A Triad of Caring

A volunteer works with children and the center
A volunteer works with children and the center

St. Bernadette's Children's Center, Home and School

Fr. Tony Coney

Mission: To promote in all areas of society, with other social representatives, the defense and respect for the human rights of children and adolescents, so that they can opt for a dignified life, and be agents of change in the future. Vision: A society where children and adolescents fully exercise their human rights.

St. Bernadette's Children's Center

Fr. Tony and Violeta
Fr. Tony and Violeta

The story of St. Bernadette's Children's Center began with the arrival of Columban Fr. Tony Coney to the parish of Los Santos Archangels in 1995. During those first months he frequently visited the poor and barren hillside of Corn Hill in order to get to know the people and the reality in which they lived. What impacted him most were the living conditions of the children and their subsequent vulnerability, which became the impetus for the founding of the Center.

The Center was inaugurated on February 15, 1997. Our main objective was to provide a safe and caring environment for the children of the immediate area, irrespective of creed or race. An environment where they could grow and learn to appreciate themselves and others as valuable members of society, while at the same time being able to enjoy their childhood through play and participation in the many activities on offer. Our hope was, and is, that when these children are parents they will be able to pass on what they have gained through their experience in the Center. 

Over the years we have had to expand considerably in order to accommodate the amount of children and youth who use the Center. In order to respond to their needs this has included extra office space for our "Child Defense Desk" which promotes the protection of children and their human rights, along with speech therapy and psychological support.

The Children's Center Today

In January of each year, when we close for repairs and maintenance, we organize a formation course for the staff to equip ourselves for the work, and also to plan for the year ahead. We prepare projects in all the different areas of work from which the children can choose, while always trying to maintain and promote the values of cultural identity, freedom with responsibility, self-esteem and respect for others, and honesty, which we hope the children will internalize in the Center.

With the support of a team of professionals, including our own, along with other teachers, psychologists and government institutions, we are progressing in the area of the protection and promotion of human rights of children and adolescents both here in the Center and outside in the groups that we visit. We also promote our Child Protection Policy for the prevention of abuse against minors, especially that of sexual abuse. To this end we visit schools and other areas where children congregate so as to form protection teams against all form of abuse.

Activities and Workshops

We offer different areas of activities and workshops where the protection of rights and the development of values like responsibility, solidarity, cooperation and respect for others are important for the overall harmonic coexistence. The Center is set up for the children to play and participate freely and be able to discover and develop their creativity. All the areas have their own planned projects, as well as working together in the overall projects of the Center based on the values and objectives we promote.

Psychological Service

Those who use our services are attended, free of charge, by a multi-disciplinary team made up of psychologists, speech therapists and social workers. They are dedicated to becoming aware of the personal, social and family characteristics of the children, the detection and treatment of emotional and learning problems, and through workshops the personal development of the children.

The workshops are proposed by the children and develop themes like values, rights of the child, self-esteem, friendship, decision making and more. Our objective is the improvement of the conditions of the well-being of the family where the children can develop and grow in a healthy and loving environment.

The service also offers the parents support through individual consultation, personal counseling and directing workshops in the community, especially in schools where we offer formation courses to the parents, teachers and pupils.

Child Protection Policy

Children playing

Because of the major problem of sexual abuse within Peru we have elaborated a policy that will help protect children from abuse, and provide guidelines as to what to do given such an eventuality. We train all our personnel on what steps to take according to this policy so that we can act promptly against any offender, and offer protection for the child affected. We also work in the community and the local schools to promote child protection in general along with an awareness of the human rights of children, so that adults will be better able to respect these rights and protect their children. We also are working toward setting up other child protection teams in schools while presenting a program of intervention so that the operators of the schools will have the tools they need to protect their children.

Child Defense Desk

This is a service created especially to promote and protect the human rights of children in all aspects, which are threatened in the family home, school or community, and where the children will feel listened to and protected, whether the abuse is physical, emotional or sexual. Through this child defense desk, where other members of the public can also present cases of abuses perpetrated, we can communicate these complaints directly to the proper authorities, and indeed, to some extent take action ourselves before going to the authorities.

Outreach to the Family and the Community

Our main focus of attention is that of the children and adolescents, but considering that they come from families of high risk in the social, educative and economic areas, we decided to work more closely with the parents, through integrated workshops and training sessions. We go wherever there are groupings of adults and organize campaigns with different public institutions present so that the people can consult professionals freely in the areas of their concerns. We also invite the parents to the Center to see what their children have accomplished through the workshops.

We hope to expand our services to include a greater number of children and adolescents, to continue serving the human needs of these young people, so that they may become valuable members of society with something important to offer. Our hope would be that this project could continue indefinitely with the support of local and central government, that we would maintain the principle of freedom with responsibility within our institution, and that this example will serve to stimulate the setting up of other centers which are focused on children and adolescents in most need in the country.

St. Bernadette's Children's Home

Although the Children's Center can be seen from a long way off as it is perched precariously on top of a hillside, it is the sound of children playing that gives the first inkling as to the purpose of the building. Walking up the steep, dusty hillside, the sound of musical instruments and the happy tones of laughter increase. On reaching the top of the hill the children scurry past, all headed towards the Center, where a warm welcome greets everyone who enters. Here the children experience the freedom to be children, and as a result, can participate in the many activities on offer: It's their space.

From time to time though, we come across a young boy or girl who is very obviously alone and sad, who keeps to themselves and looks as if they are carrying the worries of the world on their little shoulders. And to all intents and purposes they are. It is in this way we have detected many cases of children being mistreated, at school and at home, and with nobody to talk to about their problems they feel all the more isolated and hopeless. Through our psychology department we are able to help them open up and share the difficulties that they're experiencing. At times though, this is not enough, and often we have felt frustrated ourselves as there is very little help available from the local authorities for these children, who to a large extent have to suffer in silence.

Indeed we have found over the years, through our "Child Defense Desk," children who are being abused sexually are doubly affected because of the inefficiency of the legal authorities which appear to favor the aggressor. The justice system, made up of the police, medical and judicial authorities, take so long in processing the cases that frequently the child has to remain in the same abusive situation, only worse, as very often she/he is blamed for bringing this trouble on the family, and hence, suffering further deterioration in physical, mental and social health.

Motivated by this plight, St. Bernadette's Children´s Home was created, where temporary residential care is offered along with the opportunity to heal their wounds through psychological intervention and lots of affection.

A Healing Oasis

"When I entered the Home for the first time I thought that it was a prison, whereas now that I am leaving to return to my family, I think just the opposite. It is a place where they gave me much love and I learnt good things." (Maria, 12 years of age)

On entering the Home the feeling is of arriving at an oasis, a place of rest, as the color of the gardens, the sounds of the animals and the water cascading down the rocks of the Lourdes grotto, all help in achieving our aim to provide a sanctuary, which is in stark contrast to the local environment and the reality of the children who stay with us. Because of this welcoming and tranquil atmosphere, everyone who comes to stay adapts very quickly to their new surroundings.

All the children help with the animals especially during school holidays when there is more time, which helps them learn to show and receive affection. It has been amazing to watch the effect this involvement has had on the children. Because of their experiences some of the children are very aggressive and mistrusting of others, but through their chores of feeding the animals, cleaning the pens and collecting eggs, etc., they learn to leave aside their aggression and become friendlier with each other. Samuel, age 10, who entered with very little tolerance of failure, very irritable, nearly always grumbling, achieved something which nobody previously had done in the Home. He made a friend of "Aurora," our talking parrot who pecks very hard when anybody comes too close. Samuel, however, managed to approach him and give him food in his hands without being bit, and offered to teach other children how to do the same, which allowed him to form new friendship with the others.

As cleanliness and hygiene are also very important there is a cleaning roster drawn up by the children themselves, which they carry out, while also encouraging their companions to observe with responsibility. Even the smallest children help to do the cleaning, even though it may not be done very well. It is the effort we value in their desire to look after their surroundings, and to do something for the others. We adults join them in this work, given that example is the guide to form habits. They also wash their own clothes. With the smallest ones taking care of their underwear only, while the older ones wash all their clothes. Our wish is that they learn to be independent, because at home, many come from families where no father is present, and the mother has to go out to work.

We try to ensure that the children have as normal a time as possible, through continuing to go to school as before, doing their homework, having family visits and time for play. Given that all the children with us will eventually go home, we don´t want their separation from us to be too traumatic, hence, the reluctance to spoil them. Life for the children in the Home is that of any child, but when their strength is on the wane, they can seek refuge with their therapist.

Individual Therapy

Violeta and Abel are the two psychologists who meet with the children on a weekly basis for therapy, through which we hope the children can enter into a process of recuperation and be healed of their traumas. While our approach is integral, using all the opportunities and activities of the day, to be with the child in a loving way, we find that listening to them through therapy helps the children overcome their feelings of loneliness and mistrust which can impede any process of recuperation. We try to help the children recognize and understand the wounds left by the violence suffered so as to be free of this suffering, rather than allowing it to incubate, only to reveal itself with negative consequences at a later date.

The second concern we deal with is the feeling of guilt. Even though it may seem incredible, the children are convinced that they are guilty of everything that had happened, along with all of the difficulties which the family is now experiencing. But also, there is a sense of guilt and embarrassment at not understanding the experience of new sensations in their little bodies after their being sexually violated so abruptly. So, we try to encourage them to assume a critical attitude concerning their problems, to recognize their emotions and speak of them without fear, and to strengthen their self-esteem.

Group Therapy

Violeta also works with the children in the weekly group therapy sessions, which helps the children to identify with each other and realize that they are not the only ones suffering in this way. In the words of Yessenia, "….we are able to learn how to look after ourselves. We talk about ourselves and notice that we are not so different. Before I used to think that I was the only one to whom these terrible things had happened, but that is not so, and in the group I am able to help by giving advice to others who feel bad, as at one stage I did myself. The nice thing is that we do all this in a pleasant way with games and dynamics, learning to value ourselves and to value the others."

The group meeting is also an opportunity to share a reflection with the others on his/her conduct during the week, which then can be complemented, refuted or reinforced by the opinions of others. What we are looking for is that each child becomes conscientious and responsible for their acts, and be able to question the behavior of others, and hence, recovering the desire to live and participate as a healthy member of society.

Recreation

To be able to play is such an important part of childhood which helps the child learn and be creative, and particularly so for these children who have been mistreated. In a way they have lost something of their childhood, and to be able to recuperate this in some way through play, is an important reason to have this time for recreation. Thankfully, the Children's Center is only a couple of minutes walk up the hill which our little residents visit a couple of times a week, and more frequently during the summer.

During the school holidays there are more opportunities for outings to the beach, or the local parks, usually a couple of times during the week, while during the school year it is more sporadic. But there is football and volleyball in the afternoons when the homework has been completed, or in the dark cold evenings, there is play in the house with different games.

Birthday parties are a common occurrence in the Home with so many children in residence. Those interested help make the birthday cake, while others decorate the dining room where the activities take place. In true Peruvian fashion the dancing and music start immediately with everybody, especially the girls, eager to show the latest dance they have learned.

The Family

From the very beginning, we realized the importance of also working with the parents of the children, or those who were going to be the guardians when they leave us. For what was the point in working with the child, if afterwards, he or she had to go back into the same situation, and lose everything gained through their stay with us? So, it is necessary that the parents also make a commitment to enter into therapy with the psychologists, individually and in group, while also ensuring that the aggressor is removed from the family home. In this way the parents will be able to prepare better for the return of their children, and be able to avoid a repeat of what happened before.

Abel works with the parents in the group therapy, and both Violeta and Abel work with them on the individual level. "Together we seek to combat the feeling of guilt, hatred and revenge, which can do much damage to the relationship with the child. We put a lot of emphasis on self-esteem, recovery of self love, and recognizing our weaknesses and strengths. This means relearning to love ourselves, as many come from broken families and tragic backgrounds, and only by learning to love and value ourselves will we be able to love and value our children."

While the children who are in the Home learn to communicate their thoughts and feelings with confidence, avoiding falling merely into passive communication, and being capable of criticizing an adult, we try to encourage this communication with the parents, so as they are able to hear what the child has to say. These are the principal lines along which we work, so that the children on returning to their homes may be able to continue developing as in "fertile soil that will yield good fruits."

Maryorie: "I know that at my young age I had a lot of problems. It was difficult, but the St. Bernadette's Home helped me with the problems I had. I am very content and grateful for the support they gave me, for the affection that they gave me, and the therapy I received. I learned to identify and control the sensations of my body, to control my anger, and today I have more self-esteem. Today I can love myself. I feel very different from when I entered. Now I will miss everybody because they are like my second family."

Korayma: "I would like to say that I am very grateful for you who looked after me, and who gave me love and affection. You have been like a family to me. Thanks to my psychologists who were like my parents and the care workers who were like my aunts. Although I didn't have a good childhood I am a courageous girl that can advance in life because I learned here that I wasn't guilty for what happened to me. I know that we all have personal boundaries, which are very important, and that we have to respect. Thank you everybody. I will miss you and I ask God to look after you always."

St. Bernadette's Children's Home is the only institution of its kind in Peru, and as a result it receives cases from the MIMP, the "Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Groups," which has the political responsibility for the attention of children in Peru, and the judicial system from all parts of Lima. We are only treating the tip of the iceberg, but that which we are doing is so important to many children and families who had once lost all hope of help and recovery, and for those who can avail of our services in the future.

St. Bernadette's Remedial School

If ever there was an oasis in this barren and dusty area of Lima, it would be the St. Bernadette's Remedial School with its gardens and farm animals roaming freely on the grounds. It looks more like a recreational park than a school which is why the children who once hated the thought of going to school love coming to us. It is a different experience which allows them to enjoy the work, and therefore, overcome their difficulties. The children are grouped together according to their difficulties rather than age or grade, and who also have individual sessions with the psychologists as often the block to their learning is emotional.

The idea came about through our work with children who participate in the Children's Center, situated very close by, and observing the difficulties they have to confront in their daily lives, not least of all an indifference to the neglect that many of them suffer, which leaves them below the level of normal development for their age. For example, the children who use the library in the Center have homework that they just don't understand and have fallen way behind in class. These children often are asleep during class as many have to work at night selling sweets on the buses, or doing acrobatics in the streets to earn a few pennies, and have no energy for school, while others suffer from inadequate nutrition, or because of family violence and breakup, which traumatizes the children and can cause a huge emotional block to their learning.

Because of this problem many children have to repeat a year and when this becomes a pattern they are not allowed to enroll the following year, thus losing their opportunity of gaining an education. We decided to try and help these children overcome their emotional and learning difficulties through starting up a study program with a psychological input in the Center. This was very successful, although we didn't have near enough space to develop the project further, hence the frequent request by our staff to find or build other premises, and eventually we were able to open our doors in March 2006.

Since then we have signed agreements with fifteen of the local schools who send us the children they encounter with learning problems and who stay with us generally for a year. Those who successfully overcome their difficulties in this first year, around 70%, return to their school of origin, while the rest will remain with us for another year in order to have a bit more time to advance sufficiently. There are others who really can't advance very much because they aren't able to cope with even the primary school curriculum, but they can stay with us and participate in the workshops to learn trades and other skills.

Psycho-Pedagogical Recovery Program

Our teaching method is orientated towards helping children overcome significant learning difficulties that will eventually exclude them from their local schools. The Center offers an alternative and personalized education according to the characteristics and needs of each child. Our objective is the emotional, psychological and learning recovery of the children, so that afterwards they will be able to return to the schools from which they came.

Once the children are admitted they are assigned to a group according to their abilities rather than a specific grade, and change classrooms according to the timetable. At the moment we have the capacity for 60 children with 10 in each of six classrooms which are decorated according to the class's speciality. We hope to add four more classrooms in the future.

We also have a speech therapy service for the children with speech defects, which can also hinder their learning. If the child has difficulty in speaking she/he will not be able to read or write well, and will not be able to overcome their learning difficulties, while remaining the butt of the joke because of bad pronunciation and generally failing at school.

The physical therapist is in charge of the psycho-motor therapy which is an important support that helps the child develop their motor skills, stimulate self-esteem, and generate discipline, this last being very necessary because the children are at an important stage of formation. For the children who have returned to their schools of origin we have a social worker who visits them to ensure that they are able to maintain the progress they made with us and keep up with their peers.

The Parents

On bringing their children to the Center, the parents are also able to avail of the orientation and support we offer through the workshops our psychologists prepare for them. This is of vital importance and is the only way we can ensure that the children advance, especially because many parents haven't been able to go to school, having had to work from a young age, and are to a large extent illiterate. The workshops and other activities are designed to help the parents so as they are better able to assume their role as a parent and help their children in their homework.

Very often the work with the parents is much more difficult, because they are reluctant to accept that their children have a learning difficulty, and think it's better that they keep moving up a class each year in school whether they are learning or not. Nevertheless, through the workshops and activities of the Center, the parents realize that their children have problems and that they need help, and from then on become more open to collaborating with our requests for the well-being of their children.

So, when the parents bring their children to the Center, with the acceptance of their local school, they are informed of what is expected, and are asked to sign a contract agreeing to assist at all the talks and formation courses we organize for them. We also ask them to bring and collect their children on time and in this way we are fomenting values for the wellbeing of the family.

Workshops

For the children who can't return to their schools because of an intellectual incapacity, we provide occupational workshops where they can develop and discover other skills which could help them in the future earn a living, and with practice are able to produce lovely finished products in ceramics, shoe-making, and macramé, while also participating in courses of drama, dance, arts and crafts and psychology workshops.

One of the important achievements of this group is the social aspect. There is a huge difference between how they were before they came to the school and how they are now through participating in the workshops. They are far more integrated into the group and much more communicative with each other, while being more independent in themselves. Generally speaking young people with these difficulties are kept at home and don't learn to communicate, but with us this is no longer a problem.

These children are now happy in their efforts to overcome their deficiencies in learning as they steadily grow in confidence and a newfound self-esteem. It is important for us to keep the children as the focus of our work as we try to identify their individual needs, rather than having them adapt to a set method dictated to them by the institution.

Joel: Although Joel was 18 when he started in the school he wasn't able to hold a pencil. He would speak to nobody and was always bad tempered, but over the weeks and months he started to come out of his shell to be more communicative and friendly with the other children, and little by little he started learning. His mother says, "One day the workers of the Children's Centre passed by and said to me that I could send Joel to St. Bernadette's Remedial School which is just in front of our house. So, Joel started and very soon I was amazed at what he was able to do in the workshops. He had very little movement in his hands, walked with difficulty and talked very little, but the change that came over him was unbelievable in such a short space of time. He would bring things home that he had made which I thought would have been impossible for him to do. I was always worried about what would happen to Joel when I died, but now I have greater hope for him. I will put a little kiosk outside the house where he can sell the things that he makes and that will keep him going. I am very grateful to St. Bernadette's for offering Joel a place in the school and to all the teachers who have such patience with him."

Columban Fr. Tony Coney lives and works in Peru.

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