40. 4-21-13: Love and Loss

It’s so true that a journey takes you, rather than the other way around. And though I am often tested, and harshly, it is weeks like the ones I spent in an orphanage in Huehuetenango which remind me why I let go of the reigns in the first place.

The only person to respond from Couchsurfing in Huehue was Carlos. As my purpose is to learn about the real lives and cultures of people from around the world, I asked him, as I often do, to see where he works. Carlos happened to run the kitchen at Fundacion Salvacion orphanage, to which I felt drawn instantly upon hearing, and became attached to instantly upon entering.

We honked at a giant, solid steel gate, which slid open to reveal the courtyard of the orphanage. We pulled into the middle, surrounded on all sides by connected, single story buildings. In the courtyard there was a bit of grass, a concrete “field” for soccer or basketball, dozens of laundry lines, and a playground. It looked like the poverty that it housed, but it was clean, and simple, with giant murals where the walls were flat. We were instantly surrounded by a group of kids of all ages – as young as 4, as old as 18. Everyone was happy to see Carlos, and curious to meet the white guy tagging along. I was surprised by the lack of bashfulness, by the friendly, smiling faces gazing into my own. There was none of the timidity and mistrust which many of us associate with orphans – there must be something special about this place.

And there really was! If we can overlook the whole 7th day Adventist craziness, Fundacion Salvacion is a truly wonderful place. The woman who founded the orphanage built it with all the love of a mother, and of a real Christian. She treated the children as her own and developed the sort of atmosphere where they felt more at a communal home rather than an “orphanage”. Each child has a responsibility (except those under the age of 4), and they rotate in their jobs every few months. Most of the cooking, cleaning and laundry is done by the kids. The older ones help take care of the younger ones, and help them with school work as well. And when they play there is no scoffing at those younger or newer. And this all fed to create the aura of welcoming, friendship, acceptance and support. Inevitably, I fell in love.

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The more kids I met, the more I became attached. Each one of them bright, and friendly, and so full of love I could not help myself. We spoke frankly, played voraciously, and we smiled and laughed often. By the end of the first day I had made the decision to stay as long as I could be useful. Which turned out I could be.

A few years back a volunteer from the states came to the orphanage and was also as moved as me. Though young, he decided to start his own non-profit, organization, More Than Compassion, which would raise money and find volunteers for a school dedicated to the orphanage. And he did just that. In a relatively short time he rented out a small piece of land a few blocks from the orphanage on which he built a school. Regardless of his intentions he was taken advantage of by the landlord and builders, but that did not stop him, and I was proudly welcomed into a school which was as good as any I had seen anywhere in Guatemala. After a few minutes observing the classes I realized that I could be of great use here, even if for a short time. I don’t often throw the word grateful around, but I truly was grateful to have found a reason to stay, a way in which I could contribute, even minutely, to the lives of these extraordinary kids.

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In truth there was little that I could do in the grand scheme of things. The school was in need of real teachers and real materials, so whatever change I could affect now, on these volunteers, would likely disappear at the end of the year. The right thing to do would have been to stay for much longer, to help develop a training course, to help recruit teachers from the states, to teach myself… but I was caught up in the momentum of my journey, and would only be there for 2 weeks. Like leaving my own students in New York, the decision leading up to my departure would be one I would dwell upon, and often regret.

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After a week of observing the teachers at the orphanage’s school, I was able to provide some feedback. It was incredible! After dinner, I spent about 2 hours talking to the teachers about what they did well and the things upon which they could improve. It felt like being back in TFA, except I was the one giving feedback. The great thing was that they really appreciated it, and even asked me to stay for another week to observe them more closely and provide more individual feedback! It felt so good to help, and to put my education and experience to good use. I was very excited.

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The kids at the orphanage, as in any orphanage I suppose, have a full range of psychological, developmental and physical issues. The classes are small, but there is only a handful of kids, out of 91, who do not require special attention. The teachers are mostly recent graduates from Pepperdine. Their training consisted of 4 days of ESL skills – that’s it! They had no background in psychology or education, but have been put in the position of educating a population with a lot of special needs (the Guatemalan teachers at the school were not much more prepared). Regardless of all the obvious mistakes they were making, many of which are the same as new teachers anywhere, and irrespective of training time, they still did pretty well. With these types of kids one of the most important things to develop is a relationship – a pathway to reaching them, beyond the façade of misbehavior and authority (of which they have almost none), and the typical roles of teacher and student. These teachers had developed amazing relationships with many students, and I think that will go a long way when they will begin to apply discipline and add structure to their classes. Their double role of teacher and therapist is not enviable, but their hearts were in the exact place they should be, so I saw a lot of success in the future.

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With only a couple of days to go we decided to treat the kids to a day at the local pool. It was nice to have the opportunity to interact with them outside the school and orphanage. Of course, in my excitement, I did something stupid going down the water slide and busted my nose open. Thankfully it was not my first time, and though the toughened bone remained in one piece, the blood flowed voluminously. Besides the incredible pain in my nose, my head began to throb… and within hours the nausea, diarrhea, itchiness and dryness all over my body, fever, and general pain, were added to my list of symptoms. Thankfully I was not alone in the middle of nowhere this time, and the director of the orphanage (the founder’s husband), who happens to be a surgeon at his own hospital, came by with some medicine once we returned to the orphanage. I was on antibiotics for the 3rd time in 2 months.

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The pain in my knuckle, which started in the last weeks in Mexico, was still steadily increasing. The infection had taken its toll as well. And then came the single most difficult day of my journey: having to leave the orphanage. That stupid momentum that was driving me onward! I wanted so badly to stay, I wanted so badly to adopt at least some of the kids… anything but having to say goodbye. I saw myself building a home and giving them a future, I saw how their brilliance would flourish with the books I would give them, and the opportunities they would have to develop… I saw this dream with Jose and Bethsaida calling me dad… and still I continued to pack. I continued to pack as one of the kids sat by my door and played the guitar for me. I continued to pack Georgia as kids kept coming up to me to give me a hug and ask if I were really leaving. And then I rode out of that gate, honking, looking back and waving with a pain and longing I had not expected. And then I was gone, alone again on the road to everywhere and nowhere.

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Though my journey has not ended, and though I continue ever forward, that day made a permanent impact on my life. To be honest I’m still not sure what it is, but I feel it all the time, and I think one day I will understand its significance and become the change which now lies partially dormant inside me.

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39. 4-10-13: 200km in 8 Hours
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