Switchboard Stories: Harmony of Andes
Alexis Vargas came from her home in La Paz, Bolivia to attend the University of Pittsburgh in 2012. She met Becca Burns, a transplant from Colorado, who was happy to help her improve her English. That meeting grew into a friendship, and much more.
In the course of their conversations, Alexis told Becca about her home country, particularly the thousands of children living alone and at risk on the streets of La Paz, the Bolivian capital city of nearly 800,000 perched in the Andes Mountains of South America.
Sharing a strong religious faith and desire to help those less fortunate, the two women quickly started thinking about ways they could help the children, who suffer from hunger, abuse and other perils on a daily basis. Estimates of the number of street children in La Paz range from 5,000 to 10,000 or more.
The pair founded Harmony of the Andes, whose mission is “to partner with local organization and community leaders to develop health education programs which foster a safer and healthier environment for street populations.”
Harmony of the Andes was one of the original members of The Global Switchboard when it opened in 2014, and now works with a network of about 15 volunteers in Bolivia and Pittsburgh, including graduate students from the University of Pittsburgh who have been helping carry out a needs assessment in La Paz.
Becca and Alexis began raising support in Pittsburgh to provide meals and organize different events for the street population in La Paz. In December 2014, they successfully organized a dinner for 800 families in La Paz to begin the community needs/resources assessment. Through this assessment they built community involvement in improving the health and education of the children through partnerships with local community groups, organizations and schools.
“HARMONY OF THE ANDES WAS ONE OF THE ORIGINAL MEMBERS OF THE GLOBAL SWITCHBOARD WHEN IT OPENED IN 2014”
“The impact is to raise awareness of what is going on in Bolivia because in Latin America people know about Mexico and Colombia and the bigger countries, but Bolivia was something people didn’t know about before,” says Alexis, who is studying for her masters in Nonprofit Management and International Development at Pitt.
Becca says her training as a dental hygienist – her day job – also helps her understand the importance of focusing on access to proper nutrition and health care, which the Bolivian children are entitled to under government programs but which they don’t always receive.
“Being able to teach them about health in a lot of different areas is so rewarding and it keeps us moving forward,” says Becca.
Alexis and Becca have developed a culture statement for Harmony of the Andes, which uses the acronym PURPOSE to capture values that drive them – Passion, Understanding, Reconciliation, Proximity, Optimism, Service and Empowerment.
They credit the Switchboard for helping them connect with and learn from other people and organizations pursuing similar missions in other countries.
“We have had great mentors here who have already been there and done it,” says Becca. “They have been able to educate us moving forward and made our process a lot smoother.”
In the four years since she came to Pittsburgh, Alexis says she has noticed that more people are starting to become globally aware.
“People have changed a lot and I think The Global Switchboard has played a very important role in that,” she says. “Looking back and seeing how many more people are involved in different programs, or raising awareness of what is going outside and more Pittsburghers knowing what is going on around the world. I think that’s a good way to measure global engagement.”