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Santiago's Children: What I Learned about…

Santiago's Children: What I Learned about Life at an Orphanage in Chile

by Steve Reifenberg

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I recommend a lot of books. Usually, this is just a verbal suggestion, one that gives people the opportunity to go to the store or their online book-purchasing venue of choice to decide for themselves, whether or not the book is their cup of tea. I rarely, though, give books to people as presents as I am afraid that what I read will not, ultimately, satisfy my friends and family or the occasional interested stranger. A year after I first read Steven Reifenberg’s Santiago’s Children, I can safely say that this is my only pick for gift giving. It has become my number one go-to book.

Like many middle-class college grads, Steve found himself bound for law school, in 1982. Questioning this decision, he began looking into alternatives. He enlisted the help of several friends who had recently worked abroad, looking for a way make even a meager wage while experiencing something less cookie-cutter. A friend who had recently been in Chile gave him the name of a small children’s home run by a woman named Olga Diaz. Needless to say, he never made it to Indiana to being his first year. He opted out of academia and headed south with nothing but a name and a vague hope of finding fulfillment.

Within the walls of Hogar Domingo Savio, Olga Diaz’ cramped but cozy orphanage, the tiny heroes of the story painted a more tropical version of a Dickens tragedy. Most of the children came under Olga’s care through abandonment or abuse, their parents and guardians victims of political upheaval or other, less noble fates. Olga welcomed (and still welcomes) all with open arms, often biting of chunks almost too big to chew. Despite the desperate means by which the members come to the home, the children are full of energy and wonder, engaging their older caregivers in their optimism.

Nearly a decade before, Salvador Allende had been killed in the Sept. 11th military coup, plunging the country into the age of Pinochet’s rule. Thus, Steve began his stay in a Chile wrecked by economic and political chaos. Initially on the outskirts of the political wave, Reifenberg, Diaz and the children eventually found their own voices and brand of descent in the unfolding social scene as times become desperate.

Of course, the children of Hogar Domingo Savio were not the only youths changed by Steve’s stay. Over the span of two years, Reifenberg went through a range of monumental and subtle changes that are contrasting, albeit familiar, to those changes brought to twenty-somethings anywhere. Perhaps the most moving period of the book came when Steve found himself bed bound for an extended period of time due to illness. As a young crusader, he felt torn with guilt at appearing completely useless when so much needed to be done. After struggling with ethic, internally, Steve finally rested on the conclusion that until he is able to take care of himself, he can be in no shape to help those around him. This thesis is a powerful one, yet a hard one to completely grasp for many, especially those who have launched themselves into the unknown with the intention of helping others.

This is a fantastic little book. There is an incredible amount of care given to paint the two Chiles, one, on the outside, where guns and politicians blazed, the other painted so beautifully that it was easy to forget the intensely real and desperate backdrop amidst the laughter and lives of the children and their various adventures. Far from appealing solely to young expatriates, this story will strike en emotional chord with most readers, as it is truly a wonderful and moving coming of age story as well as a readable and poignant history of the political climate of past and modern Chile.

As Olga’s operation is still alive and well, each copy of Santiago’s Children sold will see half of the author’s profits given to the continuing support of work with at-risk children in Chile, primarily to support the work of the Hogar Domingo Savio (now Mi Club Domingo Savio). ( )
  mistycliff | Jul 8, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0292717423, Paperback)

Unclear about his future career path, Steve Reifenberg found himself in the early 1980s working at a small orphanage in a poor neighborhood in Santiago, Chile, where a determined single woman was trying to create a stable home for a dozen or so children who had been abandoned or abused. With little more than good intentions and very limited Spanish, the 23-year-old Reifenberg plunged into the life of the Hogar Domingo Savio, becoming a foster father to kids who stretched his capacities for compassion and understanding in ways he never could have imagined back in the United States.

In this beautifully written memoir, Reifenberg recalls his two years at the Hogar Domingo Savio. His vivid descriptions create indelible portraits of a dozen remarkable kids—mature-beyond-her-years Verónica; sullen, unresponsive Marcelo; and irrepressible toddler Andrés, among them. As Reifenberg learns more about the children's circumstances, he begins to see the bigger picture of life in Chile at a crucial moment in its history.

The early 1980s were a time of economic crisis and political uprising against the brutal military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Reifenberg skillfully interweaves the story of the orphanage with the broader national and international forces that dramatically impact the lives of the kids. By the end of Santiago's Children, Reifenberg has told an engrossing story not only of his own coming-of-age, but also of the courage and resilience of the poorest and most vulnerable residents of Latin America.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:22 -0400)

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