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Santiago’s Children: What I Learned about Life at an Orphanage in Chile ~ Steve Reifenberg

July 8, 2009

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Genre: Memoir

Publisher: University of Texas Press

226 pages

ISBN: 9780292717428

I recommend a lot of books. Usually, this is just a verbal suggestion, one that gives people the opportunity to go to the store or their online book-purchasing venue of choice to decide for themselves, whether or not the book is their cup of tea. I rarely, though, give books to people as presents as I am afraid that what I read will not, ultimately, satisfy my friends and family or the occasional interested stranger. A year after I first read Steven Reifenberg’s Santiago’s Children, I can safely say that this is my only pick for gift giving. It has become my number one go-to book.

Like many middle-class college grads, Steve found himself bound for law school, in 1982. Questioning this decision, he began looking into alternatives. He enlisted the help of several friends who had recently worked abroad, looking for a way make even a meager wage while experiencing something less cookie-cutter. A friend who had recently been in Chile gave him the name of a small children’s home run by a woman named Olga Diaz. Needless to say, he never made it to Indiana to begin his first year. He opted out of academia and headed south with nothing but a name and a vague hope of finding fulfillment.

Within the walls of Hogar Domingo Savio, Olga Diaz’ cramped but cozy orphanage, the tiny heroes of the story painted a more tropical version of a Dickens tragedy. Most of the children came under Olga’s care through abandonment or abuse, their parents and guardians victims of political upheaval or other, less noble fates. Olga welcomed (and still welcomes) all with open arms, often biting off chunks almost too big to chew. Despite the desperate means by which the members come to the home, the children are full of energy and wonder, engaging their older caregivers in their optimism.

Nearly a decade before, Salvador Allende had been killed in the Sept. 11th military coup, plunging the country into the age of Pinochet’s rule. Thus, Steve began his stay in a Chile wrecked by economic and political chaos. Initially on the outskirts of the political wave, Reifenberg, Diaz and the children eventually found their own voices and brand of descent in the unfolding social scene as times became desperate.

Of course, the children of Hogar Domingo Savio were not the only youths changed by Steve’s stay. Over the span of two years, Reifenberg went through a range of monumental and subtle changes that are contrasting, albeit familiar, to those changes brought to twenty-somethings anywhere. Perhaps the most moving period of the book came when Steve found himself bed bound for an extended period of time due to illness. As a young crusader, he felt torn with guilt at appearing completely useless when so much needed to be done. After struggling with ethics, internally, Steve finally rested on the conclusion that until he is able to take care of himself, he can be in no shape to help those around him. This thesis is a powerful one, yet a hard one to completely grasp for many, especially those who have launched themselves into the unknown with the intention of helping others.

This is a fantastic little book. There is an incredible amount of care given to paint the two Chiles, one, on the outside, where guns and politicians blazed, the other painted so beautifully that it was easy to forget the intensely real and desperate backdrop amidst the laughter and lives of the children and their various adventures. Far from appealing solely to young expatriates, this story will strike en emotional chord with most readers, as it is truly a wonderful and moving coming of age story as well as a readable  and poignant history of the political climate of past and modern Chile.

As  Olga’s operation is still alive and well, each copy of Santiago’s Children sold will see half of the author’s profits given to the continuing support of work with at-risk children in Chile, primarily to support the work of the Hogar Domingo Savio (now Mi Club Domingo Savio).

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2009 11:48 am

    Oh, Pam! Please don’t neglect David McCullough!!! His book on John Adams is in my all time top three favorite books EVER. You won’t be sorry if you read it!

  2. July 10, 2009 11:18 am

    Wow, I really want to read this one after that review.

  3. July 10, 2009 11:19 am

    Thank you, Kathy! It really is fantastic.

    • Bonnie L. Stenson permalink
      July 17, 2009 10:32 am

      Ah, Pam, you do a great service. I had thought of the book as perfect for young people who are pondering what to do next, or who think they want to go off somewhere and “serve” while they “find themselves.” I also thought of it as perfect for all the older people who love and question those young people–parents, aunts and uncles, professors.

      You have made me understand it is perfect for almost everyone else as well! Thank you.

      Note: Reifenberg now is giving all profits to Mi Club Domingo Savio. Olga is struggling these days, too. This is global.

  4. July 19, 2009 10:27 am

    Dear Pam,

    Thanks for the thoughtful review of my book, Santiago’s Children, and I am so touched that you think the book a good one to give as a gift.

    I published the book, in good part, because the experience of living and working at an orphanage in Chile had such a transformational experience on my own life.

    I landed in Santiago in November 1982, just before a critical turning point in that nation´s history, although I didn´t realize it at the time. The repression in Chile had been so severe in that first decades since the coup of September 11, 1973, that very few citizens living in Chile dared criticize the military government. Six months after my arrival, in May 1983, I witnessed the first series of public protest across the nation that ultimately led to the peaceful return of democracy in 1990. While it was a coincidence that I had arrived at such an important historical moment, that I could only understand in hindsight, I knew almost immediately that I was experiencing something remarkable at the Hogar Domingo Savio. That I had the good fortune to land at the hogar and to get to work with Olga Diaz and the children who lived there, I am eternally grateful. This experience transformed my life, and has had an impact on most everything I have done subsequently.

    I am more and more convinced that these kinds of engagements overseas are transformative and a good part of my professional life (I now again live in Chile and work for Harvard University) is spent helping students and others find meaningful connections overseas.

    On the book’s website,, there is a heading titled “make a different” and a list of organizations whose mission is to provide assistance for people who are thinking that they might like to volunteer or make a contribution overseas…. If you or others you know are considering such an option, I highly recommend looking at the following organizations.

    Voluntarios de la Esperanza
    • Volunteers of diverse backgrounds and nationalities work with children in schools, community centers and orphanages to develop and implement educational programs and build lasting relationships. Our projects are created out of a desire to bring equality of opportunity to the children of Chile.
    • Voluntarios de la Esperanza regularly places international volunteers at Domingo Savio.

    Amigos de Las Americas
    • Amigos de las Americas (AMIGOS) is an international, non-profit organization that provides unparalleled leadership and community service opportunities for young people while concurrently contributing to the well-being of hundreds of communities throughout the Americas. Supported by a strong network of Pan-American chapters, high school and college students from diverse backgrounds work successfully with host communities and partner agencies to address health and education priorities.
    •The minimum age for participation in an AMIGOS Latin American project is 16 years of age on or before the following September 1, provided that the individual has completed his or her sophomore year of high school.

    • WorldTeach is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that provides opportunities for individuals to make a meaningful contribution to international education by living and working as volunteer teachers in developing countries.
    • While the majority of volunteers are somewhat recent college graduates, many volunteers are older. Mid-career and retired candidates are encouraged to apply, as their skills and experience are in great demand overseas.

    All are organizations well worth checking out!

    Thanks again for the review, and congratulations on a terrific site for anyone interested in reading.


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