How a Personal Connection Led Operation International to Bolivia

August 1, 2022

Choosing a new location for a medical mission is not as simple as saying, "Hey, let's go there!"

There’s a lot that goes into it, and for starters you need local connections.

You also must have a passion for that country, so much that you will jump through every legal, logistical, and bureaucratic hoop to make this and future missions happen.

Stephen Van de Wetering, an Operation International donor and three-time volunteer, had both the connections and passion for Bolivia. It was convincing enough that OI decided the landlocked South American nation was their next destination.

How Did Stephen Develop Ties with Bolivia?

It all started in August 1987, when a young and impressionable teenager arrived in Bolivia as a high school exchange student.

Stephen’s father, Jack Van de Wetering, encouraged his son to go abroad, as Jack knew the lifelong benefits such worldly experiences would bring.

Far away from home and with no prior knowledge of Spanish, Stephen embraced the experience of adapting to a new culture.

He quickly fell in love with Bolivia and the community of Tarija. He picked up the language while living with his Spanish-speaking host family, and his host parents treated him as if he was one of their own children.

For Stephen, there was a lot to love about the country: kindhearted and welcoming people, beautiful scenery, delicious local food, and lots of new friends.

… and did you know he even starred in multiple TV commercials when he was there?

“I’d like to say it was acting talent, but the truth is that I was the only blonde kid in town,” Stephen joked.

A Country Rich with Beauty, but Many in Need

Indeed, Bolivia was a wonderful experience for Stephen, but he was aware of another reality: daily life was a struggle for the majority. Most people are just trying to make it by.

As it was then and remains today (with some progress), poverty is widespread.

Depending on your sources, Bolivia is regarded as the poorest or 2nd poorest country in South America. Access to quality health care is limited, and political instability remains a constant in the backdrop.

Many people live (unnecessarily) with disease and sickness, simply because they can’t see or afford a doctor for preventative care.

“It was heartbreaking and an eye-opener as a young kid, but absolutely necessary to know about” Stephen said, “It’s a good reminder that the world extends beyond the US or any developed country. We should be aware of others’ struggles and help when we can."

Stephen finished his one-year exchange and headed back to the US, but deep down, he knew this wasn't his last time in the country.

“Bolivia has always had a special place in my heart. I didn’t know when, but I always knew that one day I would go back... and give back.”

Stephen Returns to Bolivia, Joins Operation International

It wasn’t until 30 years later that Stephen went back to Tarija and reunited with his host family, a reunion long in the making.

He returned to a city as he remembered before: wonderful people, beautiful scenery, delicious food…

The charming qualities were there, but the poverty stubbornly remained.

As Stephen noted, “They have WiFi and cell phones there now, but that doesn’t stop poverty entirely."

It was around this time that Stephen joined Operation International, at the recommendation of his father, a longtime donor and volunteer for the organization. Stephen participated in his first mission, going to Uganda.

Being part of a medical mission was another eye-opening experience, and he saw firsthand the positive impact Operation International has on a community.

And he had the idea: How great would it be to bring Operation International to Tarija?

Operation International Heads to Bolivia

Stephen shared his experiences and made the case to Operation International team leaders, and they thought Bolivia was a great plan.

As mentioned before, having connections to the country you’re going to is very important. You don’t just choose any location, pack your bags, and off you go.

There are a lot of questions to address, including:

  • How will we transport heavy medical equipment?
  • Where will we be operating?
  • What permits and documents do we need?
  • How long are the approval processes?

It is a lot easier when you have local connections to vouch for you, help with paperwork and language barriers, as well as connect with the right officials who will give the green light for your arrival.

Stephen had the connections, and with their help along with the OI team, they got the ball rolling. (Special thank you to Álvaro Romero and Álvaro Bazan in Tarija for all their hard work.)And in March 2020, Operation International would be going to Bolivia.

But March 2020 needs no introduction. COVID-19 hit and threw a wrench in the plans… twice.

The trip was postponed, as was a rescheduled September 2021 trip. It wasn’t until April 2022, two years later, that Operation International finally made it to the country. As you saw in our last blog post, TeamNY performed a lot of good work while there.

Stephen added:“I was very lucky to go to Tarija as an exchange student to meet and learn from the endlessly warm and friendly residents there. They treated me as an honored guest. They had very little, yet they gave me so much. That’s why it was so rewarding going back to Tarija with Operation International. I want to help as many people as I can there, and I hope to return again."

And these established connections made it possible for the Dental Team to go there a few months later in July and do their good work.

Now, Operation International has an established presence in Bolivia, and Tarija is the base and is welcomed in the community.

While the connections established a Bolivian presence, your generosity keeps it going.

Every local patient is fully aware that your support allows them to be treated at no cost. If you could see their heartfelt gratitude, it is an incredibly moving experience.