The temperature rises pretty fast here in San Juan, Argentina. Unfortunately, also does the hunger and the malnutrition. In Angaco, 30 kms from the city of San Juan, we met the Dining room named “Niño Jesús” (Jesus Child), coordinated by Don Augusto Olmos, his wife Cristina, and Mariela. Its beginning goes back to 11 years ago, when they went out as missionaries with a group from the Parrish and were faced with this 2,500 inhabitants town’s tough reality. There were many undernourished kids, and they wanted to do “something”. Talking with the Parrish priest they wondered: “How can we give them something to eat?”, and the priest simply answered: “Easy as that, giving them something to eat!” In brief, they transformed that “something” into tangible action. They started in a corner under the shade of a willow, preparing a fire and cooking the food in big pans. Whether it was under a strong sun, rain, zonda wind or a freezing cold temperature, they would manage to provide food to a growing group of kids, with a record of 320 kids!
And don Olmos, how the kids nicknamed him, doesn’t go with tiny things. He was 71 years old when he started with all this. Organizing raffles to buy the land and build the Dining Room, the Chapel and the kitchen, always devising ways to continue with the project. They even ended up sacrifying the only cow they had for milking to feed the kids with meat. With the support of private donations, IBRD and the Parrish, they can give food to an average of 80 kids from Monday to Friday. Now, their dream is to make them self-sufficient; with this in mind they purchased the adjacent land and when it is leveled, the will plant fruit trees. In the meantime, with borrowed land they grow 2,000 plants of vegetables. They say that Don Olmos climbs his Renault 12 every morning and drives around Angaco asking for donations, food that is given almost for free. Everybody knows him, loves him and nobody denies him nothing. With much inventiveness they could multiply every gift given, and this is how they have ovens for bread and pizza, a kneading machine, onions cutting machine and freezers. They transformed donated soya into soya milk, fruit into marmalades of different flavours. They received from Spain a specific donation to install a complete odontologist office, and they assisted 750 kids with the help of two young dentist, who attended them and even took X-Rays. So many plans, new objectives and accomplishments make the retirement look farther away.
Around 5:30pm, the kids start to arrive, straight form school, they play for a while and depending on the day they may have a class of folklore (traditional argentinian country music), muppets, movie with popcorn or art activities with volunteers from “Caritas” while they have a tea with “alfajores” (small cake typical from Argentina). They look happy, well feed and with a great need to have fun. The women usually play in the swings or talk and sing, the men play with small balls. They are experts in their field, Marianito, with a pocket full of won small balls played with Diego “pretending to play” and along with his brother they “ate him alive”.
An army of 12 ladies executes the menues prepared by Mariela and Cristina. Mariela, a teacher for 23 years of many of them, takes care of the paperwork and the deposits; Cristina cooks wonders and is in charge of the purchases and preparing the food. We participated with them in the preparation of the Monday’s pizzas. Some of them chop onions under the fan to avoid the onion tears; others knead the dough and look after the oven. They try to prepare the food early, so the kids can return home before is dark, especially those who live far away and go alone. They prepare an average of 100 portions per day, because many kids bring Tupperware to take some food to their younger siblings or someone sick in the family.
The same kids take out the tables and benches to the patio, set the table with the plates and glasses. Cristina helps them sit down and together they say Grace and thank God for the food. They are happy when they hear the menu of the day, celebrating with their friends. With dessert comes the surprise birthday cake for Don Olmos who is turning 82. Everyone sings, and we are particularly moved watching this man blowing the candles surrounded by so many kids, he seems the grandfather of all of them. He won their affection, they congratulate him, hug him, and you can notice that they really love him. It’s only natural, when with his wife Cristina, they saw them grow along 11 years of the 35 years they have remained married.
It is really admirable the drive of Don Olmos, totally compromised with the reality of his Angaco, at the age when everyone gives up, enjoy retirement and wait getting older surrounded by grandkids and great-grandkids. Obviously, behind every great mand there is a great woman, and that one is Cristina, who confess being tired of taking care of providing food for so many kids on a daily basis, sometimes she wants to slow down, to quit, but would happen with the kids? She trusts the Divine Providence and tells us: “If He put me in this path, He will remove me from it”. For Mariela, “la Seño” (Miss) as she was nicknamed, and her husband, both have 2 kids in their teens and one 4 years old, The Dining Room was part of their upbringing where they spent their afternoons and shared school homework.
We couldn’t resist temptation and we stayed to eat the wonderful pizzas and the special birthday cake in good company. We leave with a happy heart, admired by the perseverance and the spirit of Don Olmos, a 1930 model and his amazing team.