As the world slowly pulls back the curtain of the pandemic and restrictions start to cautiously lift where it’s safe to do so, I’ve been thinking a lot about reawakenings. A couple of weeks back, I spoke at the Southwestern Political Science Association Centennial Virtual speaker series. I was on a panel with researchers from North Carolina State University, Dr. Thomas Birkland, and Wayne State University, Dr. Kristin Taylor, who are leading a longitudinal study examining COVID-19’s impact on the lives of Americans. A common theme came up repeatedly - we are entering a time that will require us to think, act, and evolve differently. There will be no “redo of 2019.”
With all the upheavals last year, we’ve had to ask ourselves the hard questions. Like every NGO, we felt overwhelmed and, at times, hopeless: so many have died, economies have fallen, and children have suffered. Yet, we also saw the world respond in profound ways to support one another. Charitable giving reached an all-time high. Ingenuity and innovation sparked unique partnerships, bringing resources and support where needed. New local initiatives helped with food insecurity, economic challenges, emotional support, and community connection. All the work we saw jolted us to ask: What is our endgame as an organization? What are we uniquely qualified to address? And what are we most passionate about? We wrestled with our own relevance, credibility, and utility, spending hours examining our role in a COVID-19 world and the more extensive work of a global organization.
The introspection and examination brought us to a recognition of our unique position. It started with understanding and accepting that we can't be everything to everyone. Recognizing our limitations was both a robust and humbling experience for our team. Out of this, we’ve gained a reawakened determination, a clarification of our "superpower." Not the bulky, might-make-right power of a Marvel character; instead, a laser-sharp focus on what we’re best suited to do in the world now and how our talents, interests, and connections can work together for the greatest good.
Since the 1990s, we've been working at the intersection of child abandonment, homelessness, social justice, health equity, and systems development in Perú. From our early experience doing outreach on Lima's streets to our efforts in running two model homes for formerly abandoned children, we have gained important insights and walked humbly into critical lessons. One thing we’ve learned from listening to and working with children and young adults is that they need hope - the kind that comes from deep, meaningful, loving relationships. They need the hope that comes from family connections and the support that grows from healthy attachments and molded resilience. Ideally, children would be nurtured in a family of origin and raised in a house filled with love, compassion, and deep connection, yet such a scenario is impossible for millions of them.
Over 30 years of published research points out that children need caregivers with the training and skills to foster meaningful relationships (Quiroga, Hamilton-Giachritsis, 2016). When provided attachment relationships from competent caregivers, children in residential facilities tap into their innate resiliency and demonstrate significantly better life course outcomes (Nelson, Bos, Gunnar, Sonuga-Barke, 2011). Science shows that building resilience leads to healthy relationships, stable jobs and housing, and emotional wellness, and reduces the likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system.
We know what to do: make bold moves to overhaul child support services from a welfare-based model to an empowerment model. We know it will take decades, and we are in it for the long-haul. Our two decades of work in child welfare have given us key partnerships with academic institutions, subject matter experts, and youth ambassadors. With their support, we are educating institutional caretakers, influencing government policy, and training other organizations in evidence-based practices and tools for caring for marginalized children. The timing could not be better.
The pandemic taught us that we have what it takes to respond to children’s immediate needs, all while planning for the future. We will take our realizations from this crisis, past lessons, and hopes for the future to build a unified model that will offer a roadmap for serving the diverse and complex needs of children, youth, and young adults. A model that will offer a platform to transform child welfare services. I can’t wait to share our new directions/strategy with you.
Early in the pandemic - way back in April 2020 - we realized very quickly, one of the greatest challenges the people we serve would face was isolation and loneliness We felt this would be particularly true for the adolescent siblings of the children living with disabilities in our Ines Project.
In response to this recognition, we started an adolescent mental health support group. We called it "HBI Youth Accompaniment." Completely delivered through WhatsApp chats, the group is facilitated by one of the psychologists on the Health Bridges team. She meets with the adolescents weekly - offering small talks on a wide range of subjects, providing one-one-one video check-ins, and helping provide purpose to the lives of the young adults.
The cohort in the project represents some of the hardest hit populations in Perú. Living in extreme poverty in a family headed by a single mother employed in the informal economy, and balancing the needs of a sibling with a disability - they are incredibly vulnerable to dropping out of school, working on the streets and potentially exposing themselves or their families to COVID.
This simple project - using WhatsApp to connect - has been powerful. It is providing a platform for finding community, breaking from isolation, and re-discovering purpose.
On Tuesday night we had a virtual graduation ceremony for the first group. The young people - in their dimly lit homes in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Lima - expressed their gratitude, discussed their learnings, and offered ideas for the next group. It was really humbling.
This has been, and continues to be, a challenging year. One thing I keep learning is the power of connection. Without a doubt the pandemic has shown us that we can be in the lives of the people we are called to serve, even if we can't be in the same room . . . or on the same continent for that matter.
Keep building bridges . . . and thank you for your continued support.
One of the boys in the Casa Girasoles really needed a dentist. He was scared.
The pandemic has made it very challenging to get in to see a dentist in Perú. However, things opened up last week and we were able to get him seen, not once, but THREE times! His teeth, well - they were bad.
Not anymore. We've got him all fixed up and we have a prevention plan in place.
Its funny, because so many little things have been pushed aside this past year. No, dental hygiene is not a little thing. However, taking care of ourselves - well, that seems like something that got pushed aside. Not anymore.
Thanks to all of the incredibly generous supporters of Health bridges - we have the resources to help formerly abandonded boys, children and families in our Ines Project, and former Casa Girasoles young men have access to so much. Your generosity makes it possible for us to move beyond the traditional model of charity . . . your generosity allows us to build life enhancing and life forming services and supports.
I am also so thankful that you trust us with your valuable resources. I am so thankful for the support, generosity and blessings we receive everyday.
It is no secret, especially for those that know me – I love professional bike racing. I watch races from Europe a few times per week. It's a passion.
Recently, however, I'm finding it harder and harder to watch the events. Races in France, Italy, Belgium, Spain - the crowds are a fraction of their pre-COVID numbers, but the fans showing up roadside – far too many aren't wearing masks. It causes me great distress. I think about all the people who are impacted by what seems like a very personal decision. I think about Juan Diego.
Juan Diego, not his real name, was a former young person in the Casa Girasoles program. He lived in a couple of the Casa Girasole's houses over a few years. I met him over 20 years ago.
We got reconnected with JD when another former Girasol posted a video on social media asking for help. JD had recently developed symptoms suggestive of COVID and needed support. From the time JD's friend posted the video to his death was less than a week.
It's not supposed to be this way. JD was a young man in the prime of his life. He was just starting his life after a childhood and adolescence filled with so much trauma – he shouldn't have died this way.
We did everything we could. We helped with medication. We advocated for better care. We committed to pay for any care JD needed. They were scared. JD's wife, also young and repairing her life from years of trauma, didn't want to go to the hospital. When we finally created a plan, a plan that held everyone's opinions as necessary, it was too late. JD had over 95% pulmonary compromise. The hospital could do nothing.
It's not supposed to be this way. It doesn't have to be this way. We can work together to protect everyone. One thing we can all do is wear a mask. Wearing a mask is not only about protecting ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities – it's about saving the world.
What does this have to do with a former street boy named JD? Everything. You see, we are a connected globe—so much of what happens in Calcutta impacts what happens in Lima and what happens in Topeka. We're connected. Wearing a mask is more than a personal decision. It is a collective commitment to humanity.
The pandemic is far from over. It rages in some of the most under-resourced places on the planet. We are, however, the path to protection and prevention. It all starts and ends in our united call to action. Wear a mask. Get vaccinated. Travel responsibly. And, most of all – accept our collective obligation to global humanity. The JD's of the world need us!
God may be in the details, but the goddess is in the questions. Once we begin to ask them, there's no turning back.
I had to mail a couple of packages the other day. It had been months since I was inside the postal annex store in our neighborhood. The owner, a dynamic, friendly person who knows every customer's name, asked me how I was doing.
In what seems like a custom of our pandemic-era, we talked about the changes that are occurring and the ways we are, or are not, coping. We spoke about Health Bridges and our work and the pandemic's impact in Latin America and SS Africa. At one point, the conversation – a short exchange – turned to the topic of the day, what will be the new normal?
I've had this conversation a lot lately. I've had it with my family, friends, co-workers, and acquittances. The one thing that seems to come up in all of the discussions is a desire not to go back to the way things were. Over and over again, I have heard people say some version of – let's not lose the pandemic lessons in our rush to retrieve some semblance of normal.
I haven't been to Perú in a year. Next week marks one year since I was in-country. As an organization, we have decided that travel is too risky right now, and we have suspended all trips. As the 'new normal' creeps into view, I can see this changing. As more and more people are vaccinated, travel will re-open. However, I don't want to jump back into the way things were. Without our team traveling, we've had to adjust, accommodate, and grow.
Our team has done a fantastic job throughout this past year. From the way we rallied together to remake our work in the pandemic's light and wisdom. Our neonatal resuscitation training, led by Dr. Bob Gehringer, has pivoted to a fully web-based program. The team is training hundreds of healthcare professionals in Peru through Zoom and a web-learning platform. The Ines Project team developed a virtual communication matrix that allows them to stay connected with one another and the families. We've provided food, financial support, and emotional connection throughout the pandemic. The Casa Girasoles program is running with the efficiency of a Fortune 500 company – okay, that's a bit of an embellishment :-)
In all seriousness, the past year has been a significant growth year for the programs and projects of our organization. We've refined our operations, reporting, evaluation, and monitoring plans. We've worked together as a team, in-spite of the thousands of miles that separate us. We've learned to adapt and grow - even remake our work. I am so proud of our efforts. I don't want to loose this energy and collaborative commitment.
Things are changing. The world is reawakening. The new normal of life is on the horizon. Who knows for sure what will be the new normal of our lives and communities. One thing is for sure, we've learned far too much from the past year. There's no turning back.
The HBI Blog is a rotating journal from our staff. Our Blog is a series of messages from the field, insights from our work, and lessons in service.