Bill's Blog: The Magic of Maurice Machenbaum

Geneva, Switzerland

Bill’s Blog: Stories of Shelter, Stability, and Survival

Blog Three: The Magic of Maurice Machenbaum

Bill Bedrossian | Covenant House President & CEO

Covenant House has always been a place for extraordinary people. Extraordinary people who dedicate their lives, or at least a significant portion of them, to extraordinary youth.

Maurice Machenbaum is one such individual. Maurice was instrumental in establishing Casa Alianza Suisse, a group of generous individuals in Geneva, Switzerland who have supported our sites in Latin America for over 25 years.

After completing his law studies in 1994, Maurice volunteered for 12 months at Casa Alianza Honduras, as a street educator. As Maurice remembers, “I was not yet 24. I saw a documentary on the plight of street children, mostly in Guatemala. My brother was on the mailing list of Covenant House (in Spanish, Casa Alianza). So I sent a letter. My letter traveled around, ending up in the hands of the regional director at that time.”

“He said, ‘Well, I don't really need tourists. I need people who come and volunteer and stay for a while. Minimum six months, but preferably one year.’ I thought it was quite a commitment, so I was a bit unsure. So, I said, ‘What happens if I don't like it? You know, can I leave?’ He said, ‘Well, I'd rather have you asking me to leave than me having to send you away because you're useless.’

“I thought, oh, this is going to be fun. I mean, I like this guy!”

In Latin America we serve young people ages 12 to 18, where lack of services, political instability, violence, and poverty create unique challenges for homeless youth.

For example, just this year:

  • A fire in February near our site in Honduras displaced 70 youth for a week.

  • In April, our Guatemala site was affected by toxic pollution from a chemical plant, and 50 girls and 8 babies were evacuated, and some needed emergency medical care.


Remember, these are children.

And reuniting with family is hard because the family members are often the abusers, or they are facing extreme poverty, or both.

And connecting with these children on the street, to introduce services, requires patience and creativity, something which Maurice had plenty of.

“I was set to work as a street educator. I was a scout leader. I was also a magician. And that turned out to be a great way of communicating. These children were sleeping on the streets alone, dirty, and abandoned. They were always cautious about connecting with adults. I started doing simple magic tricks, like making a stone disappear or using cards. They were always saying, ‘How do you do that?’ And this was a way to connect. It was very powerful to use magic on the street. Because they had no trust in anyone. And I think they were more cautious of locals because locals often used to beat them up. But Casa Alianza was known.

Those who knew Casa Alianza trusted the educator, and I was always with local educators; I was never by myself.”

Our work in Latin America is very complex. For instance, many children and adolescents in Latin America are threatened by gangs to join or be killed. With no other option, many flee.

But those who stay with Casa Alianza are provided with a tailored program model to match their needs, inclusive of mental health counseling, life skills, education, and job readiness. For instance, our aim for many of the workforce programs in Latin America is to help youth set up their own business. Jobs such as barbers, sewing — practical work to allow youth to develop skills. In Latin America it’s not so simple as sending out your resume and finding a job.

Maurice stayed in the region for five years, next working in Costa Rica and then reuniting with Covenant House to help establish Casa Alianza in Nicaragua, which, after 25 years of committed service, closed last year due to political pressure. During this time, the foundation for Casa Alianza Suisse was being laid.

Bill Bedrossian with Casa Alianza Suisse staff/board members | Covenant House

“I met a donor named Reggie, who said, 'I want to help — here is $100,000.’ I said, ‘You have to come to Casa Alianza, you have to see what we do with your money.’ He came, he found it wonderful, he came back and got rid of all of his assets. He created a foundation and committed to supporting Casa Alianza for 10 years!”

“A couple of years later, he asked if he could come as a volunteer. Reggie was in his sixties. So, he came to Honduras for a couple of months, did a fantastic job, was really good at it. He started taking Spanish lessons. He even set up a program for kids to help them find jobs. And he stayed for around 10 years with the program in Honduras. It totally changed his life.”

One day, Maurice asked his friends in Geneva to organize a fundraising event to support the first scout group for street children at Casa Alianza Honduras. His friends organized a marathon and raised over 20,000 Swiss francs. Motivated by their success, they decided to continue their efforts and, in 1998, founded Casa Alianza Suisse, with the mission of raising funds to support the Covenant House sites operating in Latin America.

Bill Bedrossian with Casa Alianza Suisse staff/board members | Covenant House

I had the great pleasure of visiting the Casa Alianza Suisse staff and Board of Directors at their annual meeting last month. I witnessed an incredible amount of passion and support for our mission in Latin America, not just from the Board, but also from the United Nations, the City and State of Geneva, foundations from Switzerland and Lichtenstein, and individuals who have been supporting our mission for over 25 years — including Maurice’s parents!

Bill giving a presentation on Guatemala at Casa Alianza Suisse | Covenant House

Casa Alianza Suisse is a testament to many extraordinary individuals- like Maurice- who are moved to action around the mission of Covenant House in Latin America. I left Switzerland energized, marveling that even just one individual who falls in love with our youth, and is moved to action, can influence a whole community that results in the support we need to serve hundreds of youth each year. Loving and compassionate people like Maurice and those who move their communities to action are exactly how we are going to end youth homelessness as we know it today!

I want to thank Casa Alianza Suisse for everything they do for Covenant House in Latin America and invite you to do something extraordinary - support our work in Latin America, too!

Together, we can bring a little magic to the lives of children who deserve no less.

Thank you,

Bill Bedrossian Signature

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