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

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

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

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


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 Ver nica; sullen, unresponsive Marcelo; and irrepressible toddler Andr s, 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.


Paul Farmer

There are five reasons I jumped at the chance to write a foreword for Steve Reifenberg’s memoir about living and working in the early 1980s in a home for Chilean children who would otherwise have ended up in a large institutional orphanage. Five reasons, five areas of curiosity, five questions.

First, anyone who works in countries or regions where there are many orphans—that is, in places where young parents are apt to die— needs to know more about how best to raise these children humanely. You don’t have to read Dickens to doubt that large orphanages would be the best way to raise, for example, the millions of AIDS orphans now living in some of the places where I work as a physician.

A second reason I wanted to read Santiago’s Children was that I knew its author had had an experience similar to mine: shortly after graduating from college, Reifenberg set off for a country far from home, a troubled but beautiful place in which he became engaged in a noble enough task. With only the vaguest of references and less than a hundred dollars in his pocket, he found himself helping run, under the guidance of a remarkable Chilean woman who said she was opposed to “the warehousing of children,” a group home for a dozen poor children. I expected to read a lyrical account of two often frustrating and sometimes emotionally wrenching years, the story of a journey south to a place he didn’t know, a journey with and among people, most of them children, who had known none of the security he’d enjoyed in a rock-solid, middle-class American family. Epiphany or, at the very least, illumination seemed sure to follow. I wanted to know more about Reifenberg’s coming of age and to compare notes.

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