Hi all, I don´t normally ask for things for my birthday, but today is an exception. I would love you to support the fundraiser I´ve set up to conduct urgent repairs on the CAICC minibus. If you would have bought me a present or would just like to make a donation to a worthy cause, please click below and donate. A year ago this appeared on my Facebook news feed from an old high school friend. This is Joe. This is his story.
I knew there was more to life than my corporate high pressure job. I always wanted to be able to give something back to people not as lucky as us. I didn’t know how that was going to shape itself. I did know that quitting my job and travelling through Europe, Asia and South America was a good place to start.
In South America was where I started to seriously look for volunteer work. I found myself on a bus for ten hours travelling south of La Paz to Cochabamba. Even though I thought there might be volunteer work there, I wasn’t sure. At the end of that bus journey I knocked on the massive fifteen foot high security doors of Sustainable Bolivia and everything began to shift into place.
One of the charity programs affiliated with Sustanable Bolivia was CAICC: Centro de Apoyo Integral Carcelario y Comunitario; a program which worked with children who lived in jails. I put it down at the top of my list of preferences.
Within a few days Sustainable Bolivia found me a home stay with a local family. I didn’t speak Spanish and while fortunately the mother was an English teacher, she only spoke to me in Spanish so I could learn. I took intensive Spanish classes for the next week. It was draining yet rewarding at the same time. Then I got the call that I had a volunteer place at CAICC.
In Bolivian jail’s you have the option of taking your family with you. The conditions are horrendous. The jail I worked in was separated into a men’s and a women’s side. I’d say at least half the mums had one or two kids living with them. The sleeping quarters were tiny rooms; 3 metres by 4 metres and each with four bunks. One family lived per bed. One mum with her kids and all her possessions – blankets, toys, photographs – everything that she had, lived and slept all on that one small bunk bed.
About 80% of the women are in jail for narcotics trafficking. Many of these women are unemployed or they are busting their chops to earn $100 a month, so when a drug dealer offers them $1000 to take a package from A to B it can be so tempting. They kind of know it is wrong, but they don’t really know the ramifications, so they do it and get caught.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, a lot of the time the trial is not for years. So they don’t know if they are going to be in jail for three years, five years, fifteen years or twenty years. We had mums in there that have been waiting three years and still haven’t had their trial. Many times these women are just crying their hearts out in there.
The kids are free to leave the jail whenever they want. The question is where are they going to go? That is where CAICC steps in.
Each morning the CAICC bus would pick up all the kids from the prison and take them to CAICC headquarters. We gave them breakfast and then spent the day entertaining the kids, helping them with their homework, taking them to the park, playing on the swings, playing football – just doing kid’s stuff.
When I got there the bus was having problems. The starter motor was about to go and the tyres were bald. I was worried about this bus. We got a quote to fix the starter motor, suspension and tyres for $1500 and I thought right we need to do a fundraiser for this. I set up an online fundraiser and with my birthday about to come up I thought it was a good chance to get some free publicity, so I shared it on Facebook.
People started donating money and I was overwhelmed. Within four or five days the target had been reached and over the following week we exceeded it by $1000. A day after the fundraiser started the starter motor gave up for good and in that week CAICC’s attendance was down about fifty percent. Fixing that bus, even though it was a crappy old bus, was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had as it made a difference to the lives of those kids. The extra money raised was used to support some of the other initiatives at CAICC.
After eight weeks my time there was up. Over that time I’d built up amazing relationships with all the staff and kids, some of which I still speak with today. For my farewell I was given a massive cake and lots of cards from the kids. One of the staff member’s husbands brought in his guitar and played for me Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, which is one of my favourite songs, it was a very personal moment in my life. I’ll always remember that moment. I invested a lot of effort trying to make a difference there and walked away very thankful.
Even though the prisons were awful places, they were dark, they were cramped and there was a lot of sadness – the kids always found a way of making fun and being happy. Even if it was just playing with something small or making a game and playing with each other, they were always happy. The kids were not sad to go back to the jail at the end of the day. It became normal for them. They had lived in jail for years, some were born there, and they were going back to their mum, which made every kid happy. They were not weighed down by the seriousness of the situation as we would see it. I never expected the resilience of the kids or the optimism of these kids.
Joe’s journey has brought him back home to Australia. The night I sat down to talk to him we could have talked all night. I was one of the people who donated to fix Joe’s bus. A bus so old and desperate it would only be worth scrap metal here. But this is a bus that offers hope to children in a situation I never even knew existed. My heart breaks for these children and at the same time I feel humbled to know Joe and know that he is someone who made a difference. When I asked him if his experience has changed him, he offered me a little perspective:
Every morning the kids would help chop and peel potatoes for the day, Bolivians eat a lot of potatoes. One morning I asked them why they don’t use potato peelers. The cook looked at me like ‘how can we afford potato peelers?’ So I went out and bought a whole heap of potato peelers, I bought good ones which cost about $2.50 each and they were so grateful for them. I spend more on my take away coffee in Australia, don’t you?
I could have written thousands and thousands of words to share more details of Joe’s story. For it is not just a story of his good will or how he was humbled by these incredible children. It is a story that without Joe would not have a voice. We live in a world so instantly connected. But only connected to others within our social media, within our scrolling news sites. That is so very few of us. Most of the world lives in the silence outside that connection. Thank you Joe for giving these children a voice and sharing your story of hope and a crappy old bus, and the beautiful smiling children who live in jail.
All images are copyright to Joe Greco.
If you would like to nominate someone or yourself to be part of Stories of You, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to meet you over coffee and hear your story. Read the other incredible stories from the Stories of You collection here.