Protecting people living with disabilities in remote Bolivian towns - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Filo Siles with a family in Entre Rios, who show off their new face masks and receive care packages from Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ Social Justice Foundation

Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused tremendous hardships, adjustments and loss. But it has also created opportunities to see the world anew, to team up with others and to adapt our talents to the many new challenges we now face.

In our ministries here in central Bolivia, COVID-19 is presenting special difficulties for the children, young people and adults we work with, who are living with disabilities. During the pandemic, many persons with disabilities in rural communities are finding more of their health needs unmet. The reduced income of their families reduces the quality and quantity of their basic foods. The ongoing presence of the coronavirus makes it more dangerous for them to be in contact with others. Many have significant underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk for becoming severely ill. Few have face masks or other personal protection equipment.


Ministry challenges during the pandemic

At the same time, during this pandemic, many of our missioners in Bolivia have not been able to continue their daily ministries, due to a lack of public transportation, quarantine restrictions, the indefinite suspension of school activities and, in some cases, concerns for their own underlying health conditions.

Tawny Thanh (left) and Hiep Vu making hundreds of masks for the Social Justice Foundation

Maryknoll lay missioners Tawny Thanh and Hiep Vu, for example, have been working in Bolivia since 2016, dedicating themselves to accompanying underprivileged children with their educational and nutritional needs and to teaching computer skills. In-person teaching has been suspended since March, and the lack of home computers and internet access among their students has made virtual teaching an impossibility.

Filo Siles, a Maryknoll lay missioner since 2016, coordinates the Social Justice Foundation serving children, young people and adults with disabilities in the two remote, rural communities of Tacopaya and Entre Rios in the Cochabamba region. This program of Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ Foundation for Social Justice in Cochabamba utilizes a community-based rehabilitation approach to achieve social inclusion, provide vocational training and eliminate discrimination due to their disabilities.

Despite the pandemic and health restrictions, Filo and her colleagues continue to work with the population living with disabilities. They want to take all the precautions possible to protect those with whom they interact and themselves — including wearing face masks and face shields, social distancing, frequent hand washing and generous use of disinfectants.

Filo realized that making face masks available for distribution to the more than 250 enrolled in her Maryknoll program, would allow these children, youth and adults with disabilities to engage in many more activities with others while not being exposed — or exposing others — to the virus.

In their conversations about identifying unmet needs and the challenges of safe ministries during the pandemic, Maryknoll lay missioners in Bolivia found a way to match new needs and new capabilities.

Tawny and Hiep borrowed an unused sewing machine and have converted their apartment into a workshop for face masks and other personal protection equipment. They have made face masks suitable for adults, youth and children — not only varying in size but also in design so that the youngest would be enticed by the colorful designs to wear them.


Filo Siles with one of the boys in her program in Entre Rios

Face masks for children and adults with disabilities

During recent field work in Entre Rios, Filo and her colleagues distributed the masks to the families in their program. Those living with disabilities — along with their families — now have vital coronavirus protection. In addition, they also received nutritional supplements such as vitamins, basic foods such as rice and hands-on education to keep themselves safe and avoid infection from the deadly virus.

In this way — through the intervention of the Holy Spirit and with your generous donations — our missioners have been able to find creative ways to respond to the new and increased needs of children with disabilities.

We have a smile on our hearts today. We have seen the Bolivian spirit anew, we have teamed up our resources, and we are satisfying some of the everyday necessities of those living with disabilities. We pray that God will continue to guide us and bless us.

Photos by Joe Loney and Juan Gomez

If you are able to make a donation to continue our works for the underprivileged in Bolivia, we promise to exercise good stewardship to continue to extend a hand up to those who really need to know that they are important, that we are all together in this world and that you care. In our Social Justice Foundation, we work with over 250 children, young people and adults living with disabilities in Bolivia.


Joe Loney
A Maryknoll lay missioner since 1995, Joe Loney oversees a social-inclusion project for persons with disabilities (Avancemos Juntos para la Inclusion Social de las Personas con Discapacidades) in Tacopaya, Entre Rios and Cochabamba, Bolivia.