In June 2008, a two-day old infant was abandoned in the countryside of Guatemala, left to battle the pouring rain and driving winds without so much as a blanket. Miraculously, she survived. The twin newborns found only weeks before in the city dump and the tiny infant buried alive by her overwhelmed teenage mother were not so lucky.
While undeniably heart wrenching, these stories are sadly not uncommon in Guatemala and many other third world countries, but they hit lake-area resident Tamara Hillstrom particularly hard.
Though a native of Minnesota, Hillstrom harbors an intimate connection to the Central American country through her three beautiful Guatemalan children and the life-long friends she made through the international adoption process. And after hearing these tales of suffering and poverty, Hillstrom felt compelled to give back to the country that had given her such amazing gifts.
“I just have a huge love for the country,” explains Hillstrom. “I don’t know how to describe it—and I just couldn’t get back on a plane [to the US] without a plan for how to help those babies. I couldn’t help thinking that the children in those stories could have been my children.”
Further adoptions were out of the question. Hillstrom was already a mother to three busy kids; and even if she hadn’t been, an embargo had recently been established on international adoptions between the U.S. and Guatemala.
After pondering over the possibilities of mission trips and financial donations, it was Lilly Letona, a native Guatemalan and close friend of Hillstrom’s, who eventually led to the definitive solution to Hillstrom’s dilemma: an orphanage. Though other methods of support were unquestionably appreciated, an orphanage offered a means of accomplishing larger-scale and ongoing change in the lives of many children—and mere months later, plans for their own children’s home were in the works.
Hillstrom and Letona quickly assembled a coalition of passionate American and Guatemalan women who shared their aspirations and enthusiasm, and a board of directors for the fledgling orphanage was formed. This included the “Core Four”—Lisa Gencarella, Sally LeMay, Letona and Hillstrom—who would quickly become the movers and shakers of the group.
While they worked out the logistical details, Letona’s lawyer husband tackled the legal aspects of the endeavor, working with the Guatemalan government to secure certification and accreditation for their emerging organization.
Almost before they could believe it, their orphanage was a reality—and in need of a name. For Hillstrom, the answer couldn’t have been more obvious: every charitable, generous, good thing she had ever done could be credited back to her own tremendous upbringing. “My mother [Patricia] was an amazing woman,” recalls Hillstrom. “She was passionate, free-spirited, selfless—she just embodied everything that we wanted to bring into the orphanage, so that’s how we ended up with [the name] El Amor de Patricia (The Love of Patricia).”
The name became an actual place in June 2010, after Letona’s sons stumbled across a sprawling country home for rent in San Lucas, Sacatepequez. And the last year and a half has been spent making the house into a home—specifically, a home for children.
El Amor de Patricia is designed to be an orphanage that brings in infants and toddlers sent by the government who will live out their lives as an integral part of a strong family structure. “We want as much influence as possible on the development of the child,” explains Hillstrom, who emphasizes the importance of bonding and attachment, individual attention, and the permanence of family. “This is going to be their home,” explains Hillstrom. “It’s not just an institution where they’ll live until they’re 16, and then they’re out on the streets. We’re not kicking anyone out; they’re welcome here forever.”
Children in the orphanage will come to know their “brothers and sisters” through carefully structured small-group activities and family-style dinners, and will consistently be cared for by only a handful of nannies. “We really strive to have the same face getting them out of bed in the morning, and the same face putting them to bed at night,” details Hillstrom. “We’re trying to give them the opportunity to bond with each other and have as normal a life as possible.”
As they grow up, children at El Amor de Patricia will attend a bilingual private school just a few doors down, with opportunity to come to the U.S. as foreign exchange students in high school or college—though the ultimate goal is for them to return to Guatemala.
“We’re not looking to place them in adoptive homes, and we’re not looking to bring them to the U.S. [permanently],” though ultimately, that decision is left up to the Guatemalan government, explains Hillstrom. Overall, “our ultimate goal is to raise competent citizens who can contribute to their country and accomplish positive change in Guatemala,” she says.
As logical as this sounds, “it’s not a common model for an orphanage,” says Hillstrom, “but it’s really a needed model for an orphanage.”
Unfortunately, it’s also an expensive model. Many other Guatemalan orphanages aim to cycle kids through, ultimately placing them into adoptive families—and in the past, they have received the majority of their funding from prospective parents. Because of its unique mission and “parenting” style, El Amor de Patricia must look elsewhere for financial support—and they have been surprisingly innovative and successful in doing so thus far.
Financial support typically comes from a combination of donations and fundraisers, as well as contributions from Hillstrom’s two business ventures: The Enchanted Tree House children’s stores (located in Wayzata and White Bear Lake), which she co-owns with Terry Lauer; and In Grand Re-style second-hand store (located on Grand Avenue in St. Paul), which she co-owns with LeMay and her sisters.
Non-monetary donations like shoes, diapers, toys, books, clothing and formula are also welcomed—though they pose their own unique dilemmas: namely, storage and transportation. Luckily for Hillstrom, much of what they receive is able to be stored in the ample basement of the Enchanted Tree House, the Wayzata children’s store Hillstrom co-owns with Terry Lauer.
Having this space available allows them to send down specific items as they’re needed. LeMay and her family, who fly free thanks to her husband’s airline employment, bring down smaller items while larger loads are shipped through Orphan Resources International, an organization that Hillstrom glowingly refers to as “an amazing group that we are so indebted and grateful to.”
And what isn’t used at the orphanage certainly doesn’t go to waste. “If we get something and we don’t need it, we bring it out into the community,” says Hillstrom. “We spread it around.”
As of late, all volunteers and mission trips to El Amor de Patricia are encouraged to purchase a bunk bed, which they will then personally deliver to families throughout the community. “They get to see the old cinderblocks, wooden pallets or dirt floors that these kids were sleeping on, and then they transform their lives with something so simple as a bed!” exclaims Hillstrom. “I’ve been to several of these and it’s an amazing experience. I wish it on everyone in the world!”
El Amor de Patricia’s countless volunteers would unquestionably agree with this, but perhaps none more so than Erica and Stephanie Engle—a set of twins from California who were so inspired by their time spent doing work in and around the orphanage that they collectively published a photo journal of their mission, titled From Guatemala, with Love. Since returning home, the Engles have also started RAISE, a non-profit organization which partners with El Amor de Patricia, as well as other non-profits, in their mission to better the lives of Guatemalan children.
Currently, El Amor de Patricia is home to nine orphans, with room for 24 children once fully staffed. But in order to reach this point, Hillstrom emphasizes the importance of ongoing financial and volunteer support. “It takes everyone involved,” avers Hillstrom, “the board, the donations, our volunteers, everyone. Five dollars a month makes a difference. A one-time donation makes a difference. Really, anybody who tells somebody else about us—about the kids—makes a difference, and that’s what we’re really looking to do.”
Learn more about El Amor de Patricia at theloveofpatricia.org.