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COLLEGE STATION --

The year was 1997, and at the ripe old age of 26, Chi-Cheng Huang, Texas A&M University Class of 1993, was burned out. Four years of study toward his Harvard University medical degree on top of four years at Texas A&M that had earned him a bachelor's in biology with summa cum laude honors definitely had taken their combined toll.

After nearly 10 years of non-stop studying, Huang had hit the proverbial wall, one textured with the added stress of uncertainty concerning his ultimate professional path in life. Although Huang knew he wanted to focus on pediatrics, he was lost from there, save for his realization that it was time to reorganize and rethink.

In short, it was high time for a break. Little did the College Station native know that the one-year hiatus he would take from school in Boston would change not only his life, but also the lives of hundreds of helpless children across the world.

A Break Becomes a Beginning

During his junior year at Texas A&M, Huang had studied abroad at King's College in London -- an opportunity that also enabled him to travel to Croatia and Serbia as a peace observer, where he got a first-hand look at the hardships of war. Having previously found personal fulfillment in missionary work both locally and abroad as a Texas A&M student, Huang wrote to 15 different organizations in hopes of being able to put his faith and knowledge of medicine to practical use. He was intrigued by one particular response from the mission-oriented Park Street Church in Boston, which offered to send him to La Paz, Bolivia, to work with members of La Iglesia La Communidad to help impoverished, homeless and largely forgotten children. Huang jumped at the opportunity to witness new hardships, and in July 1997, he packed up and headed to Bolivia.

"I needed to redirect my life and figure out what I wanted to do, but I also wanted to serve children," Huang explains. "I went down there as a missionary to serve in a spiritual manner, and I also wanted to serve in a physical and emotional manner, too. I had always wanted to address the needs of the less fortunate. I'd been to Mexico before and had been abroad to Eastern Europe. It had always been a part of what I wanted to do; I just didn't know where it would lead me."

Upon his arrival in Bolivia, Huang worked in one of La Paz's orphanages. It was here that he got his initial exposure to La Paz's dark side, an underworld of poverty and despair that predominantly afflicted the youth of La Paz.

"I didn't really know much about street children until I got involved with the orphanages and a former street child took me out and showed me where other street children would sleep and stay," Huang recalls.

It is estimated there are approximately 3,000 kids, known as "street children" and generally between the ages of 6 and 15 years, living on the streets of La Paz with little to no shelter, nourishment, medical care or education. Their poor circumstances are due to a variety of reasons, including abandonment, abuse, lack of finances and parental death.

Regardless of circumstance or reason, Huang was appalled at their unfortunate and often unsanitary living conditions. Most of his new charges lived in ramshackle huts barely sturdy enough to stand and made out of whatever material they could scrounge -- typically discarded cardboard and old tarps. Huang found many of these shacks along a river running through La Paz that was known to be the second dirtiest in the world, with the potent smell of sewage looming nearby.

Because street children are looked down upon as trouble-making pests by almost all area adults, including the La Paz police, many try to stay together. For street children, however, there is no such thing as strength in numbers. Whether living as individuals or in groups, Huang says they are subject to constant physical and sexual abuse, especially girls -- with adults and even the police being common perpetrators -- and they are all but shunned from society. To combat the physical pain and withstand the cold nights, many of the children sniff paint thinner to dull their senses. Others practice self mutilation, cutting themselves in an effort to forget their hardships.

The Doctor is In, er, Out

Knowing that most street children are too terrified of most adults to seek food or medical aid, Huang hatched a plan, opting to soldier out every night between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. -- the time most of them were out and about -- to offer them much-needed help, physical and otherwise. On these solo missions of mercy, Huang treated everything from cuts and abscesses, to infections and broken bones. Though the street children were uneasy at first, over time, Huang became a familiar face that they knew they could trust. It was during this time that Huang befriended many of the children, even becoming a father-figure to the kids, many of whom still have a special place in his heart.

"A lot of these children still stand out in my mind," Huang notes. "The first was a 2- or 3-year-old boy I found under an awning of a store at about 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. He's about 14 now."

Even though Huang says he truly cared for the children, he admits the late-night treatments initially were simply a matter of going through the motions. That is, until one encounter made it clear to him that something more needed to be done and that he needed to play an extremely personal role.

"At the end of the first year, I was frustrated and burned out from working non-stop every day and then going out from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.," he says. "Then in January or February [1998] I sat down with this girl who was a child prostitute. As I talked to this girl, I just asked what she wanted from me, and she said she only wanted three things."

Her life-changing wish-list included a home in which she and other children like her could be safe, Huang's continued presence in both her life and the lives of the other children, and Huang's authorship of a book detailing the street children's life story. Her dreams became Huang's drive, leading him later that same year to found the Bolivian Street Children Project, now known as Kaya Children International, a non-profit organization dedicated to sheltering and nourishing underprivileged street children across Bolivia.

In between completing his residency training at the Harvard Combined Internal Medical/Pediatric Program in 2002, Huang also was instrumental in co-founding three homes in La Paz to care for these poorest of the poor: Casa Bernabe in 2001, Hogar Renacer in 2005 and Hogar Berthany in 2007. The two-part goal of each home is simple -- to transition children off the streets and to help point them in the right direction from there.

Huang personally saw to it that the child's third and final wish was fulfilled, too. In 2006 he published When Invisible Children Sing, a book whose title reflected the perceived importance -- or, rather, lack thereof -- of its subjects, who often are overlooked as if non-existent or "invisible." The book, which chronicles Huang's emotional journey through the streets of La Paz and the numerous experiences he had with the children he encountered, received the coveted "Starred Review" by Publishers Weekly.

Past Proves Prologue

Today, Huang, now 37 and married with three daughters, is an assistant professor in pediatrics and internal medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, where he is associate vice chairman of clinic affairs in pediatrics and an internal medicine hospitalist.

Although his hectic workload is difficult to balance at times, it's a pattern Huang established during his own childhood. Never one to take the easy road, Huang excelled as a student, taking college courses at Texas A&M, where his father was a graduate student in computer science, and accumulating an incredible 31 credit hours by the time he graduated from A&M Consolidated High School in 1989.

"I was kind of a nerd -- I took all these classes," he jokes. "When I graduated I got a good scholarship package, and I essentially didn't pay for anything to go to Texas A&M."

For his extra efforts, Huang was awarded the President's Endowed Scholarship, considered one of the most prestigious awards at Texas A&M and open only to the nation's top high school seniors. Of course, the free ride to Texas A&M was not Huang's only reason for becoming an Aggie. Having grown up in College Station and having taken Texas A&M courses during high school, Huang was very familiar with the campus and the traditions. Sadly, his sister had also passed away the previous year, and it was important for Huang to remain close by his family.

True to form, Huang stayed active as an Aggie student, taking strenuous classes and involving himself in various activities on campus such as OPAS (Opera and Performing Arts Society), the Jordan Institute of International Affairs and the American Cancer Society, among others. Huang's enthusiasm in taking on an active role as a student at Texas A&M earned him the Buck Weirus Spirit Award in 1991 in recognition of significant contribution to his many activities.

Aggie in Action

Even today in the professional world, Huang's active stance on life and his work has been rewarded. He has earned many awards for his community service and work with street children, including the Taiwanese American Foundation-Asian Pacific Public Affairs Division's Civil Servant of the Year Award (2001), Harvard's Gold Stethoscope Award for Teaching (2003), Boston University School of Medicine's Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Humanism Award (2004) and, most recently, induction into the Texas A&M College of Science Academy of Distinguished Former Students (2009).

Despite his busy schedule, Huang still makes plenty of time for Kaya Children International, contributing whenever he can and taking up speaking engagements around the United States to raise awareness for the deplorable living conditions of street children and to encourage students and professionals to help. For example, Huang was a roundtable discussant at the 2002 Department of Justice's Summit on Ending Child Prostitution and spoke for Expert Consultation on Public Health Strategies to Prevent and Mitigate the Health Impact of Child Prostitution at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Huang makes personal visits to Bolivia roughly three times each year to remain active with the homes and the ministry, as well as to visit some of the children he himself rescued years ago. With the help of his wife, who has a doctorate in education and serves as the executive director of Kaya Children International, he has helped create a holistic care center to address complicated emotional, mental, spiritual and educational needs of the street children. The center opened in spring 2009, hosting five girls in the first week.

"During the summer my entire family goes to Bolivia, and then my wife will make about four trips a year," he adds. "We're in constant communication with our workers down there, just making sure that everything is going well."

To learn more about Kaya Children International, visit www.kayachildren.org.

Click here to read about Huang's first trip back to Aggieland since his 1993 graduation.

-aTm-

Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or cjarvis@science.tamu.edu

Jarvis Chris

  • Aggie Advocate

    Chi-Cheng Huang, M.D. '93

  • Home: Where The Heart Is

    Huang at play with a group of street children in Bolivia. (All photographs courtesy of Dr. Chi-Cheng Huang.)

  • Child's Play

    Two of the Kaya Center boys playing marbles.

  • Birds of a Feather

    Two boys from Hogar Renacer-Transition Home.

  • Fun Personified

    Two boys playing fooseball at the Kaya Center.

  • Prayerful Beginnings

    Standing in line for morning prayer prior to the beginning of school at the Kaya Center.

  • Facing Brighter Futures

  • Dream Documented

    Huang's top-selling book chronicling the plight of impoverished street children in Bolivia.

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