspirational…. if only we would engage communities in finding solutions that work for THEM and facilitating a “buy-in” by the locals, supporting their efforts where needed. Thanks again, for yet another great story. WOW!

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  • Reply Emma Donlan May 15, 2012 at 10:05 am

    Thank you so much for your vivid and thoughtful portrait of life at the Valley of the Moon Nursery. It´s moving to share your perspective and makes us appreciate in a new way what a special place this Centre is.
    Please spread the word – we are always looking for volunteers to come and share their creativity and caring with the children here. You cna find more details about volunteering on our website

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