Caracas, Venezuela — Sr. Yexci Moreno frequently mentions "my kids" in conversations with parents, teachers and staff — really, anyone passing by.
Together with Sr. Teresa Gomez, she runs the Immaculate Girl of Santa Ana preschool in the Propatria district of Caracas. Every year, the school accepts 110 local children, whom Moreno proudly said she unofficially adopts as her own. As the country weathers an economic crisis that has led to shortages of basic foods and medicines, the sisters have noticed the effects on the children.
Global Sisters Report sat down with Moreno, a member of the Congregation of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception of Castres, as she helped lead a nutritional clinic at the school in collaboration with the Venezuelan chapter of Caritas Internationalis. She reflected on her journey as a sister as well as her worries for the community and "my children" as the crisis deepens.
GSR: You come from a relatively rural area of Venezuela. How did a young girl from rural Venezuela become a sister and end up leading a preschool in the capital?
Moreno: I am from Tucupita in Delta Amacuro state. It's one of the areas that have been marked by an indigenous presence who are generally poor. There, my family had businesses, and I always noticed how my parents helped out some of the people who were less privileged. We weren't rich, but we were comfortable. Then, when I grew up, I studied, went to college.
I didn't want to be a nun, never. I never thought I would be a nun. But at the same time, I was very interested in social work. Finally, at 26 years old, I changed my mind.
What prompted that change of heart?
Ultimately, I decided I wanted to join a group of people who had the same dream that I had: Go to wherever the voice of the poor calls. I could feel that presence of God telling me that more important than helping the other person, it was a matter of helping us all as a group and sharing.
I always participated in the Holy Week gatherings that the nuns organized in my town, and that sparked my curiosity, as well. So that experience of getting to know Jesus in the street, with the people, that you can feel him walking with the people, that was a very moving experience for me.
Can you pinpoint one moment when you finally decided that you wanted to become a sister?
One of the fondest moments I have from that time of participating in the Holy Week events was when a local older lady offered me a guayaba juice, but her house didn't have electricity.
I didn't understand, because if she didn't have electricity and she didn't have a blender, how did she make the guayaba juice? But she somehow made the juice, and she offered me the juice. That was all she had. She was a very humble woman, and that was basically all she had in that moment. That experience definitely touched me and always stands out in my mind.
Oh, and the juice had little worms in it! You know, those little bugs that generally live in the guayaba fruit. I took the juice, I ran my finger around the edges of the glass to catch the worms, then I grabbed the glass and drank the juice. And although I was drinking juice with worms, I didn't feel the least bit disgusted. Rather, I was moved that this lady had given me the only thing she had. And going there and experiencing that is what ultimately caused me to change my mind.
How did you eventually join the sisters of the congregation of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception of Castres?
The sisters of my congregation had recently arrived in Venezuela in the campesino barrios. I met the founder of the congregation. And she had this attitude of abandoned trust, this attitude that God is great and the immaculate Mary walks with the people. And that's what I have always tried to convey to people, that God is great. If I ask one of my teachers here, 'God is great?' She will finish the sentence. That's our motto. Because that's what we see here from day to day.
I took my vows in Paraguay and was there for some 15 years. That's where, apart from my religious studies, I studied agriculture administration. Because sisters there are responsible for a farm where we live and study agriculture. Also, it was important for us during that project to give a different image to agriculture work, that girls can do it, and that we can study administration and be professional.
After 15 years, it was time for me to move back to Venezuela. And with Sister Teresa, we are responsible for this school — the circuit, as I call it.
Today, we are at a nutritional clinic where volunteers and doctors determine whether children are malnourished. Day to day, what impacts have you seen on the children as a result of the crisis?
In the past few years, I have seen serious malnutrition. And that I can say with certainty, I can speak about it with authority. Because whenever a child enters this school, each kid is measured and weighed. That's when we are seeing the problem. Then when they leave, and they have spent the school year with us, they have recovered.
Now, when we look back at previous years, this didn't happen. The kids that came here always had good weights and sizes. And for some time now, we have been seeing that the kids that come to the school are malnourished.
We are having classes with some parents here to teach them how to cook with alternative foods, given the shortages of some staples here. We have even seen people eating the plantain peels, which is fine. OK, it may even be delicious, but a few years ago, who would have thought we would see people eating that?
[Cody Weddle is a freelance journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela. Follow him on Twitter: @coweddle.]