From Mumbai to Manila, Rio to La Paz, in urban centers around the world, 100 million children are growing up on the streets. Children abandoned, orphaned, neglected, and abused find their way to the streets at ages as young as 5 or 6; infants born to teenagers who have grown up on the streets join their ranks every day. Banding together, these children live without family or other adults, scraping an existence from the world around them any way they can. They sleep in sewers, abandoned buildings, under bridges, wherever they can lay their heads, often ignored by people passing by. They eat scraps like dogs, in cities where programs to feed the hungry are few and far between. Dirty, hungry, bruised, and ashamed, they live without hope for a better tomorrow. They are children without a childhood.
Kaya Children International (Kaya), originally named the Bolivian Street Children Project (BSCP), began in 1997 as a volunteer effort initiated by Dr. Chi Huang and sponsored by Park Street Church of Boston. Taking a year off before entering his medical residency, Dr. Chi spent a year in La Paz, a rocky valley city of two million carved into the high plains (altiplano) of Bolivia, in the heart of South America. There he encountered firsthand the heart-wrenching faces of children living on the streets. Coordinating volunteers from a local church, Dr. Chi reached out to these children. Their aim was to help children leave the streets and enter a local residential facility, but this proved more difficult than expected. Something had to change or a generation of children would be permanently lost to the streets. Volunteers continued outreach efforts into 1998 and 1999, with frequent visits from Dr. Chi, who had returned to the US to complete his medical training. The growing group of volunteers provided medical care, organized play, Bible devotions, and food to the street children, seeking to build relationships, earn their trust, and help them make a permanent move away from the streets. As those relationships grew, the children began to speak, providing important insight into why certain programs didn't seem to help. One day, Dr. Chi asked the children, "What do you want from us?" The response was simple: Be present in our lives. Share our stories with anyone who will listen. Build us a home. And that's just what they did.
In early 2001, Hogar Bernabé (the Barnabas Home) was opened and Kaya took root as an organized initiative of Park Street Church. The approach was simple: help one child at a time. Working with one child at a time, Kaya's residential program began to take shape. One thing became clear immediately: one subset of the children living on the street were not thriving in state-run organizations. These children had made multiple attempts to leave the streets, living in orphanages, state-funded homes, or participating in programs run by a variety of charitable organizations throughout the city, but ultimately returned to street life, often more dejected and resistant to the possibility of change than before. These children, who had been blacklisted by other organizations after multiple entries, exits, and other infractions; children with long histories of trauma and abuse; children who struggled with drug addiction, already numb and hardened by street life; these children became the focus of Kaya's efforts.
Over the next several years, Kaya grew slowly and steadily from one home to three, with each home serving only 10 children at a time. It moved out from under the umbrella of Park Street Church and became an independent non-profit organization. And Kaya's focus was refined by experience and a deeper understanding of the children who we serve. Volunteer leaders in the US engaged in research to better understand the individual needs of the children in the homes. Considerable time was spent evaluating intervention strategies, expanding our program to include psychosocial services, better medical care, improved educational support, and a stronger grasp on the cultural, familial, and societal issues behind the ever-present problem of children living on the streets.
In 2008, Kaya expanded its vision and reach by opening the Kaya Center, a place dedicated to providing services to strengthen families, respond to poverty, and provide educational support to children in need. In 2012, we launched Warmi Kaya, a program focused on supporting mothers through job-training, microfinancing of small businesses, parenting classes, and other services. Through Warmi Kaya and the Kaya Center, we seek to heal and strengthen families and ultimately prevent children from running to the streets in the first place.
In Quechua, one of the indigenous languages of Bolivia, the word "Kaya" means "tomorrow". At Kaya Children International, it is our deepest desire to give the children of La Paz a better tomorrow, saving children and healing families, one child at a time.