Bolivian street children glimpse `a future'. The frontier city of Cochabamba is awash with abandoned youth, but Amanecer is there to provide shelter and teach a trade

Tired of being beaten nearly every day by his alcoholic father, Roberto Quiroz left home at the age of 6. He never returned. Over the next several years, along with other homeless boys, Roberto spent his days shining shoes, washing cars - and stealing - to support himself. At night, he and his friends slept wrapped in cardboard on the sidewalk by the railway station in this central Bolivian city of 300,000.

Roberto periodically grew weary of the constant scramble on the street and entered a shelter program for homeless boys called ``Amanecer'' - Spanish for ``daybreak.'' But accustomed to life on the street - and by now selling and smoking mind-numbing cocaine paste - he never spent more than several months at a time at the shelter.

Last year, after a long talk with the Rev. Patrick Henry, one of Amanecer's three directors, Roberto decided to leave the street - and drugs - for good. He now lives in one of Amanecer's four houses and is learning to be a carpenter during the day and is studying at night.

``If Amanecer didn't exist, I'd still be living in the street or be in jail or maybe even be dead,'' says Roberto (who is now 15), taking a break from sanding a chair. ``Fr. Henry made me realize that here I can learn a skill and have a future.''

Roberto is only one of hundreds of Bolivian boys between the ages of 5 and 20 who have a future today, thanks to Amanecer. The program, which was founded in 1981 and houses about 60 youths on a semipermanent basis, has placed many back with their families and graduated many others into the military or steady jobs.

There are more homeless boys in Cochabamba than in Bolivia's two larger cities, La Paz and Santa Cruz, because thousands of families have flocked here from Bolivia's mountain region looking for work in this temperate zone. The massive migration from close-knit communities to frontierlike Cochabamba has broken up many families.

Having trouble adjusting to the new environment of the city and often unable to find steady work, many fathers begin drinking heavily and take their frustration out on their sons. Many others abandon their wives for younger women.

There is a relatively small number of stable marriages among the poor here, says Sister Stephanie Murray, who belongs to the Sisters of Charity order and is Amanecer's co-director. ``When the husband leaves, how is the wife going to support the children? She can't, so her sons either leave voluntarily or are told to fend for themselves.''

The boys may often have the intention of helping their mothers, she continues. But when they're on the street, they're drawn into other activities.

One of those is peddling cocaine paste cigarettes, which earns far more than any legal activity. Youths selling the so-called pitillo cigarettes inevitably begin smoking the highly addictive and impure cocaine, since drug dealers pay part of their wage in pitillos.

Sr. Stephanie estimates that 90 percent of Cochabamba's 1,000 street children have smoked the chalk-colored powder.

Drugs are so readily available because Cochabamba is only a five-hour drive from the Chapare, a New Jersey-size tract of rugged jungle that is Bolivia's biggest coca-growing zone. There, barefoot boys stamp on coca leaves in vats of kerosene and acid to leach out cocaine paste.

Jos'e, 16, spent several months in the Chapare stamping on coca leaves. He earned 15 pesos for the all-night work - half the country's minimum monthly wage - and smoked pitillos to ward off hunger and to stay awake.

Leaving the Chapare two years ago for Cochabamba, he learned about Amanecer from other homeless boys. The cheerful teen-ager has lived in an Amanecer home since then and is learning to be a car mechanic.

Half of the 120 boys Amanecer houses every night are just off the street, and many of them are regular visitors who will stay only several nights.

But the others, if they can't be placed back with their family, live in an Amanecer home until they turn 18, when Bolivian law requires them to serve a two-year hitch in the army.

Fr. Henry, a Maryknoll missionary, was initially worried about coming to such an impoverished zone when he left behind his Omaha, Neb., parish in 1984. The infant mortality rate here is 240 per 1,000 live births, and the average age expectancy is 51 years.

But noting the sharp improvement he observes in the youths, he says, ``This is the most rewarding work I've ever done.''

``We're dealing with kids who have reached bottom,'' he adds. ``The key is giving them the sense that there is something to hope for or live for. Instilling that seems an effective antidote to the bad habits they've fallen into.''

``When they finally put their trust in you, as Roberto Quiroz did, they take off like a rocket,'' he continues. ``A kid can see himself getting better. He has basic evidence that it's working.''

Henry pointed at an animated boy wearing a Nebraska sweat shirt the priest had given him.

``That's Eduardo Ramos,'' he says. ``We think he's 8, but we're not sure. We found him two months ago abandoned in a hospital. Apparently his parents didn't have enough money. At first he was reclusive and couldn't be touched. And now look at him.''

Eduardo was playing in a loud game of tag with a group of boys in the garden at his Amanecer house. Meanwhile, 25 older boys were busy making tables and chairs in the program's carpentry shop. After dinner, the games and work would stop as the youths attended their daily three hours of classes.

It's hard to imagine that Eduardo and the others were once like the surly and conniving boys still on the street.

The program, which has a shoestring $90,000 budget this year and is funded by individual donors, was founded by Sr. Stephanie and another nun six years ago. ``We were tired of seeing boys without anywhere to sleep, so one night we put 14 of them up in an apartment,'' she says.

But the owner soon kicked them out, forcing the nuns to house them in a converted chicken coop. ``We've come a long way since then,'' says Sr. Stephanie, who is from Philadelphia.

Ideally, however, Amanecer wouldn't exist, she says. The boys would grow up at home with their parents.

Instead, as Bolivia, South America's poorest country, suffers through its seventh straight year of economic decline, the number of boys on Cochabamba's streets will probably continue to rise, as will drug use.

In a lot of ways, this is a society without hope, Henry says. Amanecer can't solve all its problems, but it can give hope to many boys.

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