Teresa Villaruz

Year Joined MKLM: 2014
Country: Bolivia
City: Cochabamba
Focus: Education and Outreach, Prevention
Project(s): El Centro Hermano Manolo (The Brother Manolo Center)
People Served: Child Workers

Project Goal(s): To empower children as workers and students, making sure that they are aware of their rights and protected from exploitation.

Current Ministry:

Teresa works at El Centro Hermano Manolo in La Cancha, one of the largest open-air markets in South America. Alongside a team of social workers and volunteers, she accompanies the children who work in the market, ages 6–18, who shine shoes, sell candy, and push carts in order to provide for the basic needs of their families. The majority of the families have recently immigrated to the city from the countryside. Because the children work independently, they are at high risk for falling into gangs or being victims of exploitation, sexual abuse and violence. It is not uncommon for them to fall into drug and alcohol abuse. The center is a safe space where they can get a healthy snack, obtain homework help, play a game or rest. Practical life skills classes are offered, such as workshops on anger management and children’s rights.

Teresa works as a street educator, meaning that her work is to find these children and build relationships with them and the vendors around them. The work can be difficult because of the constant transience of the children and unpredictability of the market. What Teresa finds most valuable though, is that this ministry requires her to make herself completely vulnerable. She has no control over the environment, whereas the children are completely in their element. She can only spend time there if she has the permission of the children, which is extremely empowering

for them. There are no real objectives when she visits them on the street beyond spending time together, and this has been the most organic invitation into community that she has ever felt. On the streets of Cochabamba, she has polished shoes, transferred bananas and melons from cart to stall, and sold whipped cream in a plastic cup – skills demonstrated by the children she accompanies. Amidst the hustle and bustle of the market, all the noise and activity, Teresa is permitted to be a piece of thread woven into the fabric of this community.

Personal Data:

Teresa hails from Canyon Country, CA. She graduated from UC Irvine and joined Teach for America, working in a predominantly Hispanic Title 1 school on the east side of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Like many young people, she left the church when she was in college, writing it off as anti-intellectual and hypocritical. However, in Tulsa, she fell into depression being away from her family and everything she knew. Once broken and on her knees, she looked for community, googled Catholic churches near her, and found Church of the Resurrection, a community of radical and kind believers who invited Teresa to see Christ in all things, even herself. However, there was still a restlessness, as Teresa worked to reconcile her more progressive beliefs with her newly-found faith. In that restlessness, she found Maryknoll Lay Missioners, which welcomed the whole person, with all of her missteps and insecurities and triumphs.

In her first assignment with Maryknoll Lay Missioners, Teresa lived Mombasa, Kenya. She served at St. Francis of Assisi Primary School in the informal settlement of Kibarani, which is located across the highway from Timboni Dump. Most of the families in the area rely on the garbage from the city for their livelihoods, picking scrap metal and recycling bottles.

Her first project was to start the school library, which grew into an informal clinic as well, where children would go for their less-serious ailments. From there grew the Postcard Project – an invitation to friends all over the world to share the culture, food, weather, and traditions of the places they lived and visited, expanding the world beyond the boundaries of the village. Day to day, she taught Social Studies, English, and Religious Education to students in grades 4–7. Teresa also assisted fellow lay missioner Judy Walter with a project called Days for Girls, which provides girls with reusable sanitary pads. Mothers from Kibarani and Bangladesh (a nearby informal settlement) sewed the pads themselves, and classes on puberty and hygiene were hosted by a social worker and a nurse.