ADVENTURE

WORKING IN PARADISE:

COLOMBIA, SOUTH AMERICA: 1972 – 1974

INTRODUCTION

            Colombia is a South American country rich in natural resources. Its lush plains to the east, the Llanos, grow rich rice and cotton crops and succulent beef is raised “on the hoof” in great ranches called fincas. The Llanos merge into the tropical rainforests, where indigenous Amazonian Indians grow corn, fish, and produce artwork for the tourist market. Deeper into the forest live tribes who are less welcoming to outsiders. In the mountains, the northernmost parts of the Andes, minerals are mined including the famous Colombian emeralds, silver, and gold. Coffee is grown and exported from the more temperate foothill regions and is famous worldwide. The Colombian coastline is dotted with ancient Spanish fortresses and golden beaches and the Pacific Ocean provides fresh seafood and a thriving tourist trade. The Colombian people, many a mix of Spanish and Indian, “the meztizos”, are beautiful, intelligent and generous.

Such resources should have made Colombia very rich but lack of organization, the drug trade, and, almost constant, guerilla warfare have kept the country impoverished. Towns are a study in contrasts: rich, modern buildings, museums and palaces surge up from the city centers, while, on the outskirts, sprawl the “barrios”, square miles of shanty neighborhoods without electricity, fresh, running water or sanitation. A lack of social services leaves abandoned children running the streets of the cities: the gamines. Most of the abandoned babies and children die young. It is a child with a strong constitution, a will to live, and enormous luck that survives this treacherous start in life.

This was the world into which I stepped in 1972. Fresh from a social work college in Oxford, England, I volunteered to spend two years working at a Colombian orphanage, Paraiso Infantil. I went out under the aegis of Voluntary Service Overseas to work for two years at an orphanage which was run by American missionaries. When I first applied for the post with VSO, I had little idea where Colombia was. The orphanage was situated on the eastern plains, in the tropical shadows of the Andes foothills, and my two years of service ranged from the mundane to the exotic. From mid- 1972 through 1974, over fifty orphan babies passed through the nursery and were adopted into American homes. Almost all of the babies and children were abandoned: mostly from Villavicencio and Bogotá or the surrounding countryside: left on church steps and in trash cans, and warehoused in local hospitals and state orphanages. The majority of the infants and children were suffering from severe malnutrition, parasitic and other infections, and developmental delays. The lucky ones found their way, through caring social workers and missionaries, to Paraiso Infantil. During those years at the orphanage, I kept a daily diary and wrote letters home to my parents, which they gave me when I returned to England. Being a “packrat” I kept these records plus photos and other memorabilia for many years.

Letter writing seems to have become a “lost art”. This is unfortunate; as letters afford us a window into the past, provide important, first-hand accounts of historical events, and intimate portraits of people and places. Emails and text messaging can never match the experience of reading a personal letter, written over a period of time, when the pace of life was less hectic. Not that we were less busy, back then, but we took the time to sit down to read, write letters, and think! The sending and receiving of letters from home was an important “touchstone” in my life and the journal entries served the same purpose. Many of the entries are mundane, accountings of everyday life at the orphanage, but within the pages are rich descriptions of a foreign culture which delighted, educated and, often, bemused me.

Attitudes, too, have changed and I am now older and wiser. Back in the 1970s at the orphanage, the young women assistants were called “girls” and the young men, who worked on the orphanage farm, were called “boys” regardless of their age, which revealed the perceived social distance between the white missionaries and the Colombians. Reading the letters also reveals the arrogance of the missionaries in their searching out “lost tribes” in the Amazon jungle to Christianize. Disregarding the thousands of years of cultural history of these tribes, the missionaries introduced disease, greed, and warfare while trying to foster education, health programs and social justice. Deaths of white missionaries occurred frequently as indigenous tribes defended their families and their culture from outside interference and influence.

There are other differences between then and now. Back then, I was young and naive. On the hazardous rides between Bogotá and Villavicencio, I believed that, if I was needed at the orphanage, God would not let the bus fall into the steep ravines, despite the many mud and rock slides. Perhaps this was wishful thinking but it kept me safe. I walked around the dangerous streets of Bogotá, with impunity, and bussed out into the Colombian mountains, risking ambush by communist guerillas, and enjoyed the scenery along the way. It was all one, big adventure!

Colombia is still a dangerous country, perhaps even more dangerous than it was in the 1970s. Over the past decade political mercenaries have kidnapped and killed missionaries and their families serving in Villavicencio and the Llanos. Many of the grown orphans want to go back to look for their families but I try and dissuade them. It is still too dangerous and, perhaps, it will be that way for many decades to come. One day, Colombia may advance and become the educated, sophisticated country of commerce and culture that it strives to be. But that time has not yet arrived.

Over the past thirty years, the orphans have grown and graduated, some have attended college, spent time in the services, and many have children of their own. Quite a few of these individuals have found me, via the Internet, and have inquired about their early years at the orphanage. I have been happy to provide them with helpful information, photos, medical information and details of the day-to-day life at Paraiso Infantil. The following pages are a transcription of journals and letters home that tell the story of my volunteer service at the Paraiso Infantil orphanage, about the town of Villavicencio, the city of Bogotá and the beautiful country of Colombia. This recounting is dedicated to the now-grown orphans: the survivors.

 

Publishing Editor’s Note:  This is the intro to Dr. Angela Thompson Smith’s book about her true life adventure in Colombia.  Her book is a work in progress and we are fortunate to be given a sneak preview of what’s to come.  I will keep you updated on her book’s progress.  Please take a moment to read about her incredible life on our Contributor’s Bio Page.  The orphanage photo was supplied by Angela.  

UPDATE:  Angela’s work on this amazing story continues today.  Since this story was posted, a few former orphans have been in contact with Angela requesting more information, which she has graciously given.  

On a personal note, please accept my apologies for misspelling Colombia in my note.

 

 

18 Comments

  • Ernest Lehmann Posted July 7, 2013 2:20 pm

    This was where my parents found me. Thank you!

  • Lavinia Curletta Posted July 8, 2013 7:57 pm

    I will buy this book when it comes available. My brother, Ernest Lehmann, was originally from this orphanage. He is also looking forward to reading it.
    However, please fix (on this page and in every other place in the book) the word Colombia. It is not Columbia.
    🙂

  • nina Posted September 26, 2013 2:37 pm

    How beautiful!! I was at this orphanage from 1974. I have no real idea who i am, who i was born as. All searching has been in vain. I truly loved reading this, a tiny glimpse into my history.

  • Penny Rea Posted October 16, 2013 7:25 am

    I love the true story about your life Angela. There is so many layers to you I do not feel I will ever know you through and through! You are an amazing writer and such a unselfish lovely lady always giving and never asking for anything in return! That is why you and my sister are friends because you share these traits and you are drawn together like a moth going for the light not knowing where it leads but enjoying the journey!

  • Melody S. Posted March 4, 2014 9:14 am

    I had the blessed opportunity of a life time to return to the orphange (now a church/school) just a week ago. The orphange is no longer functional as it closed in the early 80’s.

    My understanding is all the records of the orphans/adoptees there left with one of the founders Nancy Tappan. She resides in Atlanta GA USA, her contact info can be found through internet searches. It may be that she has additional info on an child though not guaranteed.

    Columbia travel is not as risky as in the early 90’s but one must still be mindful and cautious moving about. Villavicencio is a beautiful city of about 700k population. The people are even more beautiful with their dark features, petite statures and wonderful Spanish.

    The building of the orphange is run down. According to the pastor there now, not much of the building or rooms within have changed. The school there now is private and located about a half mile away from the old orphange building and the school is growing but there is still poverty, just as within in any major city.

    The pastor indicated that over the years orphans have returned to get a better understanding of their past and they welcome those who do. The pastor and his family were gracious to take the time to share info and walk with me amongst the land.

    It was also mentioned to me there is a group of orphan/adoptees that meet in the states each year and I’m trying to obtain additional info on this.

    If you return you’d have to have a translator with you who’s familiar with Colombia, Bogota and Villavicencio etc. this is imparative for safety.

    To other orphans/adoptees, our homeland is amazing, rich to the eyes, grounding to the soul, embracing to the heart and it never leaves your memory. I feel more tied in now to my heritage than I ever have.

    Best to you all,
    Melody S.

    • Cynthia De Boer Posted March 5, 2014 9:50 pm

      Thank you so very much for your thoughts and information. We would love to be updated on any new information you receive.
      I will also make sure Angela reads your email, and please feel free to contact her directly as well.
      Love & Blessings,
      Cyndi

    • Angela T Smith Posted November 10, 2014 4:55 am

      Hello Melody S, thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my article about the orphanage and your comments about the current state of the orphanage buildings. During the two years, 1972-1974, I was working at the orphanage my mother saved all my letters home, plus I kept personal orphanage diaries that I have put into a manuscript. I plan to write this up as a book at some point. I still have many photographs of the children and staff. Thanks you so much for your response.

  • Dee Ann Shedd-Adams Posted November 6, 2014 12:42 am

    I was there March 1974 until October 1974. I was one of the youngest to get adopted. Leaving at 6 months of age I have no memories of this place but I am excited to go and visit soon. The orphans (or our first family) has a reunion every couple of years. We met in Ft. Worth 4 years ago. I think we would love to have another get together. Feel free to contact me. I am on FB Dee Shedd Adams.

    • Angela T Smith Posted November 10, 2014 4:58 am

      Dee Ann, thank you for your response to my article. I was working at the orphanage from 1972-1974 and I think I may have been there when you were there. I will have to check my records. I have letters home, that my mother saved for me, plus my personal orphanage journals that I have written up in a manuscript, that I may make into a book at some point. Please email me if you would like to contact me directly.

    • Angela T Smith Posted November 10, 2014 5:25 am

      Dee Ann, another quick email. Was your orphanage name Rhoda? The children had a name given to them by the Juvenile Defender, then at the orphanage they were given another name such as Hester, Rhoda, etc. This would help me locate any photographs etc.

  • Cynthia De Boer Posted November 10, 2014 1:51 am

    Dear Dee Ann,
    I will make sure Angela see’s your post. Best of luck on your future get togethers!
    Love & Blessings,
    Cynthia De Boer

  • John-Isaac Brock-HInes Posted January 15, 2015 9:28 pm

    Enjoyed reading your experience in my birth city of Villavicencio, Colombia. Nancy Tappan is my mother’s cousin and myself along w/ my sister were adopted from Colombia. My sister was born in Bogota. Three years ago I took my first trip back to my birth city. The mission trip was organized by Ms. Nancy. I stayed in the building pictured above and assisted with a bible lesson at the School, once orphanage. During my 10 day visit I was blessed to find my birth family in the course of a 45 minute trip into town! An amazing – God Centered – voyage that came to an end. Currently I too and working on a book telling my story as a way to give hope to others who may have lost hope, or feel what I felt for many years. Would love to converse with you some time. Thank you for your feedback!

    • Angela T Smith Posted January 27, 2015 5:39 pm

      John-Isaac, what an inspirational comment and so glad you were able to return to Colombia and find your birth family. I would love to read your book when it is published. I, too, have been working on a book, Working in Paradise, from my journals and letters home to my parents. If you need to contact me you can email me at catalyst78@cox.net. Kind regards, Angela

  • Cynthia De Boer Posted January 27, 2015 2:23 pm

    I’m so happy you found Angela’s story and will notify her so she can reach out to you. Good luck with your book, it sounds very interesting and inspiring!
    Love & Blessings,
    Cyndi

  • Alan T. Osterberg a.k.a. Luis Suarez Posted February 15, 2015 3:30 am

    I was adopted in 1972 from P.I. Hope to make it back some day. Thanks for sharing.

  • Billy Runyan Posted January 16, 2016 3:53 pm

    Hello. Great info. My parents (Rod & Nancy Runyan) worked at the orphanage in the 80’s and it is my favorite place I have ever lived. Life was so much easier in Villavicencio and I miss all the amazing people.

    • Cynthia De Boer Posted January 20, 2016 10:13 pm

      I’ll make sure Angela sees your comments. I want to thank you personally for commenting and for your parent’s hard work. This has to be challenging and wonderful at the same time. Blessings to you and yours, Cynthia

  • Rachel Williams Posted July 15, 2016 11:33 pm

    I was at the orphanage in 1972. My adopted mother spent 7 weeks there, so I do have some photos. It is quite encouraging to hear of John-Isaac’s reunion with his birth family. My husband and I are considering making the journey to Colombia. I would welcome any advice from those who have already returned. Thank you, Rachel (Jones) Williams (Maria Del Pilar Lopez)

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