Briercrest grad helping Bolivian street kids become responsible adults

Julie Cole | Jul 28, 2011
 

By Julie Cole

Ken Switzer (center) poses with several young men who live in the home he runs in Bolivia. (submitted photo).

Ken Switzer filled a need and found his life’s calling.

The Briercrest alumnus runs a home in Bolivia for ex-street kids who have graduated from high school.

“The idea is to help them transition from the different children’s homes where they grew up, to life on their own,” Switzer said.

The Saskatchewan native would never have dreamed he would be a missionary in Bolivia.

“I was going to be a youth pastor and learn to play the guitar,” he joked.

In 2000 Switzer went to visit a friend from B.C. who was in Bolivia working with street kids. He thought it might be good place to take his youth group in a couple of years. His friend took him to a boys’ home.

“There were 55 boys there,” Switzer recalled. “The youngest was four and the oldest was 18.”

The director of the home was away in the U.S. getting training and had left one 21-year-old staff member — a woman — in charge of all the boys. Things weren’t going very well when Switzer showed up on the scene.

“(The staff worker) was really upset because some of the older boys were bringing drugs into the dormitory,” he said. “She figured since I was a pastor I wouldn’t mind staying in the dorm with these guys. So I said, ‘Sure, Why not?’”

Switzer found himself outnumbered and in an awkward position.

“There I was with my five words of Spanish,” he remarked. “I didn’t even know how to introduce myself. Living in a dorm with 55 street kids — seriously it was probably one of the most intimidating experiences of my entire life!”

Then a breakthrough happened.

“My second day there one of the guys came up to me and he pointed at his book and asked me something in Spanish,” Switzer recalled. “I thought ‘Maybe he wants to know how to say that in English,’ so I explained what it was. He got his little notebook from school and he wrote that down. Before we finished we probably had 20 to 30 guys (standing around).”

From that point on Switzer began to build friendships with the boys, depending a lot on hand signals and different tones of voice to get his message across. Before long, his time in Bolivia was over and he was boarding a bus to the airport.

“I remember when I got on the bus thinking ‘What’s gonna happen to these guys?’” Switzer said. “I prayed that God would send someone to work with them and to protect them. It’s kind of ironic because God already had a plan in place to bring me back to Bolivia in a few years.”

Two years later, when Switzer completed his youth pastorate in Saskatoon, he went back to Bolivia and began working with some of the same guys he had been with before. He found that many children’s homes don’t have funding to support children once they reach 18. These children are released and many of them return to the streets.

Switzer rented a house and through the donations and help of many people he shares his home with 10 ex-street kids who have graduated from high school. He pays for their university training and tries to help them transition to life on their own.

“All of them have been abandoned or abused,” Switzer said, “yet God is beginning to bring healing into their lives.”

Getting the boys to plan for the future is difficult.

“They really don’t plan for the future,” Switzer insisted. “Having grown up on the streets it was all about getting their next meal. We’re trying to get them to think about the future and not just make decisions in the moment.”

Helping these young men to succeed at a university level has been a challenge.

“The first semester the guys failed almost all their classes,” Switzer remembered. “We hired tutors and had them come into (the home).”

The men are now succeeding in their various areas of study.

“We have a lawyer, an electrician, a psychologist, a physiotherapist, a business major, an accountant, a computer programmer, a seminary student and a civil engineer studying in the house right now!” Switzer exclaimed.

The need for this kind of program is great and Switzer is raising funds to expand his home and staff.

“Right now I’ve got one bed that has opened up and there are three guys that want to move in,” he said.

The challenge of managing the home and caring for the young men has been enormous at times.

“About every week I have a moment with God asking Him why I’m doing exactly what I’m doing,” Switzer confessed. “I’m still youth pastoring, but now I’m living in the basement with the youth group!”

The missionary has a no-nonsense approach when he talks about his calling.

“It would be nice if I could tell you that Jesus called me in a vision or I had some sort of ‘Paul on the road to Damascus’ experience,” he said. “But the reality is, there was a need there and I knew I could help. I wanted to be a part of what God was doing.”

He challenges other Christians who are looking for their calling.

“A lot of people are waiting for ‘handwriting on the wall’ … before they decide what God wants them to do,” he said. “The Bible talks so often about compassion. I think the loving compassion we have for those who are suffering or in pain speaks to the very heart of who we are as followers of Christ. People will know His disciples by our love for one another.”

Despite his successes in Bolivia, Switzer has a humble estimation of his contribution.

“It’s not because I’m the most gifted guy on the planet,” he remarked. “I’m not. It’s not because I have anything in common with these guys I work with. I’m a farm kid from a small town in Saskatchewan. God loves me. He’s shown me grace and forgiveness. I want to be used by the Holy Spirit to be an example of that love and grace to someone else.”

The seasoned missionary sees his role as a simple one.

“There are a lot of things I can’t do, but showing love and grace are two things that definitely I can do.”

Further information about Switzer’s ministry can be found at www.kennethswitzer.com.