Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Trip to the Casa San Miguel and Other Life Lessons

Things I’ve learned in Bolivia and while spending four nights in the Casa San Miguel Arcangel (St. Michael the Archangel) House next door:

1. I find it so perfect and precious when a girl in the Hogar’s plans for the day include first doing her chores, then washing her clothes, and then doing her homework!

I was helping her with her homework 
while she decided to make me a 
crown full of flowers from the garden!
     Those are the girl’s daily responsibilities and often they have to be reminded many times before completely or even starting them. But, occasionally girls will be sitting at breakfast and tell me that they want to be really obedient and get their things done well and quickly. Other times the girls very early in the morning or in the afternoon run up to in order to tell me that they have accomplished both their chore and clothes and now want to go their homework.  One girl in particular asks be just about every day if she can enter the Bibilioteca (Library) after she finishes her chore and washes her clothes. Ever since this girl arrived at the Hogar back in December she has had a strong interest in learning and a desire to do homework. On the first Friday she was here she asked if she was going to go to school tomorrow. In telling her that she still had a few weeks left of break she looked kind of down and seemed so excited to start at the new school, Laura Vicuna. Then I asked her what kind of things she likes to do. Most children would say playing or coloring but instead her response was one word, “Tarea!” (Homework). All she wanted to do was homework and learn.
It makes my heart smile and I hope they are learning some important lessons through their instances of excellence such as we need to take good care and take advantage of the things God provides us with (house, clothing, education), we are part of a ‘family’ even if it is a little broken and composed of many different families and every person has to do their part out of respect and love for the others, I need to listen and do what I’m told because Hermana (Sister) and the volunteers love me and know what’s best for me, and I can set goals and accomplish them too.

One of the little ones decided to help me wash my clothes. 

2. I appreciate respect more than being popular or best buds with the girls:

This was something that was a hard lesson to learn because it is easier to be popular but respect is so much more meaningful. When the girls think you are the cool one then they will tell you about the boys in their lives, the drama, and other fun things. But, the moment that you have to discipline them everything goes downhill. There is a relationship shift that they don’t like and it’s hard for them to see you as an authority role. They stop listening, become disobedient, won’t talk to you (much less about their lives), and it’s hard to reach out to them. This happened with one of my girls and within a few hours felt like I had loss all of the progress we had made over the last few weeks. After that I had to put my foot down a little more, be a little less friendly but just as loving, and little by little gain her respect.
The Chapel in Casa San Miguel
     An example of this is from when I was in the Casa. Just for a brief explanation, the Casa is the next step that the girls can take out of the Hogar. It is a apartment style living for 18+ girls that have aged out of the Hogar but continue to want to study. With permission of the Sisters they can move into the Casa and live there supported by a ‘Godparent’ in the United States and stay until they finish their studies (often through college). They live under the supervision of the Sisters, pray daily in community, have chores, and have to follow the Casa rules. But, it is a wonderful experience for them to begin living on their own while still having a type of parental support and supervision. They learn to budget their money, manage their time, and be somewhat independent which is necessary for the real world.  
Hermana (Sister) Julia and Hermana Mariluz with one of the girls. 
 In January the Sisters all went out of town for a few nights on retreat to welcome the Mother Superior to Bolivia.  The Sister living in the Casa asked if I would watch over the house for those days. This meant that I went their every evening around 7pm and then stayed until the next morning, which then I returned to the Hogar to work during the day. In the evenings at the Casa I prayed night prayers with the girls, we watched a little TV, hung out, and I made sure every girl made it home safely. On my last night there when I went over to pray with the girls they were all in a funk, or just being teenagers/young adults. When I rang the bell to go and pray they all ran into one room and locked me out. At first I got mad and threatened to call the Sister in charge. Knowing these girls are ‘adults’ I let them be, got my prayer book, and went to their chapel to pray myself.  I wasn't sitting in there for more than a few minutes and they all came in saying “surpresa” (surprise) and with bright smiles on their faces. They surrounded me with their chairs, were really friendly, and prayed reverently.  What an unexpected surprise it really was and it warmed my heart that after a moment of defiance they quickly changed their minds. It was a moment when I truly felt respected, accepted, and that these girls were starting to grow up. Also, they know in their hearts that prayer throughout the day is so very important.
After prayer with the girls we hung out the rest of the evening in one of the apartments. I learned how to make maicena (corn starch based drink/snack depending on how thickly it is made) and helped the girls create sandwiches out of them. We put maicena between crackers, then dipped them in coconut, and shared them together. They were very tasty and it was a blast to spend time with the girls.  This experience reminded me and the girls often remind me of the parable of the two sons. “‘A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go.  Which of the two did his father’s will?’ They answered, ‘The first.’” (Matthew 21:28-31) The girls told me they weren't going to come to prayer but actually listened and were obedient. They in the end got the reward even though originally they were defiant. I find this with the girls at the Hogar in particular. They will often yell at me and refuse to do their chores when I remind them. But after that, they often go and do them and sometimes even apologize for yelling at me. As upset as I can get when the girls tell me know it is so beautiful to see them turn around and do it anyway out of respect and love. It is so important to give them a chance to do right even if they don’t want to before being so quick to react.

One of the girls from the Casa
lead us up to the top of the hill
behind the Hogar to look for tuna
(cactus fruit)
Three of the girls from the Casa
at a party at the Hogar

3. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems but nothing is impossible with a little determination:

The hallway in the Casa
One of my nights in the Casa I ran out of water in my water bottle and went to the big water jug in the hallway to fill it up. When I got there I realized that the water bottle was empty. Thinking I could help the girls out, I wanted to put a new one in. It was dark in the hallway but I’m used to doing this at the Hogar so I expected it to be a quick fix. I found the tab for taking the lid off but no matter what I did I could not get it to come off. After my own force failed me I took my keys and tried to use them similar to a knife. I made a dent! That though was not quite enough to get the lid off. Finally I gave in and went searching for a knife in “my room.” Finally I located one and not wanting to wake the girls up with the light in the hallway grabbed my headlamp. The girls may think that I look like a miner and call me “minero” whenever I use it but it sure comes in handy when I need to be hands free. Very carefully and only with splashing a little bit of water all over my face I finally cut off the lid. I felt so ridiculous but a sense of accomplishment when I finally put the water bottle into the dispenser and not one of the girls woke up!

     Another day while in the Casa I went back to the Hogar to grab some things from my room. I got those things but in leaving my room I shut the door before grabbing my keys. The sisters were gone, Christy didn’t have an extra key, and worst of all my keys not only to the Hogar but also all the keys to the Casa. After a moment of panic I told Christy and then took some time to think. The sister who is in charge of the Casa called later that day to check in. I told her the situation and she suggested that I stay in the Hogar in Christy’s room that night. That was an option but not ideal since I was supposed to pray with the girls in the Casa and make sure they all made it home safely. Plus Christy and Eliana were both in the same room which might make that place a little crowded. Thinking about the possibility of breaking into my room I took a look at the window. Although it has bars on the outside there is a mesh screen that is attached by screws. Thinking that my keys were on my bed, maybe if I could get the screen off there would be a possibility of hooking them with something. So, carefully we unscrewed the screws and moved the screen to the side. Luckily, I never lock my window so it was easy to open. Christy found an L-shaped pipe that the girls usually use to collect lemons from the lemon tree and we used that to pick up and get my keys out! What an adventure and success! Thanks be to God I was able to be with the girls in the house that night! This mission experience definitely requires one to be creative, determined, and think outside of the box.

4. Happiness and peace can only come from God…or you will go crazy in an Hogar of 45 chidlren:

There is no doubt that living with children brings daily joy and moments of pure happiness. Many trials though also accompany every life and especially those of orphans and abandoned children. One day you are their best friend and the next when you tell them no or have to discipline them the tables turn and you are suddenly their worst enemy. But, as with respect my goal is not to be the most popular. I am here to guide them and most of all to look out not for their superficial happiness but for their souls. This comes with its struggles and many moments of teaching and redirecting. In order to do this though I have one thing left to depend on, the love of God. Only in Him can I find true peace and unconditional love. Proverbs instructs us to “Trust the Lord with all your heart, and don't depend on your own understanding. Remember the Lord in all you do, and he will give you success.” My mission here would not be possible for even one day without putting all my trust in God. He is the one that called me to be here, not the sisters and not the girls. He has such a great plan that I can barely start to understand. He knows what He is doing. All I can do when I feel completely lost is remember to trust in His will and guidance and hope that one day it will begin to make more sense.

I have also found that it is so important to count the little successes of every day. Not those moments when I necessary succeed or win but rather those moments when God leads and I or one of the girls turns their hearts back to Him and do His will. It might be a time-out that ends with a really great conversation, an apology that is made with the heart and concludes with a hug, or something as simple as a girl completely her responsibilities and feeling proud about it. In these moments I remember so very clearly that “We are not saying that we can do this work ourselves. It is God who makes us able to do all that we do.”  (2 Corinthians 3:5). It would be wrong of me to say that I have done anything good here. Now in saying that, I am not saying that I do not work very hard every day. But, all that the good that I do comes from God and is the way that He works here. I get to see God work in the lives of every single one of these girls. I have the chance to see His Spirit alive moving and leading these girls in all they do. What an opportunity to get to be His hands and feet in the lives of these girls. Without God though, I wouldn't be able to make it through one day nor one morning. He is what enables me to live, teach, change, guide, care for, and be all that I need to be for these girls. He gives me peace when I feel restless, He gives me hope when all I see is brokenness, He gives me love when I feel so unloved and unappreciated, He gives me strength when I feel so very weak, He gives me energy when all I want to do is sleep, He gives me joy when I am rundown, and He gives me serenity when I realize the many things I can’t change, gives me courage when I am fearful, and gives me wisdom when I feel so lost and without a solution. I thank Him every day for the gift of being here, for the lives of these amazing girls, for the blessings He pours down upon me and all that are in my life, and for all of the ways that He shows His presence, His work, and His immense love to all.

5. Sewing is not as difficult as it seems:

My whole life I have never known how to sew. I am not sure if it’s because I was too lazy to learn or the reason but even a simple stitch was unknown to me. Of course that was until I got to Bolivia. One day over vacation the girls were sewing the edges of sheets. It was a very simple stitch but still took some time so one of the girls asked if I would help her. We sat down, she taught me how, and little by little I practiced. The first many stitches were different lengths apart, did not form anything close to a straight line, and took quite some time. Over time and practice though I have learned a few different stitches and have even spent time mending clothes. 

At a school event. They were dancing and she decided
to try on my sunglasses. 
In fact, that all started one day when one of the little girls was changing out of her school clothes into normal day clothes. I noticed she had a gaping hole in her pants and told her to put something else on and I would fix it for her. She did that and then proceeded to look through all of her clothes for holes and rips. I walked away with a small mountain of clothes to re-stitch. I would spend breaks, some afternoons, and any time I was watching TV practicing and mending her clothes. Another morning while the girls were changing for school one of the girls told me that I had to fix her button on her blouse. Although I had never put a button on anything before we acquired a new button, thread, and a needle and I went to work. What a surprise to see that I could successfully sew a button onto clothes. On occasions I have also put in zippers and even sewed the two pieces of a jumper for school together. I would not say that I could yet sew clothes that someone would actually want to wear but I have learned so much and the more I practice the better I will do. They say practice makes perfect and although I am far from perfect I am glad of this new talent and gift and every other lesson I have learned so far!!! 


  1. How beautiful this is! You write so well. I love the pictures! Miss you so much, miss everyone! Blessings to all, with love!

  2. Ditto to Kathy's comments on your writing and the pix! I'll bet you have no idea that you're imitating DB when you sew the girls' clothes--he used to patch the Oratory boys' things while they slept. Keep up the great work on all fronts, Michelle--educational, spiritual, and "mothering." God bless you and your girls.