Worth it: The Emilia Wojtyla Women’s Shelter in Bolivia

When Father Luciano Ciciarelli spoke about working among the poor in Latin America, Katherine Cartagena Orochi ’15 was impressed by his enthusiasm. He was visiting her parish to share about the initiatives he was involved with, and she felt compelled to approach him after his talk.

“Have you ever been to Bolivia?” she asked him. She had grown up in El Alto, Bolivia and was working in the U.S. as an au pair. She knew firsthand the poverty many Bolivians faced, so she offered him her mother’s contact information in case he ever wanted to visit. Katherine could see that both this priest and her mother, Mily Orochi, had a tenderness toward the poor.

Despite her own struggle to make ends meet, Mily was always helping someone who had even less than she did—homeless women, disabled people, the elderly. On many occasions, Katherine remembers coming home with her brother and asking, “Mom, who’s this stranger?”

“Oh, she doesn’t have any place to live, so she’s going to be staying with us for two weeks,” their mom would say.

“And then she would stay for a year or even more!” Katherine laughed.

Less than a year later, Father Ciciarelli visited Bolivia and stayed with Mily. He became aware of the high rates of domestic violence in Bolivia. Recent reports from the United Nations and the Pan American Health Organization estimate that one half to two thirds of women have been physically or sexually abused.

“We have to do something. We’re Christians,” the priest told Mily, and discussed his desire to open a shelter for abused women and children.

“My mom said, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a great idea, Father,’” Katherine remembers. “And then the priest said to her, ‘And you’re gonna do it!’”

He gave Mily money to rent a large house and told her to put up a sign announcing the shelter, and then the women should start coming.

“As if it was that easy!” Katherine laughs. No one came for months. Even when Mily started actively looking, she found only a handful of women who needed a shelter. She fretted about wasting Father Ciciarelli’s money, living in a house that was too big for its few occupants. Once someone broke in and stole food and supplies that the priest had paid for.

It wasn’t working, Mily told him. It was too much for her to do by herself, she protested, especially since she didn’t have any training about running a shelter. But he insisted that it was their responsibility to help.

Although Katherine had originally planned to return to Bolivia after a year as an au pair, her American host family offered to pay for her to go to community college. So she stayed in the U.S. but kept in touch with her mother, listening to the mounting frustrations she had with trying to manage the shelter.

At that time, Katherine admitted, “I wasn’t really feeling involved or anything like that.” But she eventually saw how burdensome this project had become for her mom, and how adamant Father Ciciarelli was that they should keep doing it anyway.

“I was feeling guilty, because I sent the priest!” Katherine said.

When Katherine graduated from community college, her mother was able to travel to the U.S. to celebrate with her. During her visit, they took the opportunity to meet with Father Ciciarelli in person, determined to tell him together that Mily wouldn’t help with the shelter anymore.

But as soon as he saw them, he burst out with praise for Mily. “Oh, this wonderful woman!” he declared. “She’s running a shelter in Bolivia all by herself. She’s a saint!”

“It was…awkward,” Katherine remembers.

Finally he let them talk. “It’s too much,” they told him. “Why don’t we find other people who know how to do things like this?”

“But then he started yelling at us. In a good way,” Katherine says, grinning.

He opened his Bible to Matthew 25, in which Jesus says to the righteous, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me … As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” He began preaching to Katherine and Mily, telling them that by caring for abused women, they were caring for Jesus himself.

“You’re human; you can’t do everything,” Father Ciciarelli went on. “This is a God project. If we save just one life, all the money is worth it,” he said. “What if you were born in their shoes?”

“All of this is connected with our own experience,” says Katherine. She, her mom, and her grandmother have all experienced abuse in some form. “Even if it’s not physical, it’s psychological,” she says. In Bolivia, abuse “is ‘normal.’ It’s OK. It’s the culture.” Women think, “It’s my husband. He can do whatever he wants with me.”

Father Ciciarelli waited as the two women considered all this. Katherine looked over at her mother. Mily said, “We have to do this.”

“I gave up. I said, ‘OK, we’re doing it! Whatever!’” Katherine says, smiling. She remembers holding hands with her mom and praying together for the shelter, the women, and their ministry there.

Katherine chose to remain in the U.S. in order to work toward a four-year degree, but she offered to do anything she could to support Mily so that she could dedicate her time to serving the women at the shelter. Katherine raises money by selling crafts made by Mily and the women—artisan scarves, sweaters, purses, wallets, and more, woven from alpaca wool.

Katherine used to visit the Sisters in Camilla Hall and then take walks around Immaculata’s campus, enjoying its beauty, and dreaming of studying there. She decided to apply, even though she wasn’t sure how to pay for two more years of college.

But Immaculata’s admissions and financial aid staff offered Katherine grants and scholarships based on her GPA and her need, reducing the cost to an amount that was comparable to her community college tuition. So Katherine’s host family agreed to pay for her to earn her bachelor’s degree at Immaculata.

Katherine chose to major in Psychology and minor in Entrepreneurship, and the combination has been perfectly suited to her interests and to her desire to support the shelter. She says she’s learned to understand and appreciate all kinds of different people through her Psychology classes, and also learned how to assist her mom with the necessary financial and administrative aspects of running the shelter.

Katherine made use of her business homework assignments to create a business plan for the shelter and develop a simple website. But she also began to realize that she couldn’t do everything by herself. She had responsibilities as a full-time student and with her host family, and she and her mom were still learning how to manage a charitable organization.

So Katherine started sharing the story of the shelter with her friends, classmates, and professors. She held the first craft sale at Immaculata, and she says the IU community has been very open and very supportive of Mily’s work among abused women.

“It’s been an IU project,” Katherine says. She discussed the shelter with Business and Accounting Department Chair Charlene Fitzwater, Ph.D., who referred her to Immaculata’s Enactus team. The team members volunteer their skills to support small companies and organizations while gaining business experience, and they decided to adopt the shelter as one of their projects for the year. The team developed marketing plans for the shelter, led campus awareness campaigns, designed and distributed informational brochures, and helped connect the shelter with churches and supporters.

“This project is quickly becoming more than just a project,” said Katie Conlin ’15, one of the Enactus team’s leaders. The team and other members of the IU community have done so much that Katherine didn’t have to do anything for the most recent craft sale. Other people set up the display outside the dining hall, put price tags on the items, and told customers the story of the shelter.

“To me, that was such a help,” Katherine said. It’s even been a help to just have people to encourage her when things feel overwhelming.

In addition to providing practical support, Immaculata has been a supportive faith community for Katherine. She has loved being able to go to Mass frequently and to sing with the interdenominational praise and worship team through Campus Ministry. “To listen to their stories has grown my faith,” Katherine says.

During Christmas break, Katherine returned to Bolivia to visit her mom and to see for the first time the shelter she had been supporting from afar for the past two years. Like her, the women living at the shelter call Mily their mamá. At the end of one day, Katherine watched a few of them gently massage Mily’s feet while they talked with her.

“It’s a family there,” Katherine said. “My culture is very, very loving.” And this, more than anything else, is what brings healing to the women who have suffered unspeakable trauma.

“They do their own therapy,” Katherine says. They share their stories with Mily and with each other. They realize they’re not the only ones who have been victimized. They begin to feel empowered by each other, and they are even able to find glimmers of humor in the darkness of what they’ve experienced. Katherine stayed up until the wee hours of the morning with them, laughing with them as they joked about their stories, which were really not funny at all. “If we go back to our husbands, maybe we should learn karate!” they said.

Katherine found more reasons to laugh when she had a meeting with the shelter’s volunteers. As she was accustomed to doing when she met with the Enactus team, she brought a list of items to discuss with the shelter volunteers. But they just wanted to get to know her and thank her profusely. So much for her American-style plan.

“It’s all love! So much love,” she said. “And that’s something that, here, it’s hard to have, because we’re very busy and concentrated on the task.” Katherine enjoyed a little break from task-oriented American culture during her month in Bolivia. “It was so relaxing,” she said. “It was hard to get to the point, but it was so relaxing!”

Katherine also had the opportunity to relax and trust God’s providence during her visit. She noticed some potatoes in the kitchen one day that no one remembered buying. “Am I going crazy?” she thought.

She helped her mom make dinner one night with a piece of meat the size of a dinner plate. “Is this going to be enough for 30 people?” Katherine asked.

“Yes,” Mily said.

Somehow it was. “We have seen a lot of miracles,” Katherine says.

The Emilia Wojtyla Shelter, named for Pope St. John Paul II’s mother, has helped more than 70 women and children so far, providing a safe place for them to live, and empowering them to become financially independent by making crafts.

So what’s next? Katherine wants to register a nonprofit organization in the U.S. to support the shelter and connect with churches that want to help.

She also wants to bring American supporters to Bolivia so that each culture can see the other’s reality.

“There are things that we can learn, experiencing both cultures,” she said. She wants Bolivians to see that Americans have struggles too. “They think everything is wonderful here,” she says, because the U.S. is so much wealthier than Bolivia. She is grateful for the material blessings Americans enjoy, but she often misses her culture’s gift for community. So she wants Americans to experience Bolivian hospitality, to feel that they have a home at the shelter.

“There’s not a best place, there’s not a worst place; it’s just different. And there’s no way you can understand that if you don’t see those realities,” she says.

During her visit to Bolivia, Katherine noticed Delia, one of the first women to come to the shelter, who seemed to be Mily’s right-hand woman. Mily delegated various tasks to Delia throughout the day, who carried them out faithfully. “She was in charge of everything,” Katherine said.

One day Katherine was looking through the files that the office kept on all the women—when they came, what their stories were. She ran across a photo of Delia. “Her face was almost destroyed,” Katherine recalls.

She wondered how such a badly injured woman could have transformed into the responsible leader she knew. Mily told her that when Delia first came to the shelter, she was traumatized. “She couldn’t go anywhere, she couldn’t talk, and she cried every day,” Katherine said.

Gradually, Mily’s encouragement soothed Delia’s spirit, giving her the strength to function normally. Mily also encouraged her to stand up to her husband’s unjust treatment of her.

“You are worth it,” Mily told her. Delia did not have to tolerate abuse as if it were acceptable. Living in the loving environment of the shelter gave her a taste of how much better life could be, with healthy relationships instead of violence and degradation.

“What I saw was very incredible, how strong she was,” Katherine said, “seeing her to be now so responsible, and so secure,” not willing to let her husband manipulate her.

Katherine encouraged her to keep going with her healing process, promising to continue selling her handiwork in the U.S. so that she would not need to return to her husband for financial reasons. “You don’t need a man,” Katherine told her.

This is why the shelter involves the women in making crafts. The message to them is, “You’re going to learn to work for yourself and to give value to yourself,” Katherine says. “You’re working here and dreaming and achieving things that you never thought you would be able to.”

Katherine has her own dreams to achieve, too, although she’s not exactly sure where she’ll end up. She graduated this spring and plans to work in the U.S. for a year, and then maybe earn a master’s or doctoral degree in organizational psychology with a focus on multicultural awareness. She hopes to work in the field of education or in the church someday.

Whatever she does, she’ll maintain her connection with the Emilia Wojtyla Shelter and the women it seeks to empower. “Women in Bolivia are really, really underappreciated, underestimated,” she says. “I would love to be called ‘Dr. Cartagena’ just to say to the women, ‘See, if I can do it—you, too!’”

Author: aduncan

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