Amidst poverty and a generation of abandoned youth in Bolivia, a beautiful, adventurous and inspiring thing is happening.
Bolivia, like all South American countries and cultures, has a rich history and wonders in abundance. Yet among the eight largest (by population) countries in South America, Bolivia is the most impoverished. If you’re interested in the data, read the Ethos Poverty Index published by the Ethos Fundación.
Here’s a snippet: In Latin America, $60 per month is the minimum amount needed to purchase adequate food for an average family. Thirty-eight percent of Bolivians earn less than that, compared to 22% of Colombians and 14% of Ecuadorians. "At the other extreme is Chile, where only 2.5% of households do not have sufficient income for adequate nutrition."1
45.6% of Bolivian children die before their first birthday.
Our story takes place in a city called Cochabamba, the fourth largest in Bolivia. Of the country’s 16,000 orphans, 3,000 live in group homes and on the streets of Cochabamba.2 Of these, we will introduce you to Juan, Carlos, and Daniel.3
These boys represent both a generation of abandoned youth AND the healing and empowerment made possible through relationship and adventure.
Fundación Aventura is creatively meeting real needs of belonging, healing, and opportunity. What might seem like a standard summer camp experience is a life-changing, soul-building achievement for young boys defying the odds. One boy, one trek at a time.
It may all seem like a drop in the bucket, but it’s a beginning—and one that holds a lot of promise.
1 The income of each country was standardized and adjusted according to the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) of 2007 reported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF)
2 SEDEGES, Los Servicios Departamentales de Gestión Social, 2007
3 Names have been changed to protect the privacy of these individuals
Cochabamba is both beautiful and paradoxical. It's an agricultural city with an urban center surrounded by very rural and impoverished regions.
With a moderate climate and fertile soil, Cochabamba is often referred to as the ‘Garden City’ because most days feel like spring. However, the challenges of poverty (39% of people in Bolivia live below the poverty line1), combined with an increasingly young population and lack of access to social services have produced a generation of at-risk youth.
Because the public system lacks the resources and funding to accommodate the large number of orphaned children, many end up fending for themselves at a young age. As expected, they do what they must to survive, sometimes finding work in the drug trade. They may work in cocaine production as stompers (pisacocas), treading barefoot over coca leaves in skin-searing solutions of diesel fuel, kerosene and sulfuric acid. Others are used as smugglers.
If caught, these youth are incarcerated, and usually (87% of the time) sent to adult prisons2. They aren't the only young people growing up in jail though. According to the Bolivia Life Center in Cochabamba, “The local women’s prison houses 1,000 children who are forced to serve their mother’s sentence because there is no other place for them to live. They sleep on makeshift floor mats and are only fed if their mother has the ability to pay for their food. And even then they are not safe from the streets...when the prison becomes ‘overcrowded,’ the older children (as young as 10 years old) are removed from the prison and sent out into the streets, expected to find their own way in the world.”
A Path of Overcoming
Many Bolivian children experience various forms of trauma and abuse. Youth living in prison are robbed of their childhood. Others live on the street and, in addition to the hardships of life on their own, become easy targets of violence and abuse. Young kids are in and out of foster care homes or institutionalized in orphanages. Some orphan environments are better than others, but in all cases, the trauma of abandonment is very real. Children lack the safety and security of a loving family. Others end up institutionalized because of abuse in the home, leaving deep wounds, both physical and emotional.
Fundación Aventura was founded as a practical response to this reality, quickly illuminating the resilience, determination and leadership potential of this generation of abandoned youth. Through adventure, pain is transformed into passion, fear into courage and tragedy into triumph. What may look like nothing more than an adventurous hike or thrilling climb to the casual observer is, for these youth, a powerful, holistic therapeutic experience—one that teaches they are not defined by the past, but prepared for the future.
Meet Juan, for example. Juan grew up in an orphanage. His father left when he was very young, and his mother remarried soon after. Most nights, his stepfather came home drunk and abusive. Juan's older brother tried to protect him, taking most of the beatings himself. As a result, his brother took some severe blows to the head that have interfered with his development. With his stepfather now gone, and he lives with his mom, brother, and some brutal scars.
Daniel's parents died when he was young. At the age of five, he was placed in an orphanage along with his younger siblings, while his older siblings were left to make it on their own. He has grown up in a group home since.
At four-years-old, Carlos and his younger brother Luis were all but abandoned. Once left alone in a rented room for three weeks, their parents would regularly leave for 12 or more hours each day, only to return home drunk at night. Sometimes their father would leave Carlos' older sister, six-years-old at the time, four bolivianos (60 cents) to buy food for herself, Carlos and Luis. The Bolivian equivalent of Child Protective Services, SEDEGES, removed the three children from the home, but Carlos was separated from his siblings for two years until Luis was finally placed in the same orphanage. Carlos' mother visited once and promised to take the children home, but never returned.
These boys are no longer abandoned; they are thriving, conquering fears, healing from trauma and discovering both confidence and brotherhood.
1 World Bank, 2013
2 SEDEGES, 2007
The trek through the largest of Toro Toro's five canyons began with a descent from 11,900 feet alongside an epic landscape of windswept bluffs and imposing, formidable cliffs.
Complications came quickly, beginning with the realization that the trek was nearly twice as long as they thought and had rationed for (a little mile-kilometer mixup). Nerves began to fray as people ran out of water and legs and spirits grew weary.
The boys were being tested. Leading an adventure hike through the mountaineous heights of Cochabamba, Bolivia is no small feat. They rallied together like a little band of brothers, encouraging fatigued hikers, sharing water, shouldering packs not their own and running ahead to set up tents and filter water for those farther behind.
Dusk and nightfall mean dinner and campfire. As the star carpet of the universe appears, the boys make their contribution with fireworks. Canyon walls fire back each crack and snap with a threatening echo. When fun and fuses finish, the group settles into reflection and sharing. Sixteen-year-old Alex sets the tone by volunteering his personal story. These moments are sacred and safe, rare and precious—their importance and significance cannot be overstated.
Camp breaks at dawn. The team shoulder their packs for a long trek up and out of the canyon, across the plateau, crossing three other canyons along the way. The physicality of the challenge is intense, with hour-long scrambles up near-vertical rock faces. Courage and determination are tested; again, invaluable experience for young men intent on overcoming not just this, but much in life. They have similar obstacles to summit in other areas of life. In many ways, this is training.
The sun sets and rises again, ushering in day three: a day hike of rock scrambling, rappelling (that is, attaching yourself to a cliff by rope and bouncing down backwards off its face), cliff jumping and swimming in canyon pools. These are days for teaching and training in the deeper matters of life, with boys facing stacked odds in a place of fairly limited opportunity.
Carlos overcame his fear of heights leaping into the first pool from a height of 15 feet. Unstoppable, he then jumped twice off the much larger cliff into the second pool farther down the canyon.
Juan, also not a fan of heights, took on a similarly intimidating challenge: Scramble down the abrupt rock faces in a virtual sprint toward the lower pools, without ropes. Juan has been with Fundacion Aventura for nearly five years and has perhaps grown the most, earning himself a reputation for being responsible, caring, selfless and bold.
Daniel, meanwhile, harbored a fear of moving water. And for good reason: Two years ago while traversing a rock face along a raging river, he fell into the main current with a full pack on and was swept 100 meters downriver before being pulled out onto shore. Not knowing how to swim, the experience was especially traumatic. He had been afraid to go near natural bodies of water ever since. But today, seemingly without hesitation, he got into one of the canyon pools, waterfalls cascading around him. He dove out into the murky depths where he could not stand, learning to tread and to float...and to overcome.
As is often the case, the way out was the hardest stretch. One boy ran ahead to scout the best route over an immense boulder, another to clear the brush away from an alternative route. They formed a human chain to get up and over tough spots, and then ran in a pack, leaping from rock to rock. They offered to hoist people up from the heights they had already scaled and worked together to make sure everyone got through difficult spots. These snapshots of teamwork and comradery were powerful examples of the group trust, confidence, empathy and shared responsibility that the program instills in its participants.
By creating a safe place for the boys to try new things and have the freedom to fail, Fundación Aventura provides opportunities for youth to overcome trauma, conquer fears, instill confidence and build lifelong friendships.
Trauma robs children of their safety and security; adventure therapy helps them re-discover it. In this photo essay, Adam Mason documents the community of Fundación Aventura as they come together, build trust and venture out on a journey of healing and hope.
Beyond belonging and personal development, trauma healing is a major focus of Fundación Aventura's work. Many of the boys have been abused, and nearly all have endured neglect. They are building a family – a band of brothers who encourage, support and challenge one another.
Founder and Director Brian McArthur describes it this way:
"One of the main obstacles we face is the lack of a safe space for the boys to try new things. Everyone, especially in an orphanage setting, is under tremendous pressure to be the tough guy. Any sort of activity that you participate in that could ruin that image or put into question how much of a man that you are comes with a lot more baggage and weight than it would in other situations. So one of the main points of the program is creating safe space for our guys to be able to truly adventure and potentially fail. Each achievement they have (however small) allows each of these guys to be able to support and respect one another. As they watch each other conquer and confront fears, or guys that used to be very timid and just hang around the sides, around the edges, and observe, being the ones to dive in, it’s really helped them to respect each other and see one another more as brothers, rather than just fellow residents of an institution."
Adventure Therapy is a technique that challenges participants to face fears, build trust, take personal responsibility and work with other participants to complete difficult tasks in a controlled outdoor environment. Participants take part in each activity willingly and voluntarily, increasing their own investment in the process and increasing its effectiveness. As each participant’s realization of their own capacity grows, program leaders help them make the connection with other challenges from daily life, both past and present.
Fundación Aventura’s adventure therapy program utilizes these therapeutic techniques to help youth overcome the traumatic experiences of their childhood. Its holistic approach integrates faith, fun and a sense of belonging alongside proven and tested methods of adventure therapy to provide youth with a safe place to heal and grow.
Boys also learn valuable skills such as swimming, riding a bike, driving a car and first-aid training. For youth in Bolivia, these are not assumed rights of passage, nor are they leisure activities. The skill of driving a car or riding a bike can be the key to opening a door for employment.
Leadership + Development
In terms of empowerment for the future, the program provides opportunities for youth to lead groups of tourists on hikes through their native mountains. In another setting, the tourists would be the more likely leaders, but among the winding peaks of Bolivia, students become teachers, leading and guiding adults often twice their age up and down rocky paths.
"In all of our camps and outings I've learned to value what people give me, how to take care of it, and also how to value and take care of other people and nature. I feel more free, more calm. I've learned to change my attitude and be more of a leader," reflects one program participant.
Older boys in the program also serve as guides and mentors for the younger participants. They provide encouragement and support as well as guidance and instruction. When entrusted with leadership roles, the boys consistently rise to the occasion, showing responsibility and discovering their own potential to contribute to their community.
Michael describes it this way, "I've learned that if you practice and want to exceed your expectations you can achieve it. Your friends, anytime you can't do it yourself, they're by your side, supporting you, giving you advice."
By leading others through treacherous territory, these unique young men are empowered and equipped with the skills to obtain meaningful work and help care for their own communities. We like to think of it as the path of overcoming.
I first learned about ‘adventure therapy’ while perusing an article about an innovative program in San Francisco that helps children with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) overcome trauma and anxiety through adventure-based activities. Initially, it sounded counter-intuitive, as a group of anxiety-ridden children would not be the first candidates that come to mind for a rock-climbing adventure.
But in reality, these scenarios empowering traumatized kids to face their fears are simultaneously allowing them to rebuild trust and re-establish their sense of self. The confidence that comes on the other side of overcoming fear translates into resilience. The self-respect that accompanies accomplishment carries over into other arenas of life.
At Fundación Aventura, the powerful tool of adventure therapy is partnered with an investment in meaningful relationships to help heal, restore and empower youth in Bolivia. Abandoned youth are no longer abandoned – they belong. Victimized boys are no longer victims – they are survivors. Overcomers.
The French playwright Molière once said: “The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.” Glory abounds in a small community of Bolivian boys.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly