Where am I?

Service Without Borders

This article first appeared in the October 2013 issue of

A parent’s job is never finished. From getting children off to school or chauffeuring them to ballet recitals and karate classes, kissing bumps and bruises, or offering emotional support and unconditional love — and all this barely scratches the surface.

Now, imagine that you’re not a parent at all, yet you’re responsible for nearly 60 girls ranging in age from five to 18, all of whom already have stories of heartbreak to tell and a mountain of obstacles to climb. They rely on you as any daughter would, but you’re just 22 yourself. And you took on these responsibilities voluntarily and with the utmost excitement.

Meet Monica Ellebracht, who graduated from Fontbonne University in 2010 with a degree in business focusing on nonprofits and a minor in religious studies. Following graduation, Ellebracht traveled to Bolivia, uprooting her life and leaving everyone she knew and loved, to work as a caregiver at two orphanages for girls. Ellebracht, along with the nuns who work there, was responsible for her charges’ complete well being.

“When the girls were sick or missed their families or needed someone to talk to, we were there,” she said. “Sitting by their beds, reading them stories, showing them love and listening — that was our job.”

Ellebracht’s volunteerism had its roots in Midland, Mich., where the high school student participated in a service trip to the Dominican Republic. She gravitated toward opportunities that involved children.

“There are many wonderful projects where you build or start something, and the results of your hard work are clearly visible,” she said. “But there are also others who serve, and the results are invisible, in a sense. You know that you made a difference, and you feel changed too, but you may never actually see the change. That’s more the kind of service I’m interested in.”

While in the Dominican Republic, Ellebracht said she experienced a joy unlike any she’d felt before.

“I couldn’t shake that feeling of being fully alive,” she said. “I knew I wanted to do something more long-term. A month wasn’t enough.”

Once at Fontbonne, Ellebracht’s focus on service aligned perfectly with a mantra from the university’s sponsors, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet: “Serve the dear neighbor.” She was able to find a multitude of service opportunities on campus and in the community, and these experiences strengthened her belief that she was needed elsewhere after college. It was while looking through the Fontbonne Campus Ministry book of Catholic service organizations that she found the program that would lead to her post-college service: The Salesian Lay Missioners needed help at Hogar San Francisco, an orphanage in Bolivia. She applied, and after being accepted, she headed to New York for five weeks of orientation and preparation.

“I was excited, but also a little nervous,” she said. “I really didn’t know what to expect.”

When she arrived at the airport in Bolivia, six beautiful little girls and the orphanage director lovingly greeted her with flowers, hugs and open arms.

“I instantly fell in love,” she said.

She soon found herself performing all the duties of a mother for the many girls who called these orphanages home. There were some hard moments — stressful situations with the girls, tantrums, all made more difficult in the beginning by her own short-lived struggle to acclimate to a new life and a new culture. But she was sustained by the happy occasions — birthdays, holidays, games and praying together at church, as well as the satisfaction derived from making a difference in the lives of the girls.

“The girls have their issues, of course,” she said. “But they are kids and young ladies. They like to have fun and dance and enjoy life, too. They deserve that. 

After two years of dedicating 24 hours a day to two different orphanages, Ellebracht decided it was time to live on her own and experience Bolivia in a new way. However, she still remains involved and tries to get to the orphanage at least once a week.

“It was such a tough decision to leave,” she explained. “I enjoy spending time with them, but I also know I made the right decision. I’m so happy to still be able to offer my help and have a little more free time as well.”

She now enjoys the little things, like cooking for herself and hanging out with her friends. She learned Quechua, an indigenous language, and takes dance classes. She even danced in the Carnaval de Oruro celebration in Oruro, Bolivia, this past February. Living outside of the orphanage has also allowed her to contribute to Bolivian youth in new ways. She teaches English at two language institutes and a kindergarten, and she is the assistant director at a Salesian vocational school for culinary students.

Ellebracht’s next move is to come back to the U.S., reconnect with friends and family, and then pursue a master’s degree in international relations. 

“Here I am again, making a tough decision to leave all my girls, my students, my friends and my experiences,” she said. “Change is really hard. But it’s not the first time I’ve made a big move. So far, change has been good. I’m confident the pattern will continue.”

No matter where she ends up, whom she meets or what experiences are to come, Ellebracht will take her memories of Bolivia with her everywhere, no doubt continuing to make positive changes in the lives of those in need.

For more information on the Salesian Lay Missioners, please visit: www.salesianmissioners.org