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March 26, 2015

Colombia: Breaking the System

When Colombia’s orphans age out of government care, a local ministry is there to help them find skills, housing and purpose in their new-found freedom.

  • Prayer

    Jefferson Aguirre is one example of an orphan turning 18 and facing a lot of new freedoms and decisions. As Aguirre wrestles with some uncertainty, a group of neighborhood kids gather around him to pray God’s blessings over his life.

  • Birthday

    Jefferson Aguirre prepares to blow out the candles on the cake at a surprise birthday party. Aguirre recognizes the love and community he experiences at La Cueva, and even goes as far to call them his family.

  • Fellowship

    Casa St. Patrick is one of the many homes housing orphans around the city of Bogota. Sitting in the dining room, Aguirre enjoys a few moments with Jorge Enciso before leaving for the day.

Turning 18 can be a big deal, usually a landmark for a coming of age. But on this special birthday, orphans in Colombia are faced with a strange mix of freedom and fear.

Jefferson Aguirre’s 18th birthday was no different. He entered the dark living room, immediately greeted by loud singing from a room full of friends who continue to support Aguirre through the ups and downs of life in the Colombian child welfare system. Aguirre’s face showed a mix of embarrassment and elation, and as the song ended, Brian Avila walked up to hug Aguirre.

Just a few years earlier, Avila celebrated his 18th birthday and faced an uncertain future. He stood outside of the institution providing him with food and shelter, knowing he could never go back. An orphan arriving at the cut-off age for government care, Avila was cast out into the world without family, a support system or skills. Looking around at the busy streets of Bogota, Colombia, he felt lost and alone. “I asked myself, ‘Where should I go? What should I do?’ I didn’t know how to do anything,” Avila says. The institutions did not teach Avila how to be a citizen or equip him with the tools to find housing or a job or pursue college. That day, as he took steps away from the one place that felt certain, Avila knew he had to figure out this life on his own.

Aguirre entered the state’s care when he was taken from his mom — at the age of 13 — and put into an orphanage. Twelve kids between the ages of 6 and 14 lived in the institution, nestled between houses in a working class neighborhood where people passed by without a second glance. But, that all changed when Jorge Enciso and his family moved in down the street. The strategic director of Fundación Comunidad Viva, a nonprofit that strives to empower local pastors to reach out to their communities, Enciso saw an opportunity to share the love of Jesus. “We visited the kids and started playing outside in the street with them,” Enciso says. “And soon enough, people from our congregation started coming to help us play with them.” The kids began attending church and youth group; some were baptized and became part of their spiritual family.

While both Avila and Aguirre faced the same struggle of growing up in an institution, there was one major difference in their situation: mentorship. While Aguirre had Enciso and the church family to help him navigate life from a biblical perspective, Avila had to make his own way. Thankfully, God watches over the orphaned and calls his people to do the same. When Enciso learned that orphans are forced to leave Family Welfare when they turn 18, he sat down with the elders of the church and prayed for God to show them a way to help. “We knew that turning 18 doesn’t necessarily mean becoming an adult or that you’re able to live life on your own, [especially with] no family and no one to provide a job reference for you,” Enciso says. That week, a pastor who owned a house on that same block told Enciso he was renting. “It was a house divided into three apartments, so we jumped on it,” Enciso says. With housing in place, Enciso and his team began a program called La Cueva, an evangelical university community of sorts.

La Cueva serves as a jumping off point for orphaned young adults who are aging out of the state’s care. It provides them with a network as well as resources to help adjust to the responsibilities of living independently. But La Cueva is not a free ride. “Kids grow under state protection, under the perception that the state has to give them everything. So the first clash that we run into is to teach them: no, you are going to pay a rent here. To pay a rent, you need a job. And to get a job, you need a network,” Enciso says. Jon Captian is the manager of Isla Morada — a high-end restaurant outside of Bogota owned by Brian Pinero, a believer and successful businessman — partners with La Cueva by providing jobs for the young adults going through the program. He welcomes them as part of the staff, knowing they come with little-to-no skills. “We’re happy to try to help train them in some of those skills,” Captian says. “We feel like as long as they’re willing to do their part and put in the effort then, yeah, we love having them here.”

La Cueva not only offers kids housing and connections, it provides them with freedom. “The kids have grown institutionalized,” Enciso says. “We try not to be the next institution for them. We strive to make it a family and, at the most, a college residence with minimal rules.” But even more than that, La Cueva gives young orphaned adults — like Avila — a second chance. After leaving Family Welfare, Avila found work on a farm and enrolled in college. He had to walk two hours to catch a bus and then ride another two hours in order to attend his college courses. He was strong and determined, but when he flunked English, Avila had no one to tell him he could re-apply. He thought his dreams of earning a college degree had come to an end. Then he joined La Cueva. Today, Avila is working at a restaurant, saving for college and training to be a church planter. “Avila has learned to express more about his walk with God,” Enciso says. “He’s learned to take on challenges.”

Enciso’s goal for the La Cueva ministry is to create a sense of responsibility for the young adults. “We don’t give them everything,” he says. “We want them to learn how to get stuff, how to achieve their goals.” However, the ministry needs resources because sometimes the kids fail, lose their jobs or flunk subjects. “When that happens, it means the streets or us pitching in for them,” Enciso says. “If a kid in La Cueva has not found a job, it could easily cost us $350 a month, counting rent and utilities, providing clothes, helping him get his resume printed and transportation to job interviews.”

Beyond financial support, the orphaned young adults need mentorship. “Faithful mentorship does tons more than money,” Enciso says. For Avila and Aguirre, mentorship was the key to their success. Avila is working toward his goals and thriving at La Cueva. Having just turned 18, Aguirre is faced with the decision of whether he will join La Cueva or if he will seek other government assistance while he pursues college. Both young men look to God and their mentor Enciso for direction. “I want [Avila and Aguirre] to be great spiritual warriors that become part of a local church,” Enciso says. “My hope is that they stay strong in the fight and that they don’t allow hard circumstance to take the joy from them. That’s my prayer for them.”

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