2004-07-22 | Zapallal, Lima, Peru,
The story of Peruvian Miguel Rodriguez and his 250 children is proof of the idea that the most sorrowful circumstances can bring out the best in humanity. His awakening to the problems of Peru’s children came about after an emotionally crushing experience, and his life has never been the same. In fact, it has since been so much more meaningful.
Miguel’s story begins more than 16 years ago, when he was a young, educated director of a news agency. He was devoutly catholic, married, and a father of three. He had achieved every aspect of an affluent life and was in want of nothing.
Peru, however, was not doing so well. In the mid-1980s, Lima was dealing with the massive migration of campesinos from highland departments such as Ayacucho, where the Shining Path insurgency, combined with the military’s counterinsurgency, forced hundred of thousands to flee ruthless rural terrorism to urban poverty. With the capture of Shining Paths’s leadership in the 1990s, its militancy has been restricted to minor operations mainly in the coca-producing Upper Huallaga Valley. Against all logic, however, poverty in Lima and its surrounding shantytowns has, in fact, increased. Conservative government estimates cite that 54.7% of Peruvians now live in what the United Nations considers levels of extreme poverty. The government, as with the majority of those living in Lima’s more affluent neighborhoods, continues its attitude of indifference.
Miguel Rodriguez’s personal awakening to his country’s problems surfaced in a round-about way. One night, he was told that his youngest son of six months had been suffering heart difficulties and was rushed to the children’s hospital. Miguel arrived just in time to see his last cries and final breath. A profound change occured inside him: “that second, all my arrogance left me.”
He would never be the same. As he left the hospital that night, he saw several children in the street begging for money, a common sight in Peru. He realized that, though they had no money, home, food, or parents, they had the one thing that his young son lacked , life.
After work each day, Miguel began wandering Lima’s poorest neighborhoods, bringing food and medicine to street kids. In these areas he saw the gravity of the poverty that had always existed right under his nose. But there were not only 50 or 100 abandoned children, he realized, there were thousands. He soon made friends with several children, whose lack of daily affection made them all the more affectionate toward him because he seemed to care.
“At one point, a child told me, ‘I don’t want to live on the street; I want to leave to live with you. You are a great person.’”
Until then, Miguel believed that he had been doing enough: “my compromise was to bring them food but not to have them live with me.”
After all, he was already a father of two with another on the way. But he believes that those street kids conveyed a message to him from God; more was being asked of him.
In a decision that would change his life in both practical and personal ways, Miguel and his wife, Irene, sold their posessions and moved to one of Lima’s then newer squatter settlements, Zapallal, where the poorest of the poor make homes on the sand out of salvaged materials. He sacrificed his life as he knew it. In Zapallal, he set up a home for abandoned and troubled children. Miguel’s decision cost him many friends, and his brothers now avoid him. His mother came to understand his decision only hours before she passed away.
“I know there is little hope for these poor children. There is no future for anyone out here. But what I want to give to these children, who have nothing but bad experiences in life, is a memory of something good. So when they remember their time here, they’ll know that life is not only made of bad things.”
And the 250 children living with Miguel have had their share of bad expriences. Aged 8 months to 21 years-old, they are abandoned, either because their parents cannot afford to care for them or because they are in jail. The children are also former drug addicts, gang members, and child prostitutes.
Miguel offers them a chance. Everyday, the children are responsible for cleaning their small, mud-brick huts, where up to 60 of them share living quarters. There are also workshops for carpentry, ceramics, and baking. Last year, the children won a baking competition and were on local television. Everyday, they march together in single file down a sandy hill to school.
To feed the children, Miguel relies on his own income as a contract construction worker and donations from sympathetic individuals and organizations from as far away as Canada and Holland. Aid from the Peruvian state, however, is hard-found. In fact, at one time, the corrupt local police accused Miguel of molesting some of the children. They demanded he pay to drop the accusations. He borrowed the money from a generous friend, though he had no way to pay it back. To protect himself from this end of Peruvian reality, he created a legitimate organization called the Sacred Family.
Unfortunately, three years ago, Miguel was diagnosed with cancer. During Miguel’s year and a half away from the children, the orphanage was pillaged by an opportunist, who was left in charge. Miguel returned to the orphanage in 2002, after his health improved. However, he found there only 150 children ,one hundred had been turned on to the streets. Those who remained were living in worse conditions than before: they were sustaining themselves on lettuce and water pumped from Lima’s filthy Rimac river.
With a seemingly endless supply of spirit, Miguel is working at full steam. He has the help of his wife and children, who all live at the orphanage. A volunteer doctor, dentist, and psychologist also help Miguel in the enormous daily task of raising 250 troubled children.
His future plans include taking in an additional 50 children and establishing a volunteer-run community hospital in Zapallal. He will surely need all the help he can get.
Peru’s reality confronted Miguel Rodriguez head-on through a terrible experience of tremendous suffering. As a testament to his extraordinary character, he turned his sorrow into a new life of generosity and love. An Irish nun, who has spent 40 years working against poverty in Peru and has occassionally visited Miguel and the children, noted, “it is easy to see that the children are treated very well because of how affectionate they are toward eachother.” Indeed, they bestow kisses and handshakes on every volunteer and visitor.
In the sandy hills of Zapallal, the children who appear to have nothing in the world are the happiest children in the world. Perhaps this is for the fact that they know all too well exactly where they would be if not for Miguel Rodriguez and his Sacred Family.
For those interested, Miguel invites visitors to stay at the orphanage for a week or longer to work with the group. Any form of help or support is warmly welcomed