Updated: Apr 17, 2019
In 1996, Jane Skeans made one intrepid journey to South America as bright eyed 22 year old looking for adventure. She found adventure, and started a 20 year friendship and partnership with Elisa Aguilar Yuri. In 2007 they launched Bolivia Kids, a Canadian Registered charity that is changing the lives of 80+ Bolivian children every year. The charity is rooted in Bolivia with strong ties back to Canada; Elisa managing the on-the-ground operations, community outreach and program development, and Jane working to raise awareness and valuable funds to support the foundation from Canada. Here is their story, and their vision for the future of Bolivia Kids.
Q - How Did you both meet one another?
Jane: I met Elisa in 1996, when I was living in La Paz, Bolivia. I volunteered at an after-school education project, and she was a teacher there. When I left Bolivia in late 1997 to pursue a Masters Degree (in economic and social development), Elisa suggested to me that we work together to create a similar facility in a hugely under-served neighbourhood near El Alto. I began fundraising on my return to Canada, and visited the community frequently over the next 5 years. Elisa had developed wonderful relationships in the community built on strong foundations of trust. Together with the families and her co-founders Vierca and Eliana, they created an impressive and caring space for children. They volunteered their time and had limited funds to invest in the project. I was incredibly inspired by their collective commitment to ensuring healthy child development in their community and decided with Elisa to create registered charities in Canada and Bolivia to sustainably support their efforts. Bolivia Kids became a Canadian registered charity in 2007. That same year, Elisa began working full time as Director of Project Sariry.
Elisa: I met Jane when I worked in the CEDIN II program (Centro de Desarrollo Integral del Niño) of the La Paz Foundation, in the Pampahasi area of the City of La Paz. Jane was working as a volunteer with children of families of socioeconomic disadvantage. This experience of working together with families in precarious living conditions, led us to answer the call for support from community members in the area of Tilata. We founded and created a community-based education and child development centre for vulnerable children.
Tilata is located between the periphery of the city of El Alto and the intermediate city of Viacha. 18 years ago, Tilata had no school for the children of the area, there was no health centre, no public transport, no sewer system, and no basic services (water, electricity). Many children were malnourished and illiterate. Today, the area has a school for the primary level, however it still does not have a health centre, sewer, or citizen security. The index of children in situations of violence remains high, and a low quality of life persists. Currently, the area of Tilata is receiving migrants from rural areas and from other cities in Bolivia. This has caused rapidly accelerated urbanization, increased public insecurity, children and adolescents in abandonment situations, intrafamily violence, and precarious family economic situations.
Q - What has been your biggest challenge since starting up Bolivia Kids and Project Sariry?
Jane: The biggest challenges have been managing Project Sariry's growth and the need for additional services in the community. Every year, more families are hoping to enrol their children in Sariry's programs and community leaders are encouraging Project Sariry to address many gaps in community support. Keeping up with the success of the talented staff at Sariry with a sustainable financial growth plan is not always easy! We are always looking for new partners both locally and internationally to support this work.
Q: What has been your proudest accomplishment?
Jane: One thing I am very proud of, is the relationships that we have developed in the community of Tilata. I also draw great motivation from the relationships that Bolivia Kids has developed with our donors here in Canada, and the connection between those donors and the families at Sariry. Our partnership is very collaborative and we learn a lot from each other. Having Elisa and Vierca visit Calgary to celebrate our 10th anniversary was a very special way to honour our partnership, and also an enriching way to exchange ideas between them and local non-profits in Calgary.
Elisa: We have many successes that I am proud of. At the individual level, the children and adolescents in our program are succeeding at school and overcoming many learning challenges. We have addressed one of the most pressing issues in the community, which is malnutrition, by providing a complimentary hot lunch program. The children are thriving as a result.
I am proud of how we have successfully empowered parents to be a part of the project's management. The parent's have learned a great deal about community organization and healthy child development through their participation, and have developed important friendships as well. At a community level, we have created a network of organizations that are working together to prevent all forms of violence against women and children.
And finally, I am very proud of the reputation we have developed in the community. Project Sariry is a real beacon of hope for the community, and we are recognized as a critical organization in the area that is successfully supporting families, children and communities to thrive.
Q - Are there any personal stories that have made in lasting impression on you?
Jane: I met Juana on one of my earliest trips to Tilata. She is a single mother with 7 children. Six of them are boys! She was living in very difficult circumstances when we hired her to be the cook at Sariry. After significant effort on the part of Elisa and the staff at Sariry to train her to cook for 70 people, she became very accomplished at her work. Five years later, she left Sariry to accept a job as a chef in El Alto. The sustained income allowed her to purchase a new house, and provide her children with many basic needs, like a full education, dental care, and healthy food. It has been amazing to see the entire family's trajectory change as a result of her economic success.
Elisa: Sonia's family are migrants from rural areas. Sonia came to Project Sariry when she was 9 years old with her 2 little brothers. They all lived with her older sister. Their parents live in the highlands of La Paz with 2 younger daughters. The 4 oldest children live in the area of Tilata on their own so that they can attend school. Three of them attend(ed) Project Sariry. Their parents continued to work in agriculture and livestock in order to provide for their children's education. Sonia and her 2 younger brothers were quite young and felt they needed guidance and support with their school work, food, and emotional support. They benefited greatly from our care, and they showed tremendous motivation and commitment to their studies and to achieving their school goals. Sonia was accepted to the university of the city of La Paz, which is very difficult to enter (it was a very positive, joyful moment for Project Sariry), and her younger brother Ivo was accepted into the military school of Music (ends this year). The youngest, Ever is now applying to enter university or to the music academy. He is following in the footsteps of his older sister and brother. Sonia continues to study and is very motivated to conclude her degree in architecture next year. She is currently supported by Bolivia Kids through a scholarship to complete her degree.
Jane: I also echo Elisa's sentiments. I first met Sonia when we shared a tent together on a camping trip. She was 12. It is a real gift to see many of the children start graduating now, and contributing to the fabric of their communities in such positive ways.
Q - What's next for Bolivia Kids?
Jane: Sariry is an Aymara word that means to "forge ahead". We keep putting one foot in front of the other, and dreaming big. We would love to build connections between the children at Sariry with children from my community here in Calgary, providing them with the opportunity to benefit from sharing ideas, learning from each other, and partnering together to make a difference for each other.
To grow our program for children under 6 years of age by expanding our space, purchasing new materials and therefore increasing our capacity for more pre-schoolers.
We would love to create technical training spaces for our adolescents and also for the community at large.
We see the need to create a temporary shelter for children and women in situations of violence.
Project Sariry is a wonderful collaboration and partnership with people from Bolivia, Canada and Germany. It has grown from a 1-room community hall and is now an education centre with 4 classrooms where children and their families participate in education programs, pre-school programs, primary health and sexual health education, parent education, teacher training, family violence prevention, field trips, music, dance, theatre, leadership courses, a mother's sewing cooperative and a delicious hot lunch program! It has been an amazing journey so far!