Today, I was invited to visit an orphanage in Bogota.
My friend Amy is the Executive Director of Hands Offering Hope, a foundation in the US that supports both the leadership program in Chiquila, Mexico that I visited this summer and Hogares Luz y Vida – a home for kids with special needs in Colombia.
And I’m going to be honest. I was a little bit nervous to stop by.
Here’s why: orphanages can go one of two ways. I’ve had the honor of visiting and telling the stories of several children’s homes around the world. Sometimes, they are wonderful, warm homes for kids full of love and care. And sometimes they’re not.
I’ve thankfully never visited an orphanage that is abusive or violent, but I’ve seen a few that are some of the most depressing places in the world. Too many kids in too few beds, incredibly overworked staff doing their best to simply take care of their basic needs, let alone their play, joy or fun.
I am SO happy to report that Luz y Vida is decidedly the former.
This place is incredible.
The staff so clearly loves the kids, and the kids, despite sometimes-debilitating physical and mental challenges, laugh and sing and play. Thanks to support from HOH and other donors, the home is full of occupational therapy equipment and high-end wheelchairs and sensory treatment rooms. You know within minutes that kids are being cared for well here.
But this is not a story about the Hogar.
(Though, really, makes me proud to work with and support HOH!)
It’s a story of the Uber driver who took me there.
Because my interactions with him today showed me, yet again, that EVERYONE has a story. Not just those that I schedule to meet and interview, but every single person whose path I cross.
First of all, this guy was so kind.
I was having trouble finding the address of the orphanage on the map (the address they sent me wasn’t being recognized), so he spent 15 unpaid minutes helping me figure it out, finally calling my contact at the orphanage to clarify where we were headed.
Then, realizing the neighborhood to which we were going, he looked at me and said, “Just so you know, you are going to a rough neighborhood.”
Except that’s my new normal.
In Bogota, the streets are numbered much like New York. The north part of the city (where I stay) is fairly wealthy, safe, and business-oriented. The lower numbers (maybe 10-30) are the historic center of the city – slightly less safe at night, but still super tourist friendly. After zero, the street numbers start climbing again, only this time with “sur” (south) attached. Most tourist guides would tell a white girl like me that I had no reason to go below zero.
The orphanage is at 6 sur.
I have spent almost all of my time in Bogota at 70, 80, 90 sur.
Welcome to my life.
After assuring my Uber pal that I knew where I was headed, we got to chatting about the work that I do. He was surprised that I had been as far south as I had, and loved hearing about some of the women and children that I have met.
And then he began to share his own story.
He grew up with six siblings in a tiny one-room house made of plywood. When he was nine, he had to start helping to support his family by singing for cars at intersections and going door to door begging for food.
As a teenager, he decided that he needed to find another way to make money, and he heard about marijuana farms in another town on the coast that paid well.
Because he had zero options in the traditional economy, he left home and began farming weed. Not surprisingly, he got involved with drugs himself, but managed to simultaneously earn a fair amount of money.
Eventually, wanting to free himself from his addiction and help his family, he returned home, money in hand, to help his parents build a new house.
He eventually found his way to a more legitimate job, driving cars for hotels. He focused on his education, got a GED by studying diligently, and met his wife.
Now, he is married with his own family and he drives clueless Uber passengers like me around his city – a city that he full well knows is broken, but is also beautiful.
Guys. The stories. They change everything.