It’s a new day and Claudia heads to the new child development centre wondering what it will bring. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, her schedule looks vastly different compared to her last decade of serving the children at the centre.

Though the children are unable to attend project activities, Claudia’s dedication means the staff are never far from them. Whatever the day brings, her prayer is the same: that the children are safe, and God continues to use the church to protect them.

According to UNICEF, eight out of ten children in Bolivia experience emotional or physical aggression, mainly at home or at school. When parents don’t assume their rightful role as their children’s protectors, Claudia and her team are there to intervene. Her love for the 300 children in Compassion’s programme at her local church is comparable to a mother’s. Time, tiredness, and tasks never weigh more than her need to protect the children against danger, illness, or injustice.

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Compassion Director, Claudia, at the new child development centre. 

In the 15 years that Claudia has served at Compassion’s church partner, she has experienced heartbreaking cases of violence against the children. Most commonly, it is negligence, but also physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. It is something she experienced in her own childhood and is passionate about protecting children from it. “I was the third of seven children. I suffered physical mistreatment in my childhood and adolescence. The oldest of us had to assume the role of mother and father, having to cook, wash diapers, and take care of the house, among other responsibilities,” she says.

“What I lived through drives me to step in when I see a child being hurt, if someone is doing something bad to them, I intervene because I see it is unfair.”

Claudia is a voice for the voiceless, but she is not alone. An ally in the battle is the centre’s Pastor Nery Saucedo and her staff. Five of the six staff members were sponsored as children, including Claudia. “Being sponsored has influenced our work and commitment because we have received the teachings, values, principles, and Christian education. Now, we are giving what we received, back to our children,” she says. Through their actions, the team shows the children in their care that they are known, loved and protected.

Over the years, they have intervened in desperate situations. They fought against child exploitation when parents used their children as labourers to collect garbage on the streets. Claudia's heart broke at the children’s appearance—they looked like beggars. “We picked up those children, bathed them, took them to get haircuts, removed their lice, and bought them clothes. We have had several similar cases since,” she says. “Their parents were never at home.” Negligence is all too common.

“We’ve had children attend the centre when they were very sick, some even with broken bones. We can’t bear to see them like that, so we had to take them to the doctor, have them checked over, and cover their medications,” she says. They have also supported children who were victims of physical abuse. “I remember the case of two sisters who arrived at the project crying. They showed us their damaged bodies—their father had hit them. The first thing we did with them was to speak with them, calm them down, pray with them, and then visited their home,” says Claudia. “One of the last cases we had was of sexual violence—the father was the aggressor. We reported the case and supported the family. The father is now in prison and awaiting sentencing. The girls are in counselling, and we are following up on the case.”

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Claudia and her team.

Claudia’s work isn’t confined to ordinary job hours. In the early morning, she accompanies children to appointments and often receives calls late at night from frantic mothers requesting help with their sick children. In most cases, Claudia and the team will speak with the child’s parents and visit the family with the church pastor. They also provide counselling for the parents or relatives and children. Generally, parents are agreeable—even the times that staff have been dealing with known drug users or gangs—and staff help them to realise the consequences of their actions.

“Thanks to the Lord, most have listened and changed their behaviour. We have had great outcomes. Parents know us, the community also knows us as the children’s and youth’s advocates,” says Claudia. Without the protective work of staff, many vulnerable children would not have an ally. “The reality would be terrible. Parents would have continued with the same bad behaviour. We would have even lost some lives,” says Claudia. “Children are unique—they are God’s creation. They are vulnerable and defenceless. If we don’t defend them, there would be few people to do it. We have to take care of them and support them.” The church partners not only respond to cases but also focus on prevention. They work with the children to identify if they are victims and let them know that they can ask for help.

Training sessions for parents and youth are also offered. At a time when Covid-19 has confined the children to their homes, away from the protective gaze of staff—Claudia’s work is more important than ever. As the only staff member from the centre with permission to move around the community, she is visiting every child’s house to check on their wellbeing. She takes them food baskets and spends time speaking with them. They also continue calling the children to maintain contact with them, so no one slips through the cracks.

Amid the challenge, Claudia is seeing God’s grace in action. “Thanks to the Lord, we are His instruments and we’ve been able to give a hand to several children. That fills me with joy. Mind and body might get tired, but the satisfaction of seeing that we’ve been able to help our children is gratifying. We have to get involved and give, and not to receive. When we hear of a case, we can help and extend our hand to a child, a mother or a family, we have to do it,” she says.

Though it’s after hours and her working day is over, Claudia knows her job isn’t necessarily done. There may be an emergency phone call to answer or a last-minute visit. She continues to show up. Her commitment to protecting the children doesn’t have a schedule.

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