Visiting orphanage Hogar Tio Juan in Guatemala

For those of us who have read Oliver Twist, the word “orphanage” conjures up all sorts of unpleasant images. The reference is sufficiently grim so that just the suggestion of a visit to an orphanage might cause some depression. But, enter Hogar Tío Juan, right in the middle of the Zona Viva of Guatemala City, and what will impress you is the sheer happiness in the air. Hogar is home in Spanish, and home sweet home it is indeed for so many kids around.

Established in 1976, Hogar Tío Juan (also known by the organization’s name: Mi Casa) has seen its first generations of residents through their education (many of them attending universities abroad), their weddings, and the start of their families. A chat with Licenciado Enrique Barillas, the director of the orphanage and principal of the in-house school, which educates the residents up through 3º básico (9th grade), reveals some of the values that nurture the kids here. Enrique himself was a resident of Hogar Tío Juan more than a decade ago (and with pride he says that he still is). He left his law practice when the founder of the orphanage called him to say that the home needed him and his talents.

The main mission of this orphanage is, as beautifully put by Enrique, “To give roots and wings to children.” He elaborates, “This place needs to feel like a home, not a military compound. The atmosphere is relaxed, and there’s ample opportunity to have fun, to live the childhood that the kids might have been deprived of. To develop the bonds of family and friendship and to never, ever forget where we come from. To take pride in who you are and what you can become.” To reinforce this philosophy, former residents return and talk to the younger generations, making them realize that a happy and successful future is not just a dream, but a reality that will go as far as the children take it.

At Hogar Tío Juan, there is ample living space, classrooms, a basketball court, a tennis court, an auditorium, a swimming pool, a library with 17,000 books, and gardens. A typical day begins at 5:30 AM, giving the children half an hour to shower and get ready for breakfast, which is served at 6 AM. Then from 6:30 to 7:50 AM, they are responsible for cleaning their rooms and doing some chores. Enrique fondly remembers that when he was a kid his job was to mop a small corridor. For a split-second he stops at the beginning of the hallway and says, almost to himself, “This looks so small now; when I used to clean it, it used to seem so long and never-ending.” And then, snapping out of his momentary reverie, he continues telling the remaining routine of the children at Hogar Tío Juan. Classes run until 6 PM with two breaks, one for snack-time and the other for lunch. Before bedtime at 8 PM, the kids can watch television, run on the playground, sit and talk, or simply hang out with their friends. The older kids, who study at high schools outside Hogar Tío Juan, are allowed to stay up later and have the privilege of visiting classmates outside of the orphanage.

Enrique frequently refers to the orphanage as “home” and it is a home: a home for 300 boys, who take pride in Hogar Tio Juan; a home where tiny tots come and sit on Enrique’s lap during our interview; a home where little boys gleefully run and play and their older “brothers” look out for them. There is a great bond amongst these boys and with their director, and within a half an hour at Hogar Tío Juan, it’s obvious.

At first Mi Casa only had an orphanage for boys, but a time came when the necessity of so many girls, who also needed care and a home, could not be ignored. So, a facility for girls was opened in 1992. So far, more than 8,000 boys and 1,000 girls have spent all or part of their childhood being educated and cared for by Mi Casa.

Running such a huge program has a substantial price tag. But, Enrique says that they have been very lucky; there have been times when a donation, for example 1,000 chicken eggs, has been waiting at the door. With pride, Enrique recounts that no child at Hogar Tío Juan has ever gone hungry, un-bathed or unclothed, and that the orphanage has never missed a bill payment. They have always had the necessities, and money has always been found for education and healthcare. “We have never received a grant or applied for funding. We’ve been lucky that we have never had to ask. We run a successful [budget] and have a small mailing list of [donors]. Whatever we’ve needed has been there at our door – sometimes even before we have anticipated the need.”

[For more information about Mi Casa, visit www.micasaonline.org This article was first penned for the bilingual tourist magazine Que Pasa. You can read the article here.]

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