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Cutting Down Barriers and Stereotypes


Lay missioner Valerie Ellis talks about an experience she had connecting with a woman in a Bolivian prison. 

When I heard that women in jail in Cochabamba earn credits by cutting hair in their peluqueria (hair salon), I knew I had to go. Not only do they have the opportunity to get out of jail sooner, but they also learn a new skill along the way.

I was able to spend several hours there one day with Hady, a fellow FMS missioner. As I was being treated to a shampoo, head massage, and conditioning treatment, I chatted with my hairdresser. I learned that she had three children. She was a beautiful, vibrant twenty-six year old, and was excited because the day before she celebrated her four year old’s birthday with her family. She expressed sadness that she was not able to live with all of her sons, and explained that her family members chip in to care for her other children in her place.

She approached life with a vigor that I am not sure I would share if I were in her situation. She expressed surprise that Hady and I were older than her and did not have children. It seemed that we shared opposite sentiments of remorse, as I was equally surprised to find out her youngest child was four years old, when she was so young and was facing such difficult challenges.

In the middle of my appointment, while the conditioning treatment was setting in, she asked permission to leave for a moment. She shared later that she had gone next door to attend a prayer service where she was baptized!

It was very touching that I was able to share in her experience, but what affected me most was her offer to allow me to watch her youngest son, to take him to the park or wherever I would like, having just met me.

Now, don’t get the idea that it was because we had an amazing bond based on my ability to chat. My Spanish was incredibly poor that day, and I was barely able to answer her questions and communicate my hair request. It made me sad to learn that she would leave her son with me anytime, on the off chance I was a good person.

You might be thinking, “This would only happen in another country.” Please don’t. The same thing happened to me on a much grander scale in the U.S. In Tampa, a co-worker whom I had just met asked me to drive her child cross-country, when she found out I was passing through her state on the way home to Wichita. I spent three days with a 12 year-old I met on the first day of our journey, and at the time I was younger than my new hairdresser friend.

What can I learn about the following Franciscan themes from these experiences, both in my old and new homes?

  • Poverty makes us take risks that we normally wouldn’t take.
  • What kind of simple faith and peace must these mothers have had to leave their most prized possessions, their children, in my care?
  • • What amazing opportunities I had to step out in faith and provide care for creation in unexpected ways.
  • Finally, and most important for me, is social justice. If justice was a reality in the jail system in Bolivia, a young mother would not be put in a position to reach out to the first kind face that came her way. Imagine this scenario: most of the women (and men) in the jail system are there for crimes that they did not commit. The biggest travesty? They sit in jail for years awaiting a trial, before they are even found innocent or guilty.

Valerie served for two years (2014-2015) in Cochabamba, Bolivia working with CUBE (Centro Una Brisa de Esperanza) to raise sexual violence awareness and prevention, and in CEV (Comunidad Educativa Para La Vida) teaching and nurturing children six months to 8-years-old. Valerie grew up outside of Wichita, Kansas and graduated from The University of Tampa. She found her way to Franciscan Mission Service after 12 years of working in higher education where she worked with international students and designed and taught a class called "Avoiding Violence: Be A Part of the Solution."