They are called “Gamines,” (gah MEE nays) and they are considered “the disposable ones”. The term refers to the thousands of children who are living and dying in the squalor of the streets in Bogotá, Colombia.
Every day, new families arrive in Bogotá; hungry, penniless, and hopeless. They are victims of a country plagued with war and extreme violence. These families were forced to flee from the rural lands of their birth to avoid the incredible violence wrought by the drug wars. And yet, although they have escaped from the immediate threat of the devastation in their hometown, their chances of survival in the poverty stricken slums of Bogotá are bleak.
It is in Bogotá that these families disintegrate in the face of such tragic destitution. Many children are abandoned and those who are not orphaned are still responsible for finding their own food. Some of these children survive by selling cigarettes, gum, and other trinkets on the streets. Others are forced into drug trafficking, prostitution, or begging. They live in the streets; starving, desperate, and afraid.
In 2001, the Missionary Oblates created a program to reach out to these poor children. Appropriately named, The Foundation of Support for Children in Extreme Poverty, began with just 12 street children. “These youngsters were living in local parks and sleeping under bridges. The original program offered a place for them to go during the day, get a hot meal, and prepared them to reenter the local schools,” explains Oblate Fr. Roger Hallee, the Program Director.
The initial program was successful and was soon moved to Ciudad Bolivar, a barrio situated on the southwest outskirts of Bogotá, where nearly 250,000 Colombians live in homes built on the hillsides. Fr. Roger continues, “Having
the program in Ciudad Bolivar allowed
us to be in the area with the most need…the most recent arrivals are squatters living in shacks in the ravines. The children of these families, uprooted from their original homes and schools,
are those we find wandering in the streets of Bogotá looking for handouts.”
Today, the program is able to accept 140 children each year, ranging in age from 10-15. However, there are thousands of needy children. Each child is assessed individually to determine which is the most in need. Because of budget limitations, the program can only accept one child per family. “It is a big decision on the part of the family to decide who will be chosen to take part in the program. It is sometimes heartbreaking to witness the sobbing mothers as they must choose one and leave the other three or four to fend for themselves,” explains Fr. Roger.
After the children are assessed and accepted into the program, efforts begin to inscribe these children in the local schools. Twice a month, the program provides dry goods to the family to help cover the need for food and limit their time spent roaming the streets asking for handouts. With the assistance of a social worker and a psychologist, the program also provides daily social programs outside of school hours to establish social skills and fortify family ties.
The program is constantly growing and evolving to include more children and better implement them into the local society. With the voluntary assistance of young college students, the program now offers supervised studies, morning and afternoon group activities, special activities, and group therapy with parents. The children eat a hot meal at noon and have refreshments during work sessions.
The permanent team is presently composed of a coordinator, a social worker, and a cook. On a rotating basis, mothers of the children help in the kitchen doing chores as part of their contribution. To this day, the program has been run from a small rented house. There is a tiny kitchen and a dining room that can seat 20 children at a time, forcing the 140 children to eat in shifts. There are also two rooms for activities and meetings and a small library with computers that the children use for school work.
Recently, Fr. Roger reported that a plot of land was donated by the local community. Once the transfer of the property has been concluded, Fr. Roger will be looking for funds to build a house that will allow for the program to accept more children.
Fr. Roger also reported that the government has finally recognized the necessity to help the destitute families by abolishing entry fees in government schools. Some students attend schools out of the local area and need to have daily bus fare to attend their classes. The annual cost of the program per child comes to $340. This includes school uniforms, books and school supplies, transportation, daily meals, special programs, outings, rental, and administrative costs.
The Oblates have had great success through their ministry with the children in the program. Those accomplishments are tainted with the knowledge that, for each child that is saved, there are thousands more children who are left to fend for themselves on the merciless streets of Bogotá.
In Matthew 26: 11, Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you…,” His words ring true for Fr. Roger every day as he faces the numerous children in desperate need. Yet, for each child saved, he remembers that he is helping to keep Christ alive in their hearts and also that Christ is truly alive in the hearts of the compassionate supporters of Oblate ministries throughout the world.
Oblate History in Colombia
It was the Haitian Oblates who first established the Oblate mission in 1994. Today there are eleven Oblates in Colombia, of whom four are Haitians, two are Americans, one is Colombian, and there are four Seminarians.
Oblate Ministries in Colombia
In Mahates, a costal Parish in the Archdiocese of Cartagena, the Oblates help forty students from poor families attend the local school system.
In Cartagena, in El Pozon, the Oblates help about a dozen students from poor families pursue their university studies.
Fr. Joseph Jean Louis, O.M.I., and Fr. Herick Jasmin, O.M.I., direct the Oblate House of Formation in Bogotá. The Oblate seminarians often teach catechism to some of the children in Fr. Roger’s program.
Bogotá Financial Breakdown
School uniforms and shoes: $50
Books and school supplies: $20
Transportation fees: $108
Field trips: $20
Building and Administration: $22
Northern South America, bordering the Caribbean Sea, between Panama and Venezuela, and bordering the North Pacific Ocean, between Ecuador and Panama
43,593,035 (July 2006 est.)
Mestizo - 58%, Caucasian - 20%,
Mulatto - 14%, Black - 4%,
Mixed Black/Amerindian - 3%,
Roman Catholic - 90%
Other - 10%
Percent of population
below poverty line:
*Note: Taken from the CIA World Fact Book