A Maryknoll volunteer in Bolivia serves in prison ministry
and accompanies at-risk children
Corazón del Pastor House in Cochabamba, Bolivia, is home to 21 girls who were orphaned, abandoned or victims of family violence. Located in a middle-class residential area, it has a front garden, a courtyard, bedrooms on the first and second doors and a piano in an enormous living room with high ceilings. It does not have the institutional feel of an orphanage.
As a Maryknoll reporter, I came to observe the mission work of Molly Minnerath, a young American who volunteers there through the Maryknoll Volunteer Program in Bolivia.
When Minnerath arrives at the house, the girls who are doing their homework at the dining room table stand up and run to greet her with hugs and kisses on the cheek. “Hola, Tia,” they say in Spanish, meaning “Hello, Aunt.”
“Tia” is how the girls address each of the six adult women, including a psychologist, who live with them or run the home. The word aunt reflects the vision of the program: to provide the girls with the warmth and care of a family environment.
Minnerath, 23, does not live at the home, but, as a volunteer, she visits it frequently and has earned the title of aunt.
Corazón del Pastor, or Heart of the Shepherd, is one of three ministries operated by the Niños Con Valor (Children with Value) foundation, a nonprofit organization in Bolivia that offers refuge, help and healing to orphans, children at risk or those who have been neglected by their parents.
The other two programs are a home for boys called Pedacito de Cielo (Piece of Heaven) and a program called Sendero de Esperanza (Path of Hope) that helps prepare young teenage women to live independently.
The Niños Con Valor foundation is one of the organizations working with Maryknoll’s volunteer program. The Maryknoll program engages its volunteers in a myriad of ministries, including assisting and accompanying children, the elderly, people affected by HIV/AIDS, prisoners, parish groups and community gardeners, among others.
After greeting Minnerath, two of the teenage girls at Corazón del Pastor show Aunt Molly their progress with the piano lessons they receive from another volunteer. The home welcomes girls from birth and cares for them until they reach 18 years of age, when it helps them transition to other living arrangements.
“I’m here to love them and care for them, and to support the staff who are here day in and day out,” says Minnerath, whose work includes helping girls with homework and playing with them.
When Minnerath finished her theology studies at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota, she wanted to have an intercultural experience and answer her call to mission and discipleship. Minnerath, whose grandparents used to read Maryknoll magazine, learned about Maryknoll’s volunteer program and asked for support from her parish community of St. Mary’s Church in Alexandria, Minn., to raise $5,000 to cover a year of lodging, meals and transportation for her service in Bolivia.
Dan Moriarty, director of the Maryknoll Volunteer Program in Bolivia, explains that the program is a joint effort of three Maryknoll expressions—the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, the Maryknoll Sisters, and the Maryknoll Lay Missioners. It is one of four programs offered by the Maryknoll Mission Center for Latin America based in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Moriarty, a former Maryknoll lay missioner, says Minnerath also volunteers in the program’s prison ministry. He says Bolivian prisons for women are like overpopulated community centers, where the prisoners live with their underage children.
We head to Manos con Libertad (Freehands), a nonprofit center for women who are or have been in prison. We arrive at a four-story building operated by Freehands and walk through the first door, where the organization operates a restaurant. We nd Minnerath on the second door making pudding in the bakery.
“I work with Ely and help her to make whatever she asks me to make. Usually my work is to stir or pour the pudding because I have no talent as a baker,” says Minnerath, who assists women like Ely in making food and baked goods to sell and generate an income.
Ely is a Bolivian woman with two children who was abandoned by her husband. Jobless and penniless, she made the desperate mistake of transporting drugs for money. She spent ve years in prison and is now learning culinary skills to get a job to help support her children.
“Being in prison is an ugly thing,” Ely says, “but it was there that I found Freehands.” She says she is thankful to God and “all of the volunteers who come here. They are kind, hard workers and a good support.”
Minnerath says the gratitude is mutual.
“Being here fills me with joy, helping her, being with her, practicing my Spanish, and having beautiful conversations to get to know her,” Minnerath says. “I am very happy to be in Bolivia; it is a wonderful experience … to know the culture and the people who are so beautiful and can teach me about my faith and God. I can say this has been a transformative experience for me.”
Molly Minnerath shares her experiences and faith reflections on her blog: mollyminnerathblog.wordpress.com.
Featured Image: Volunteer Molly Minnerath holds a little boy in Bolivia, whose image is blurred to protect his identity. As part of her volunteer service, Minnerath works with children and women.