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Children's special needs met in Venezuela

BY PJ HELLER | BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela | January 6, 2000

BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela (Jan. 6, 2000) -- For 36 of the children now living

at "Hogar de Ninos Impedidos" here, the floods and mudslides that devastated

portions of Venezuela earlier this month marked the second time that they

lost their homes.

The first was when the youngsters, ranging in age from 5 to 17, were

abandoned by their parents, who were unable to care for them because of their

special needs.

The second was when their church home, Hogar Don Orione in Caraballeda near

La Guaira, was destroyed by a sea of water and mud which came crashing down

the mountainside in Vargas state following unprecedented rainstorms.

"At first it was very difficult for some of them to adjust to the new

environment," Father Alberto Fuentes said. "When the children first came here and were put in their rooms, they were asking, "Are you sure the water won't come in here. They were reaching up on the walls and asking, 'The water won't come up to here, will it?'"

Fuentes, who runs the facility here, which is sponsored by the Catholic

church in Spain, said that in time, he expected that the children would get

over the disaster.

"I believe that once they get some stability back in their lives and they

realize that they're in a stable environment in a new home, that they're

going to recover from the tragedy," he said.

Similar programs for special needs children are also operated by the church

in other South American countries, including Argentina and Brazil.

After being evacuated by military helicopter to Maiquetia, the youngsters

eventually made their way to Caracas and then to Barquisimeto. They arrived

at Hogar de Ninos Impedidos on Dec. 18, three days after floods and mudslides

buried parts of Venezuela, leaving up to 30,000 people dead.

"They came without food, water or anything," Fuentes said of the 50 children

who escaped the storm in Vargas state. Fourteen of those youngsters were

being housed at another facility for special needs children in Barquisimeto.

Sixty-four special needs children were already being cared for at Hogar de

Ninos Impedidos. A modern and spacious new dormitory facility was recently

completed for those youngsters and a dedication ceremony was scheduled for

Jan. 15, Fuentes noted.

Those plans have been put on hold due to the new arrivals.

Fuentes, along with Father Feliciano de los Mozos, who headed Hogar Don

Orione in Caraballeda, said they were considering constructing additional

buildings here to house the children.

"We believe they will be here for a long time," Fuentes said when asked how

long he expected the children to remain.

De los Mozos said there was no possibility of rebuilding in the same place in

Caraballeda and was uncertain if the church was willing to donate additional

land for a new facility.

"At this time, we don't know what's going to happen there," he said.

"Realistically, there were only five centers like this in all of Venezuela,"

Fuentes added. "Now there are only four."

Fuentes said he has been gratified by the outpouring of support from the

community and expressed hope that bonds could be forged with other

faith-based groups.

"We hope this gives us an opportunity to meet other agencies that will help

us to get the government to open its eyes to see what's going on," he said.

"We want to open up the channels (with other groups) and open people's minds

about what's happening."

Herlinda Colmenaras, director of Centro de Educacion Popular Excario Sesa

Lugan (CEPEXSOL), one of the Venezuelan partners of Church World Service,

visited the facility Friday and expressed hope that they could work together.

Fuentes, meantime, said the community was doing its part to help.

"We have received support from the whole community," he said. "Not only is

there solidarity in the city of Barquisimeto, but we're seeing a lot of

support from the whole country. Days after the children got here, we were

receiving food, clothes, medicine, all kinds of donations."

He said the Ministry of Health also was assisting by providing the youngsters

with physicals and helping to take care of their medical needs. Psychologists

and psychiatrists were also volunteering their time to work with the

children, he said.

He said that at present, all of the needs of the children were being met.

"Right now we're doing fine," he said, adding that in the months ahead there

may be other needs that will have to be met.

"But we believe the community will support us and that our needs are going to

be met," Fuentes said.

Posted Jan. 6, 2000

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