Fr. Robert Thames’ vocational school is now a model for other schools in Bolivia

By Jerry Circelli

Correspondent

Photos courtesy of Henry Del Castillo, Jr.

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In addition to overseeing the school in Cabezas, Fr. Thames and his pastoral staff minister to 31 local villages.

It started out as a typical Sunday for Henry Del Castillo, Jr., in February 2006 when he set off for Mass at St. Michael Church in Bedford. Little did Del Castillo realize, however, that this would be a day that God would touch his soul and transform his life.

A special guest at Mass that morning was Father Robert Thames, a priest from the Diocese of Fort Worth serving a long way from home in Bolivia — one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America. Fr. Thames talked about his mission to educate poor children in the impoverished nation. Del Castillo liked what he heard. In just a few short years, Fr. Thames had taken the concept of starting a school in Bolivia and turned it into a reality. Del Castillo wanted to know more and caught up with the priest after Mass.

“I never met the man before in my life,” Del Castillo said. “I started talking to him, and the next thing you know, five months later, I’m in Bolivia.”

Today, Del Castillo serves as committee chairman for Educate the Children – Bolivia, a Diocese of Fort Worth Mission Council program. He has sponsored several children through the initiative, traveled to Bolivia three times, and is dedicated to working with local Catholics to help Fr. Thames continue his tireless mission in South America.

Del Castillo said the mission priest has a God-given talent for recruiting volunteers and sponsors in the diocese, not through direct appeals, but through leading by example.

“You just want to follow him,” said Del Castillo, “because you see all these great things he does and the difference he is making in the lives of so many children in Bolivia.”

Fr. Thames to visit area churches

Father Robert Thames will visit several parishes in the diocese in February and March, where he will address parishioners during the Masses and be available for discussions afterwards. Below is a list of parishes he will be visiting. To schedule a visit with Fr. Thames in February, contact Henry Del Castillo, Jr., at 817-946-7200 or by email at .

Date and Parish

In 2004, when Fr. Thames started the Nuestra Señora del Carmen School in Cabezas, Bolivia, he made plans to accommodate 100 students, but 250 showed up. The school has been growing steadily ever since.

Today, according to Del Castillo, more than 1,000 people are a part of the Educate the Children – Bolivia program. The curriculum now includes 500 children in grades six through 12, an additional 130 students in technical training, 21 students receiving special education, and 300 people in adult education programs. The school also provides boarding for 50 children attending local elementary schools far from their rural homes. Also, 50 students are enrolled in advanced degree programs, with the school providing assistance.

In addition to offering curriculums and practical vocational training, the school offers lodging for 250 students. Nuestra Señora del Carmen School serves three meals a day, and provides uniforms, books, and school supplies for students. The school also offers medical attention and any necessary clothing for those in need.

The school’s academic curriculum includes math, social science, physical science, biology, music, literature, chemistry, philosophy, algebra, language arts, physics, physical education, and Guarani — the local indigenous language.

Vocational training, now a requirement for graduation, offers students the opportunity to learn a trade before they leave school. These trades include food preparation and nutrition, woodworking and carpentry, executive secretarial work, graphic design, automobile mechanics, automobile electronics, industrial electrician training, sewing, arts and crafts, computer science, natural medicine, agriculture, fish production, and welding. Also included is apiculture — beekeeping — that entails the manufacture of honey, soap, and shampoo.

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Fr. Thames with local students, in red shirts, and visitors from the Diocese of Fort Worth.

Fr. Thames’ concept of making vocational training an educational requirement has met with popular approval in Bolivia, including within Bolivia’s education department, Del Castillo explained. That government body recognized Nuestra Señora del Carmen School as a model for high schools in rural areas and has adopted similar mandatory vocational training tracks in public schools, according to Del Castillo.

To date, more than 500 students have graduated from Nuestra Señora del Carmen.

The financial success of the school is tied directly to the generosity of parishioners in and around the Diocese of Fort Worth. Over the past 10 years, more than $1.8 million has been raised in sponsor donations. To become a sponsor, donors give $25 per month, adding up to $300 annually.

“One of the very good things about Educate the Children – Bolivia is that 100 percent of every penny contributed through this sponsorship program goes directly to the school,” Del Castillo said. “Everybody who is on our committee is a volunteer, there is no overhead, and we each pay our own way when we travel to Bolivia.”

In email correspondence with the North Texas Catholic from Cabezas, Bolivia, Fr. Thames deflected any credit for the success of the school away from himself. Instead, he directed it toward God and the generosity of sponsors. From the beginning, stated Fr. Thames, “our aim was to provide service as followers of Jesus Christ. Our God has been intimately involved in this constantly by action.”

Fr. Thames went on to explain that part way through 2004, during the school’s first year of operations, it seemed that all was lost, because start-up costs were too great. “I saw that we would not have money to pay salaries. … I prayed a lot over this. Then, the diocese sent me notice that someone unknown at the time had just sent a check for $10,000. There have been so many times like this. God is very much alive and active in our world; so much proof of it is in our schools.”

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Woodworking is part of the vocational training at Nuestra Señora del Carmen School. Fr. Thames visits with instructor Efrain Alanes Mansilla.

In a recent interview, Fr. Thames said, “The hand of God has been in this from the beginning.” He explained that he talks to about 13,000 parishioners during his visits to the Diocese of Fort Worth to report on the progress of the educational program in Bolivia. Many end up donating to the mission.

“How can that many people contribute to something that they haven’t seen, but trust the word that we give them? That has to be an act of God,” said Fr. Thames.

Del Castillo agreed, emphasizing that God is providing tangible signs that the Educate the Children – Bolivia mission is building leaders and improving lives. One example, he said, involves a young man who graduated from the school and took vocational training in sewing. The student went on to work in Brazil to gain experience in clothing manufacturing. Recently, he returned to Cabezas to start his own business. “And he is now employing some local people and exporting 1,000 pairs of jeans a month,” Del Castillo said.

Another inspirational story centers on a student who lived and studied at Nuestra Señora del Carmen School in Cabezas. She graduated with honors and went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. The woman returned recently to Cabezas and was appointed director of a local school for special needs children.

“You see, Fr. Thames had this vision,” Del Castillo said. “He wanted to create opportunities for people and instill in them the desire to help others.

“He inspires people to be greater than they think they can be and to make God a part of their lives. That’s what he did for me. And that’s what he’s doing for these children,” Del Castillo said.

For more information about Educate the Children – Bolivia, visit its website here.

Fr.-Thames-Blsg-Button.jpgIt started out as a typical Sunday for Henry Del Castillo, Jr., in February 2006 when he set off for Mass at St. Michael Church in Bedford. A special guest at Mass that morning was Father Robert Thames, a priest from the Diocese of Fort Worth serving a long way from home in Bolivia — one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America. Fr. Thames talked about his mission to educate poor children in the impoverished nation. Del Castillo liked what he heard. In just a few short years, Fr. Thames had taken the concept of starting a school in Bolivia and turned it into a reality. Del Castillo wanted to know more and caught up with the priest after Mass.

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