Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Caring for the Kids of Prisoners

Program providing medical care for small children living in 
prison with their mothers in La Paz, Bolivia needs new funding.

Obrajes is a nice section of La Paz, Bolivia. It's not too far from downtown, has a nice mix of businesses and restaurants, and enjoys milder weather than much of the city due to its lower altitude. So it may be a surprise to have a women's prison in the neighborhood, yet that is where you will find COF (Centro de Orientacion Feminina Obrajes).

The street view of the prison is nondescript other than the sign on the wall identifying it and the metal door answered by uniformed police. A former school, the property behind the wall has a central building from that earlier era surrounded by newer structures and shacks crowding the space.

Also behind that wall are over a hundred children living with their mothers. And, I learned, a health program for those kids in need of support and new funding -- you can help! (keep reading to learn how)

A couple weeks ago, I joined Dr. Sergio Armaza Virreira and Dra. Jimena Condori Surco from the mobile medical unit of Hospital Arco Iris on a stop at the prison. It was one of many visits and tours I made during the ten-day long official visit to La Paz for the AAVia Foundation for the Health of Bolivian Children.

Making weekly visits to the prison, the mobile medical unit provides care for the children who live there, most under the age of five, who do not get medical services from the prison system. It is programs like the Hospital Arco Iris mobile medical unit that serve the needs of the kids.

Famously overcrowded and with decaying infrastructure, Bolivian prisons are also known for the high number of children living within their walls. The women's prison in Obrajes is no different. Designed to hold about 100 prisoners, the facility actually holds about three times that currently -- plus another 120 kids!

Entering the prison for the visit, I handed over my passport, was patted down, and entered a courtyard crowded with women and children. Some prisoners were doing some morning calisthenics, others were chatting in small groups, and many sat in chairs along the periphery. About a quarter of the facility is another courtyard where laundry hangs from wires, drying in the sun -- a service the women do for the public to make money to pay for what they eat and own while in the prison.

We made our way into the main building where the medical team met with prison officials to discuss how the financial support the program had been receiving is not being renewed. The team, however, reported they would continue visiting the prison each Wednesday to care for the kids even while funding opportunities were searched for.

This prison program is one part of what the mobile medical unit team from Hospital Arco Iris do, but its funding is separate. The mobile medical units provide free medical care for La Paz' street kids and poor when parked by plazas and markets. When special care is needed, the patients are served at Hospital Arco Iris, a private charity center that is now perhaps the best hospital in all of La Paz.

The children in the prisons get the same free care both on-site and at the hospital when needed. Visiting the prison weekly, the mobile medical unit provides continuity of care and  timely services before problems become severe. There were many smiles and happy conversations between the doctors, the women and many of the children during our visit -- evidence of the trust and respect these doctors have developed in the prison.

At this time, the prison program is not formally part of our plans at the AAVia Foundation for the Health of Bolivian Children. But it is a good program in need of support, and promoting such efforts is part of our mission, even if the support is not directly through us.

I wish to vouch for the prison program and the efforts of the doctors, colleagues I am happy to now call friends. And I also wish to offer you a way to support their efforts with a tax-deductible gift.

HOPEworldwide-Bolivia has been working closely with Hospital Arco Iris for the last three years and is focused on pragmatic efforts that have a positive effect on real lives. Having been in touch with them for many months, we formally visited them during our trip to La Paz and appreciate their efforts to improve health care in Bolivia. Our two organizations are truly kindred spirits!

Please take a minute and go to the DONATION page for HOPEworldwide-Bolivia. Their country director has assured me that funds will be directed to this effort when the Comments section says "Prison Program" (see middle of the donation page and "Additional Information"). Then please let others know of this need and opportunity.

There is a very capable program on the ground in La Paz offering care to children who need it. That program has capable doctors and staff, and it has a proven track record. Your support with funding will have immediate impact.

Thank you!

--Timothy Malia, MD
VP & Co-Founder, AAVia Foundation for the Health of Bolivian Children

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