Fumbling through my broken Spanish, I’m trying desperately to make myself understood in the plumbing supply store. Pump is bomba and well is perforación but what’s-the-word-for-pipe-again? Compounded with the aftereffects of last night’s Malbec, a wine made famous here in Mendoza, I’m getting nowhere fast.
A fellow customer takes my arm and leads me across the room to a slight, older Argentine who I’m assured speaks English. “Hello, how are you?” asks Robert Paden, his English perfectly Midwestern, Kansas I later learn. Seems he’s not Argentine after all.
Bob knew the word caña as well as the workings of the local community. I was grateful to meet a fellow American and I quickly assailed him with questions. As I was the only other American living in the town of General Alvear I suspect he was as pleased to make my acquaintance as I was his. He told me that he and his wife Betty operated the children’s home, or Hogar, just outside of town and invited me out for a visit.
Over the past three years I’ve gotten to know Bob and Betty. Their story is a remarkable one.
Bob first got into missionary work in 1968. He learned through his church of a project underway to build a base camp in Colombia. So the Padens, six in all, went to the geographical center of Colombia to begin a three-year mission with the Wycliffe Bible Institute. The Institute’s linguistics specialists were there to learn the country’s tribal languages, 52 in all. Once a language was deciphered, Bibles would be printed in that idiom; missionaries would then return to that tribe to start their work.
Bob supervised the building of the base camp; Betty worked in the finance office which handled donation distribution. The Padens faced the hazards that come with the territory – Bob tells of being awakened one night by a vampire bat scratching at his face, trying to draw blood. Fortunately Bob sported a beard in those days and the bat was denied. He wasn’t so lucky on two other occasions, having to undergo series of rabies shots for dog bites. Betty only had to have the injections once… Malaria was commonplace. DDT, outlawed in the USA, was sent to Colombia where it wasn’t regulated and was used regularly to fumigate the homes.
It was during construction of the camp when one of Bob’s wood suppliers contacted cerebral malaria which, once it reaches the brain, is nearly always fatal. Though the man was near death, Bob fasted and held a prayer vigil over him and the man pulled through. The ordeal changed Bob´s life profoundly – he had found his calling to preach. So, when his commitment in Colombia was over, he and his family returned to the USA, where he underwent three years of Pastor study at Zion Chapel. Once completed, the Padens moved to Argentina, settling where their Buenos Aires contact felt they were needed most: General Alvear. Bob and Betty have been here ever since.
They built the entire General Alvear complex themselves – their house, the Hogar and the church. There’s work presently underway to expand the church where Roberto holds services twice each Sunday.
In the 34 years they’ve been here there have been many changes. Bob and Betty’s four children are grown and have moved back to the USA. They’ve adopted four other children. They’ve weathered military coups and economic collapses. The one constant has been their dedication to bettering the local community, first through their ministry, then later through the founding of the Hogar.
The children’s home has been in operation since 1999. It is a well-run model of self-sufficiency. The property has a forest of Poplar trees which are milled into boards which are used to make furniture. It has its own cattle herd which feeds the children, one steer a month. There are fields of alfalfa to feed the cattle. There’s a chicken coop which houses the 30 chickens the children eat each month.
The Hogar has more of a summer camp feel to it rather than an orphanage. Even with the knowledge of the underlying reasons for their admittance, it’s hard to discern that these children have ever been neglected, that they’ve come from homes broken by the full range of society’s ills. Their faces are perpetually lit up, the constant sound of their laughter heard, shouts of Tio (uncle) and Tia (aunt) to greet visitors.
At the present there are 26 children and 2 single mothers who, for their own protection, are staying at the Hogar. The big children take care of the little ones, a staff of 7 takes care of the group, and Bob and Betty take care of them all. In addition to the daily routine of meals, baths and bedtime, there’s the school transportation to be sorted out, the children’s inoculations to be scheduled, a restraining order to be effectuated. Sometimes all that’s standing between a drunken man and his battered wife and child is Bob, all 5’7’’, 135 lbs. of him. Before the Hogar women and children either endured their abusive home life or lived on the streets; there were simply no other options. More than one abashed local has been heard to lament how it took an American to care for Argentina’s children.
The Hogar is funded in part by the Mendoza Provincial Government, about 20%. While Argentina is a socialist-leaning country, especially during election years, these children are a long ways from voting age and don’t reap those benefits. The other 80% of funding must be met through private donations. There’s a steady trickle of food and monetary donations which keeps the kids fed – bushels of peaches today, boxes of milk or rice tomorrow. Somehow they always manage.
But lately Bob’s had to curtail the Hogar’s activities through no choice of his own. The corn crop labored over all last year netted 300 pesos (US $ 78), after expenses – he now buys corn. The funding hasn’t been there for the 2 workers required to do the maintenance and farm work, forcing Bob to take on those duties as well. Like his Mentor, Bob’s a carpenter by trade. He’s also a welder, electrician, farmer, rancher, machinist – anything that needs done, he can and must do.
At 75 Bob’s slowed some lately, but I still can’t keep up with him. Pride stops me from asking him to slow down while we’re walking; I figure that when he reaches 85 I’ll be able to catch him but by then I’ll be 58 so maybe not. He’s had to take on jobs which would occupy 4 people’s time. But as amazing as he is, surely there’s a limit. And once Bob’s used up, I worry about who’s to carry on, what’s to happen to these children.
The Hogar is overflowing with clothing donations. Beyond that all help is needed and welcome. US tax-deductible donations can be made through Pan America Mission, Inc. 100% of the donations go to the designated recipient. Please stipulate that your donation is for the children’s home in General Alvear, Mendoza, Argentina. For information on how to donate this way email Joe Gingerich firstname.lastname@example.org
In Argentina donations can be made in person. Call 02625 1557 4047 or email Nora Oller email@example.com for details. Nora speaks English and Spanish.
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