Two and a half hours west of Bogota, Espinal is a town of agriculture, mostly cotton, rice, and mangos. It is also home to thousands of internally displaced people from the armed conflict. Founded in 2007, the Espinal Drop-In Center is a collaboration with the Mayor’s Office of Espinal. The Alcaldia (mayor) provides the home, which we remodeled to accommodate the large numbers of children.
A drop-in center is a place of refuge where children can “drop in” for a meal, clothes, a shower, medical attention, psychological attention, help with homework, cultural enhancement, and friendship. Our children love to spend hours at the center, either before and after school. They often have no other comfortable or safe place to go. But children do not sleep at the drop in center. They have a guardian that they live with. For example, one girl slept on the floor of a restaurant’s kitchen and was cared for by her grandmother who was also homeless. These children range from 3 years to 16 years of age. Children may not show up at random. They must qualify to come to the center. We have four criteria:
- They have 1 or 0 parents. This is the United Nations’ criterion for an orphan.
- Ours is the only real meal they will eat each day.
- They either sleep on the floor or have a dirt floor in their home.
- They do not attend school.
If children meet 3 of the 4 criteria, we register them. This means we put them in school (including matriculation fees, shoes, and uniform), put clothes on their back, give them a snack in the morning before school, a full lunch after school, and other services as needed. We often give them second helpings, if we know they won’t have any dinner that night. We currently have 61 children at this center, the numbers fluctuate with funding and transient nature of some of the families. We have a waiting list of more than 150 children as of January 2017.
These children are always in need of clothing. We only take new underwear and socks. 60 percent of the children are girls ages 3-13. Espinal is a very hot climate, and they do not need coats or blankets. They do need shoes, however, as nearly 25 percent of the children do not have shoes. Their feet get diseased and infected and cut. While the children do not suffer from the cold, they are more susceptible to tropical diseases.
Here is one example of what you can do to help: A few years back, a group of church women made dresses for the girls. You can see the pure joy on this little girl’s face for owning a dress for the first time in her life.
It costs us approximately $37 USD per month to care for a child at our drop-in center. The majority of the cost is food. A Home Sponsor who gives $1000 per month will care for approximately 30 children. We need at least two more home sponsors to reach capacity for this home.
Our Loving Staff and Volunteers
The Espinal home is run mostly by a volunteer staff. Only home director Sandra (4th from the right), the night guard, and the cook are paid employees. The staff, shown below are professional, loving women with decades of combined social work and business administration experience.
Model Drop-In Centers
Our goal is to establish a simple step-by-step model that can be duplicated by the relatively unsophisticated thereby enabling a franchise of hundreds of homes in the years to come in an affordable manner. For our purposes, we generally use the terms “homes” and “drop-in centers” synonymously, although we may have some homes or farms that work as full time orphanages.
We hold the minimum standards for parenting to be:
- Physical security
- Minimum amount of love and nurturing
- Role modeling for children
- Negotiate the system on behalf of the children (Dentist, Parent-Teacher conference)
We believe that if street children are given these, even minimally, they can transform their lives. Our blueprint for Model Drop-In Centers (MDICs) provides for children to drop in and receive the deficits of these standards on a consistent basis. It will be home to them before and after school, rather than the streets. Model drop-in centers provide the following that correspond to the standards above:
- Food, shelter, clothing, hygiene needs, medical attention, and safety.
- Loving and nurturing staff, volunteers, interns, and mental health professionals.
- High standards of conduct, discipline, and education.
- Negotiate medical, educational, legal and guardianship issues on behalf of the children.