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Peruvian children find hope in a ramshackle orphanage

By Michael L. Smith

The Globe and Mail, March 25 1986

Juan Arampa, 13, wandered the dusty streets of Lima for weeks, living off handouts and odd jobs in the markets, and sleeping in the stalls.

He walked all the way from the working-class neighborhood of La Victoria to the southern outskirts of Lima, a kind of no-man's land in which shanty towns and garbage dumps edge into the sand dunes.

One morning, he woke and saw the sign that he had been looking for, La Ciudad de los Ninos (Boys' Town), and knocked on the first door he found.

Today, Juan eats three meals a day, sleeps in a bed, attends school and enjoys the luxury of being a boy growing up at La Ciudad de los Ninos. He shares a communal existence with 120 boys between the age of 6 and 16.

The ramshackle quarters of the orphanage are disguised behind a fresh coat of paint. There is no denying that all the boys are better off there than in the streets.

The Peruvian Government estimates conservatively that there are 11,000 abandoned children in Peru and another 300,000 who are living in conditions which constitute moral and physical risk.

Juan's story is typical of many heard in Lima. He says that his parents are dead and that he was in the care of his grandparents and aunts. To make ends meet, they had to put in long hours at their market stands, leaving Juan alone at home.

Finally, he decided that he was better off striking out on his own. Somehow, he heard about the Ciudad de los Ninos as a place where he could get a free meal and he started his odyssey.

Lima is a sprawling city of nearly six million many of them migrants from the impoverished Andean sierra who came to Lima seeking prosperity.

"A kid has to trade in his childhood to survive," said Carlos Castillo, a consultant with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Parents -- or other adults -- have resorted increasingly to encouraging child labor to earn extra cash. Children work as shoeshine boys, car washers -- and petty thieves. Once on the street, the children soon learn that they can survive. Mr. Castillo says that he has found 15-year-old pimps with harems of 12-year-old prostitutes.

As social conditions have deteriorated, the Government and private institutions have been left behind in terms of resources to meet these new needs. When the administration of President Alan Garcia took office in July, an inventory of public service agencies found that only half of the orphanages were functioning. Though La Ciudad de los Ninos is private, it has been no exception to the rule.

One of the first charities of its kind in Peru, the orphanage was founded 30 years ago by an Italian Franciscan friar, Padre Iluminato.

But since 1965, things have taken a turn for the worse. A new expressway diverted traffic away from the orphanage, depriving it of cash donations. An earthquake seriously damaged all the buildings. Finally, Padre Iluminato was knocked from his bicycle by a car. He died in 1969 from complications resulting from his injury.

Since then, the orphanage has gone through a string of failed administrations, including the Lima municipal government and religious orders. The sponsoring association has a troubled history, each board running out of steam before its initial good intentions could be fulfilled.

Canadian Jean Bourgeois, who recently began working at La Ciudad de los Ninos, said: "When there's no continuity, all the work goes down the drain. You have to start from scratch."

But his assistant Jorge Valdez, an alumnus of La Ciudad de los Ninos, observes: "We don't have any trouble with kids running away. There's hardly any trouble and the kids all pitch in to help."

© 1986 The Globe and Mail. All rights reserved