Soon after arriving to Bolivia, we spent a few days in Cochabamba. My Bolivian family insisted on putting us in touch with someone there, and that’s how we met Veronica, my uncle’s friend’s cousin (classic South American connections) and her husband Massimo. Even though they didn’t know anything about us, they made reservations for us at a gorgeous hotel in Cochabamba at a very discounted rate and showed us the city. We became part of their family for a few special days.

Massismo Casari, the son of a famous Italian national goal keeper from the 1960s, was a car dealer in Italy when he began dedicating his time to a Catholic orphanage. He came to Bolivia to visit their sister orphanage in Cochabamba over 18 years ago. Shortly thereafter, he fell in love – both with the orphanage and his lovely wife – Veronica, and decided to move here permanently. We visited this beautiful orphanage with Massismo and indulged in some Italian espresso with some of the Italian volunteers. These volunteers are mostly Italian teenagers spending their summers here, though some have stayed and married locals. The orphanage has grown over the years and now even offers vocational training, such as carpentry, car mechanics, etc.

Massismo and another Italian (Danillo) also founded a home for wheelchair-bound, severely sick children and adults. Apparently, it is a common practice for families to disown their children if they become severely maimed or ill due to the financial stresses this creates (paying hospital fees, taking care of the child thereafter, etc.). When we visited, we saw over 40 kids at this house, which was some strange fusion between Patch Adams’ home and an excerpt from Carson McCuller’s The Heart is A Lonely Hunter.

Next, we visited Massismo and Veronica’s Centro de los Niños. There, they run an “after-school” like program for the children of the northern edge of the city. This district of Cochabamba can only offer children school for half a day, due to the undersupply of funds and teachers. The parents of these children must work full days and therefore the children are left unsupervised. They often end up in gangs and become involved in the coca industry (the coca plant grows best between 1,000-2,000m, aka near Cochabamba). Massismo and Veronica’s program offers the children help with their homework, snacks, and lots of outdoor activities. As a Psychologist, Veronica is able to offer counseling for children with a particularly challenging home-life.

The day we visited happened to be Veronica’s birthday. Each child greeted her with a flower when we arrived. All the kids we met were adorable and affectionate; they have been starved for love, and radiate joy from finally receiving it. The first crop of these kids are now in there late teens playing some competitive indoor soccer for the rest of the kids to admire – a truly beautiful sight.

Later that night, we went to celebrate Veronica’s birthday at our favorite restaurant in Cochabamba: Sole Mio (the best pizza outside of Chicago). We don’t know if it was the amazing pizza, the opera playing in the background, the festive Italian crowd speaking their romantic language, the delicious wine, or the very special moments we experienced earlier in the day…but, this was one of our most cherished moments in South America so far. We were greatly impressed by the love and service of the Catholic, Italian community in Cochabamba. They are creating a utopia in the midst of rubbage; heaven on earth.