Bolivia’s Best: Lucia Cuno—Helping Bolivia’s street kids dream of a better tomorrow.

By Tracey Li and Natalia Zegarra

“I come from a poor family but I’ve had God’s blessing to be able to achieve my dream of becoming a professional. I see these children, teach them all the values that I’ve learnt, and tell them that whatever their dreams are for the future, they can come true.”

Lucia Cuno works for Kaya Children International (formally called ‘The Bolivian Street Children Project’), an organization providing vulnerable children with accommodation, education, and other basic needs, within a loving family environment in their center in La Paz. They are children who have been living on the streets, or have been abused by their families, or come from families that don’t have enough money to raise them. The word ‘kaya’ means ‘tomorrow’ in Quechua and reflects the organization’s goal of providing children with a brighter future. As well as material resources, the center also provides psychologists and teachers, such as Lucia.

Lucia with kids from Kaya International. Photo credit: Rachel Satterlee, Unidad Académica Campesina de Carmen Pampa.

Lucia herself comes from a very poor family but has used her determination and ambition, together with hard work, to build a future for herself. She grew up in the village of Mangopata, in the district of Guanay, where she attended primary school. This consisted of one class with around 15 children of different ages, each being taught up to the age of 11. It was not straightforward for Lucia to continue with her schooling after this:

“My father didn’t want me to continue studying because he had no money to pay for my education. In spite of this, my mother always gave me moral support and encouraged me. She worked hard in the fields so that I could keep going to school.”

Thanks to her mother, Lucia attended the National College of Guanay, obtaining her high school certificate at the age of 18. To get this far, she remembers that

“I had to work very long hours alongside my mother, selling sweets and ice-creams in the streets.”

Her school education completed, Lucia dreamed of studying at one of the universities in La Paz. She worked for a year to save money, but at the end found out that she only had enough to pay for six months, and gave up. Then a friend told her about the Unidad Académica Campesina de Carmen Pampa (UAC-Carmen Pampa) and the grants that they give to poorer students. Lucia applied for one through the Parish of Guanay, and because the priest knew her family and saw that Lucia was so dedicated, they awarded her a grant from the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (CFCA). Using this money, Lucia studied at the UAC-Carmen Pampa for six years, completing a degree in Primary Education. During this time, she recounts:

“I didn’t miss a single class or piece of work because they told me that if I did, I would lose the money. As a result, I learned to be responsible, and to work with others and contribute in a group.”

At the end of the course, Lucia had to write a thesis but the CFCA grant had finished and she didn’t have enough money to support herself. The UAC-Carmen Pampa offered her a job as a secretary, which she accepted, so she worked and wrote her thesis at the same time. Later she was awarded a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) after the committee saw how desperately she wanted to finish her thesis, which she defended in 2010. In 2011 the UAC-Carmen Pampa recommended her for a one-year cultural exchange program in the United States of America (U.S.A.), working at the Adams School (a Spanish immersion school) in Minnesota.

When Lucia returned to Bolivia in 2012, a friend told her about Kaya Children International. As she didn’t have a job, she started working there as a volunteer. After a few months, Kaya offered her a paid position, which she accepted. She explains why:

“When I first came to Kaya as a volunteer in 2012, the work made a big impression on me. I had never worked with street children before, but I empathized with them because I also come from a poor family. But I’ve had God’s blessing to be able to achieve my dream of becoming a professional. I see these children, teach them all the values that I’ve learnt, and tell them that whatever their dreams are for the future, they can come true.”

In spite of the bad treatment and hardship they’ve suffered, Lucia says that what touches her the most is that the children still have the will to continue living and studying. And they can do this thanks to the people who support the organization:

“There are some very generous people who support centers like Kaya, and I want to say to the people of Bolivia that, if you have a little to spare, you can contribute towards helping these institutions which enable these children to achieve their dreams.”

Because at the moment space is limited and the center can only accept a certain number of children, Lucia would also like to search for more funding and support to be able to give Kaya International more publicity in order to be able to expand the center by building more rooms.

Lucia Cuno has overcome poverty to put her skills to use helping others. Photo credit: Rachel Satterlee, Unidad Académica Campesina de Carmen Pampa.

There are some difficult aspects to the job, which Lucia loves. For her, the hardest parts are working with children who have sudden severe mood swings, and seeing some children return to the streets without appreciating what the Kaya Center can offer them. On the other had, she also knows several young men and women who were taken in by the center several years ago and now have successful lives. She tells the story of a boy who lived under the Americas Bridge from the age of 6:

“The Kaya Center found him when he was 12. He was addicted to alcohol, like the rest of his family who also lived under the bridge. Now he is 21, has completed his secondary education, and is currently studying to become a Physical Education teacher, having always been passionate about sport.”

And of course Lucia herself has come a long way from selling sweets on the streets of Mangopata. Her success has made a big impression on the rest of her village:

“The people from my community ask themselves how someone like me from such a poor family has managed to achieve professional success. They look to me as an example of someone who wants to make progress in life and succeeds. The UAC-Carmen Pampa, my family, and my own dreams have contributed to my success and I thank God and my mother for supporting me at all times.”

And she hasn’t finished yet. Her wish for the future is a country where no one has to live on the streets – neither children, nor mothers with babies, nor elderly people who have to beg for alms. And for herself,

“I have one more personal goal. I want to win a scholarship to go to the U.S.A. again to do a Masters degree in Special Education, then return to Bolivia and continue working with Kaya Children.”

She adds with certainty,

“I know I will succeed one day.”

Do you know any Bolivians who have overcome their own poverty and gone on to help others do the same? Please leave a reply below.

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