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Bridge-Building in Bolivia


Lay missioner Hady Mendez answers one of the questions mostly frequently asked of a missioner: “What do you do in Bolivia?” 

I build bridges. No, not the kind people walk on or cars drive across. I build other types of bridges. Another way to describe what I do is “bring people together”. It’s not actually one of my ministries, per say, but it’s what I like doing best and what comes naturally to me.

I actually have three distinct ministries. But somehow they are all related. And each day, my worlds seem to collide more and more.

Hady with the graduates of the Manos Con Libertad life skills pilot program

Each week day morning I head to Manos Con Libertad. It’s a ministry for women and children. Many of the women that are part of Manos were previously incarcerated. Some have been out of jail for over 10 years. Others just got out of prison last week.

Some of the other women at Manos are what I would describe as “women in need”. Some have economic needs. Others are in need of assistance with family situations. Still others are looking for support as they take on new challenges or make changes in their lives. I would sum up the work I do at Manos as “empowering women” so they can have a better chance at succeeding in life and helping their children to do the same.

On Thursday afternoons, I go to the jail with my Manos co-workers. Part of our ministry is to work with the women in jail by teaching them useful skills, reading the Bible with them, and simply being their friend. Even though I’m usually exhausted when Thursday afternoon rolls around, I enjoy it. I have really started to develop friendships with the women in prison. We talk about their families, their life outside of jail, their favorite food, their feelings, and more. One of the women has allowed me to see the inside of her prison cell. Others have shared what landed them in jail. And still others have cried with me because they are so frustrated with their situation.

One small group of women asked me to teach them English so I meet them for lunch and English lessons every other Monday. On alternating Friday afternoons, I join another missioner and hang out at the prison salon where women are learning to do hair. Occasionally they will practice on me, but mostly we just catch up: talk, laugh, and share stories.

Purses by AHA Bolivia

On Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, I go to my third ministry site, AHA Bolivia. AHA Bolivia is an ethical manufacturing company based out of Cochabamba. They employ more than 200 knitters to manufacture knitwear and recycled plastic bags. My job involves a little bit of everything, but mostly working closely with the owner of the company, Anna. She’s a California girl, graduate of Princeton, and has been living and working in Cochabamba for the last 20 years.

Recently, Anna told me she needed some additional machine knitters and wondered if any of the knitters in the jail could do it. Sure enough, I was able to connect Anna with the woman in charge of the knitters in the prison. Even better, those knitters are now helping to fill orders for Anna’s company. How freaking exciting is that?

Hady in a poncho knit
by one of the women in prison

We didn’t stop there. Anna’s company runs an online tutoring program for the children of the artisans/knitters. Anna wanted to grow the program. Know how we can get more kids involved in the program? Fast forward to today, the children of the ex-prisoners who work at Manos have been attending the online tutoring classes for the last few weeks. The better news? They love it!

“I can’t believe we’ve done so much together in such little time,” Anna said the other afternoon as we were going through the calendar for the summer interns. Because just last week, two of the HS interns went to jail with me to teach the women in English. And this coming week, three of the college interns at AHA will be eating lunch with me at the Manos restaurant and then going to jail with me to work on art project with the prisoners. Worlds colliding. I love it.

And it doesn’t end there. I’ve already asked other folks I’ve met here to join in on the fun. To Allison, known for her salsa dancing and art skills, I’ve asked to come give dance and art lessons to the women at Manos. To Karen, a former missioner and mother of three amazing children, I’ve asked to share her experience as a Christian mother and wife.

I feel we all have different gifts from God and mine happens to be building bridges. I don’t over-think it when an idea to connect people pops into my head. God plants the ideas/connections and I follow through. It’s a gift and I feel blessed to have it help me while I’m on mission.

The party never ends. Nor does the seemingly endless opportunities to serve and bring people together. I’m enjoying my work immensely and appreciate all the love and encouragement my supporters provide to keep me motivated, positive, and focused.

Go build some of your own bridges today! PAZ Y BIEN FROM COCHABAMBA.

A self-described “Hija de Brooklyn y Puerto Rico,” Hady Mendez is the youngest of four daughters raised by Puerto Rican parents in Brooklyn, NY. A proud Jasper, Hady graduated from Manhattan College in Riverdale, NY, before starting a corporate career in technology that lasted for more than 20 years. Hady has a true passion for world travel and social justice and recently returned from two years of mission in Cochabamba, Bolivia.