Remembering the Forgotten

Originally published on June 29, 2006 in The Shreveport Times

by Jennifer Flowers

Note: After graduating from college, I worked on Wall Street for a year in New York City before quitting to volunteer in Argentina for a year.  This article was written when I was living there, before I was married when my maiden name was Julie Barro.

As it turned out, I ended up returning to the Wall Street job after I left Argentina and moved to San Francisco.  I stayed in that job until I finally hit a breaking point shortly before my 30th birthday. I guess, sometimes, we have to really learn our lessons in life.

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From her spot on a Wall Street trading floor, Julie Barro was struck by something.

Her high-paying job at the financial conglomerate Citigroup moving millions in government bonds and hedge funds was exactly what she worked so hard for at Johns Hopkins University. Her professional path was everything her dad wanted for his bright, young daughter.

But something just wasn’t right.

“My job was to make rich people richer, and in its own right it was a very exciting, energetic atmosphere,” Barro, 24, said. “But one day I just kind of got freaked out. I’ve got this job that really sucks you in. If I don’t break way now, I’m going to wake up when I’m 40 years old, and I’m going to be like, wow, I’ve got a lot of money, and I’ve got a nice apartment in New York City, but what have I really done?”

In January, the Shreveport native moved to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Mar del Plata, Argentina, with the help of a volunteer placement agency. The agency program ended this spring, but Barro has decided to continue her work at the local comedor, a place that feeds neighborhood children when their families cannot.

An interest in South America and Spanish-language skills are what drew her to the region. But her decision to pick a blighted area in Mar del Plata came from a spiritual need. Barro, who is particularly fond of children, had her first taste of abject poverty among youths during a college semester spent in Cuba, and it stirred her to become part of the solution.

Barro doesn’t wear jewelry anymore, save for the string bracelets her young friends make her and a wristband bearing the blue and white colors of the Argentinean flag. She has abandoned her makeup ritual, and has exchanged power suits for sweatpants. A bicycle gets her where she needs to go, and home is a modest abode costing an eighth of the price of her former New York apartment.

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Since arriving in Mar del Plata in January, Barro made her first trip back to Shreveport in June to visit her ailing grandmother and spend time with her family. She had left the area’s current winter season, sniffling with a seemingly endless cold from working with children. Reflecting on her experiences, the bright-eyed Barro illustrated stories with grand gestures and often stopped to lean her tan, ruddy cheeks on her hands.

“I see my role as bettering the lives of the children at the comedor, not at all of Mar del Plata, not at all of Argentina or South America,” she said. “It’s a smaller thing, and I kind of had to adjust my thinking that my role right now is to affect as many kids at the comedor that I can, to be the positive role model that they don’t have elsewhere.”

During the week, about 150 children visit the comedor where Barro and community mothers prepare and serve meals. All are hungry, but not just for food, she said. School is only four hours a day, leaving kids with a lot of time and little to do except to take in — or become part of — the area’s rampant drug and alcohol abuse, violence and prostitution. Many come from broken families and live in houses without roofs. Towels serve as doors. Most do not have two parents, and others have brothers and sisters fathered by as many as five men.

Children come to her without having eaten since the last time they saw her. Others come to her with bruises on their faces and bodies. Some come to her crying without saying why

Barro described one child named Carla, a precocious and outgoing little girl who just turned six. Only recently did she discover Carla’s mother is in a psychiatric hospital, her father has long since abandoned the family and Carla is being mistreated by her caretaker.”

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She’s living with a man who sexually abuses her, who beats her, who will wake her up drunk in the middle of the night to go buy cigarettes,” Barro said. “These are things that happen all the time. And I’ve slowly adjusted to the reality of it.”

With little power, legal, political or otherwise, Barro avoids meddling in family issues and instead acts as a concerned sister figure who provides a safe haven for the children, many of whom have learned to mistrust the adults in their society.

“These kids are children, but they don’t have childhoods,” she said. “If I thought about it every day going to play with the kids at the comedor, I’d lose it.”

Barro plans to stay where she is at least until the end of the year because she feels she is now invested in the community, not only as the North American volunteer, but also as a companion to women and a friend to the children. She has friends, her own apartment and even has been the subject of matchmaking.

“These people have become my family and they’ve become my life, and I can’t imagine at this point going back to the life that I had before,” Barro said. “I feel like I’m really destined to be there right now. That will change one day. I know that I can’t be a volunteer for the rest of my life. But the experience that I’m having, I know will drive whatever I do for the rest of my life.”

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Barro has been sharing her experiences through monthly online journals and digital images. Friends and family have asked how to help, and co-workers have donated thousands. Others have expressed visiting her, and some who are closest to her already have.

Eleni Wolfe Roubatis, one of Barro’s close friends, took a three-week trip to visit Mar del Plata and discovered her friend was much happier and confident, much like she was during their days together as students at Johns Hopkins University.

She was much more like her old self much happier much more sure of herself. She was just you know when someones just like in their right environment that was exactly what it seems like.

“The greatest thing is when she walks up to the place where she works, every day all the kids run up to her and scream her name,” said Roubatis, who is studying law at DePaul University in Chicago. “It was so obvious how much love existed between her and the kids. That was more of the impression that stayed with me rather than the hardship of their surroundings.”

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When Albert Barro thinks of his daughter Julie’s decision, he cries.

He recalls his outgoing daughter simply wasn’t herself in New York, and it was hard for him to understand what was wrong until they started talking about it.

“My wishes for Julie were a little selfish,” he said. “I wanted her to go to a university and get a good education, and I wanted her to finish it off with a good career. She started off that way but I don’t think she was really happy after a year in New York.”

Concerned about her safety, Barro visited Julie in Mar del Plata just to see what she was experiencing. Leaving the comedor one night after dark, Barro said he felt a sense of uneasiness about the people who were walking on the streets.

“I visited the comedor where she works and it’s deplorable,” he said, “To see people abusing drugs and alcohol on the street and prostitutes walking around, it’s not an environment that I want for my daughter. I was fearful about that, but it turns out that people always leave the comedor early.”

Barro still wants Julie to come home one day, but isn’t pushing right now because he knows that this is something she needs to do.

“I think that takes a lot of courage and it takes a lot of desire and vision to do that,” he said. “She said ‘Dad, I’m not going to make a lifetime out of this, but it’s something that I want to do now.’ I don’t know. She just made me proud.”

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With youth on her side, Barro feels she could always turn back to the corporate life she left last fall. But for now, she has decided to follow her other calling. One thing is for certain though. Whatever she ends up doing in the distant future, whether it’s starting a nonprofit group, joining a nongovernmental organization or simply going back to her place on the Wall Street trading floor, Barro promises herself that there will be a good cause behind it.

“There’s pure, real happiness in the neighborhood that exists that I didn’t feel all the time when I was in New York or that I don’t feel all the time here,” she said. “Money’s not important. Yeah, it’s important to live, but life is too short to wait for the next thing or to work for money or to work for the corner office. To me life at this point has become about the people that you meet and the relationships that you make and the influence that you can have and the people that you can help.”

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