Justin ’98 and Janet Thomas Henry ’98 run a children’s home in Bolivia. They submitted the following story about their work and the journey they took to get there.
Justin and Janet Thomas Henry have two homes – but it’s not what you think. For the past several years, they have split their time between Mount Juliet, Tennessee, and Cochabamba, Bolivia. If you Google “Cochabamba,” you’ll find that it’s definitely not a beachfront resort or tourist destination. Located in the Andes Mountains, Cochabamba is home to about 700,000 people – and every day, three children under the age of 6 are abandoned on the streets.
In 2007, Justin went to Bolivia for the first time on a 10-day trip to construct a playground for the Bolivian Hope Center (BHC), a home for children whose mothers are in jail. When women go to prison in Bolivia, their children go with them. As if that is not bad enough, prisoners don’t get a cell phone, or blankets, or even food in a Bolivian prison – unless they pay for it. So, the prisons are full of children who often go to sleep on cold, hard concrete floors with empty bellies because there is no place for them to live. And just when it seems the situation can’t get any worse, some children are randomly removed from the prison due to overcrowding and kicked out onto the streets to fend for themselves.
Justin witnessed these things firsthand when he was there in 2007 – and they haunted him. A police officer at the time, he was no stranger to witnessing dark and dire situations. But there was something different about those kids; they truly had no hope without the BHC. At the time, the BHC was under construction but not yet completed. As funds came in, more building would take place.
Over the next several years, Justin took more than 20 trips to Cochabamba to work on the Hope Center. Construction was finally completed and the doors were opened to receive children in 2009. The next year, he convinced Janet to come down to experience Christmas with the kids in the Hope Center. For most of them, it was the first time they had ever celebrated Christmas – not because they didn’t know what it was, but because their families never had money to buy presents. It was a most humbling experience that forever changed the Henrys.
In 2013, things changed for them once again. One of the founders of the BHC was diagnosed with a debilitating disease and had to leave Bolivia to receive treatment in the United States. The entire Henry family went to Bolivia for three months to work at the BHC and try to fill some very large shoes. It was during that time that they knew they had to make sure that the work of the Bolivian Hope Center never ceases. By the end of 2015, they had left their jobs in the States and began working at the Hope Center year-round.
The BHC can house up to 40 boys and girls, and there is rarely a time when all the beds are not full. When new kids arrive at the BHC for the first time, they are often not only surprised that they have a bed, but they are surprised that they don’t have to share it with other kids.
The Henrys are excited to be back in the States for few months to raise awareness about the situation regarding the kids living in Bolivia’s prisons, as well as to share about the work of the Bolivian Hope Center. To learn more, visit their website at www.travelingcoch.com.
- Edited by Debbie Ritter, Office of University Communications