Helping Bolivian Street Children Through Education and Medical Care

October 11, 2016

“No human being should eat from the garbage, but we, the street children, are barely human beings.”1 Joel is a 13-year-old boy who lives in the streets of La Paz, Bolivia. It is not uncommon for Joel and other street children to scour through dumpsters for scraps of food in order to survive. He believes that he and children like him represent the dregs of society, the “garbage.”

Over 40% of Bolivia’s population lives in poverty.2 In La Paz, thousands of children live in the streets, many without family support; children of the streets have become a subset of Bolivia’s urban poor that receives little to no attention from the Bolivian government. UNICEF categorizes street children into three groupings: “Children at risk,” “Children on the street” and “Children of the street.” While not all street children are the same, they all confront the same injustice.3

With their street-children family, they struggle to improve their situation and lead healthy lives.

According to new national legislation, children as young as 10 years old are permitted to work (with a few safety limitations that are easily neglected by employers). This law was the source of international dispute with the International Labor Organization, which required children to be at least 14 years old to work. And due to lack of enforcement, children under to the age of 10 continue to work across Bolivia.2 Many of these children–like Chucky–live on the streets.

“Because of discrimination, I’ll never be appreciated for who I am,” said Chucky, a boy of nine. In a photo of himself, Chucky wears a black ski mask. He does not want to be recognized by others as a street child.1

Children live on the streets for a variety of reasons: physical abuse (40%), parental death (18%), abandonment (16%), mental abuse (13%), and lack of financial support (7%). But life on the street comes with it’s own dangers: malnutrition and other health problems; violence and abuse (especially at the hands of the police); drug use (most commonly paint thinner, alcohol and glue adhesive). The majority of street children drop out of school to work in the informal sector: cleaning shoes, singing on buses, selling small items, begging, commiting robbery, etc.3

Jhasmani, a 13-year-old boy, lived in a concrete hole with another street child. “Only us, street children live like this in a hole, bad, cold, glue and hungry. Having a home and a family is the right thing,” he said. He and another street child wore black masks to cover their faces, protecting them from both outside-discrimination and the bitter cold.1

6,445 kilometers away in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Alexis Vargas, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public & International Affairs, created the non-profit Harmony of the Andes with the hope of helping children like Jhasmani, Chucky and Joel.

This past December, Vargas traveled from Pittsburgh to La Paz for a different kind of holiday vacation: they met with non-profit organizations, formed ties with community members, and helped make Christmas dinner for over 800 people. They had no time to lose. “Alexis and I took the minibus all over the city picking up donations of chicken, clothing, and blankets for the event,” remembers Becca Burns, cofounder of Harmony of the Andes, in preparation for Mesa Común. Mesa Común was a joint-effort of non-profits to provide La Paz’ underprivileged families a special holiday meal, enough food for a month, and a blanket.

Vargas, a Master’s student in Nonprofit Management and International Development at the University of Pittsburgh and a La Paz native, has seen firsthand the high levels of poverty in urban centers such as La Paz–especially amongst children. “Many of these children are from rural areas, and they come to the city hoping to provide for themselves since no one else would,” explained Vargas. 

While working at social services for the Bolivian government, Vargas saw a void that she could help fill in the assistance of street children, specifically concerning medical care and education. And so Harmony of the Andes was born: not in La Paz, Bolivia, but Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “I saw it would be easier to create the non-profit here [in Pittsburgh] because Evo [Morales and his government] do not make it easy for nonprofit organizations to form. He promotes self-improvement, not volunteer aid. And here, [the project] became bigger and bigger,” attracting fellow graduate students and Pittsburgh non-profits to assist Harmony of the Andes’ mission.

Their mission is to “help abandoned, vulnerable and economically disadvantaged children living and working in the streets of La Paz, Bolivia”[4] by providing health education and annual medical missions, promoting community support, and developing a community center for year-round health and education needs. “By educating them, we hope to empower them to realize their unique potential to become leaders and productive members in their community,” said Vargas.

If you are interested in assisting the efforts of the Harmony of the Andes team, you can reach them via email at or visit their website at


[1] Velasco, Losantos Marcela; Berkmans, Isabel; Villanueva O’Driscoll, Julia; and Loots, Gerrit.  “A visual narrative research on photographs taken by children living on the street in the city of La Paz–Bolivia.” Children and Youth Services Review. Available at

[2]Otis, John. “In Bolivia, A Child’s Place Is In The Market And The Mines.” NPR. Available at

[3] Huan, C-C; Barreda, P; Mendoza, V; Guzman, L; Gilbert, P. “A comparative analysis of abandoned street children and formerly abandoned street children in La Paz, Bolivia.” Arch Dis Child. Available at

[4]“We Are Harmony.” Harmony of the Andes. Available at



About Author(s)

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Susan Wiedel
Susan Wiedel is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh studying English Nonfiction Writing and Latin American Studies. In the summer of 2014, Susan participated in the Center for Latin American Studies' Seminar/Field Trip to Cochabamba, Bolivia, where she conducted a research project on the quality and attendance rates of public secondary schools in the city. The unique experience led her to become more involved in the Center by becoming a certificate student and writer for Panoramas.