From March 8 through March 15, 2006, Anne and I were fortunate to have an amazing experience in Antigua, Guatemala. This is our story – about one week that I believe just might change both of our lives forever.
We had decided some time ago to spend the spring break of her junior year in high school doing some sort of volunteer work somewhere in the world. After first looking seriously at programs in Peru and then Uganda, we ultimately settled on the God’s Child project in Antigua.
I was vaguely familiar with God’s Child, formed 15 years ago by Patrick Atkinson from Bismarck, North Dakota. Its website indicates that the program now serves over 2,000 Guatemalan children in severe poverty. Exactly how, I wasn’t sure, but I had met Patrick outside a Bismarck coffee shop years ago, and Earl speaks highly of him and the program, and so we decided to give it a go.
Wednesday: “Our casa is your casa…”
It is actually fairly easy to get to Antigua from Kansas City. We left KC mid-afternoon on Wednesday, March 8, and after a quick stop in Dallas we landed in Guatemala City at 8:00 PM. I had been warned that Guatemala City is sort of like the old Wild West, and had visions of pickpockets surrounding us immediately upon arrival. So, it was with relief that we spotted a program volunteer and driver there to greet us as soon as we stepped out of customs. We somehow made it the entire 60 feet to the van without getting pick pocketed, mugged, robbed, or kidnapped. We were, however, instantly surrounded by little kids harmlessly begging for money. We were prepared for thieves – we were not prepared to be met by begging children. And so we dove into the security of the nearby van, and began the one-hour ride to Antigua.
After pulling into town, and jostling over the cobble stone streets that are unique to Antigua, we were delivered to our host family, Oscar and Maritsa Giron. The Giron’s have 3 kids now grown, and speak only slightly better English than our Spanish. But they immediately went out of their way to make us feel at home, and the outgoing Oscar and I quickly became pals. This was our casa – our home – they insisted, and we sat around the table for a while and figured out a way to communicate. Soon, we were telling stories (sort of), and laughing heartily. Their house is small, but very comfortable and welcoming. The upstairs (2 bedrooms and a bathroom) was turned over to Anne and me for the week.
Thursday: The Dreamer Center
Breakfast was served at 7:00 sharp the next morning, and every morning. Oscar had made up a pile of delicious pancakes…more like crepes…and drove Maritsa to work at the local Nescafe factory while we were eating. He wasn’t gone long, however, and he soon re-joined us at the table for our first “Oscar Spanish Lesson”. We get out our dictionary, and he helped us make a list of words and phrases that would come in handy. This delightful way to start the day became our routine. Each morning we would come down the stairs to be greeted by a warm “Morning, friends! Buena’s Dias !!!” Our day and our lesson would begin.
According to the very detailed itinerary that had been prepared for our entire week, the first morning we were to walk one block to a schoolyard basketball court. Here we would meet another volunteer, who would show us the route to walk to the Dreamer Center – the campus and headquarters for the God’s Child project. Our guide arrived, and introduced herself as Ileana.
Editor’s note: For those of you who slogged your way through my account of Mt Rainer that Kate and I climbed in 2005 (I know – this excludes you, Earl) you may remember that a handsome mountain guide named Wes came to play a central role in that story. Ileana, it seems, was straight out of central casting to play the lead role in this adventure. Just finishing up a 6 month sabbatical from her position in London (a project manager with American Express Europe), she is lovely, articulate, and passionate about the children of Guatemala. She says that her six months with the God’s Child program have been most rewarding, and she and Patrick are discussing the possibility of trying to start a program either in England or Italy. In addition to Guatemala, God’s Child also has younger programs establishing a foothold in Malawi, Africa, and El Salvador.
As we walked over to the Center, dodging overcrowded busses belching out dark and smelly smoke (these buses are called “chicken busses” because they are always packed and always loaded down with farm produce on top), taking in the sights and sounds of the narrow, busy streets, and catching our first glimpse of the several volcanoes surrounding Antigua, Ileana helped us get our bearings. Nothing she said, however, fully prepared us for our introduction to the Dreamer Center.
We arrived at the stone gates of the Center, and walked into the lovely grounds of the Dreamer Center .The place is amazing. The first thing that struck us – in addition to the beautiful architecture of the buildings and the lovely, shaded park-like area surrounds them – was the children. The grounds seemed to be teeming with happy, energetic kids. Playing on the playground equipment, lining up to enter the dining area, walking back to their classroom holding hands under the watchful eye of their teachers, there were beautiful, brown eyed children everywhere we looked. Ileana explained that as much as anything, what these kids needed – craved – was love and affection. While we waited briefly for our tour of the campus to begin, looking in on the dining area where 75 to 100 children were having a healthy, hearty breakfast, several kids ran up to Ileana and leapt into her arms. She greeted each one as if they were her own, and introduced them to us. Soon, they were in our arms as well, hugging us and delighting in our hugs in return. We had been inside the Center for all of 15 minutes. What an introduction.
It is impossible to describe how impressive, how beautiful, how peaceful the small campus is. Classrooms, playgrounds, a medical clinic, dental facilities, and offices for a child psychologist, social workers, and administrative personnel. All this in a brick, colonial style – in the
midst of green and lush garden atmosphere. The land underneath was a community dump-ground just 15 years ago, and now supports this campus, which has the classic, time-warn beauty of a place that has existed forever. Many rooms throughout the campus are named after North Dakotan’s who had made significant donations to help turn Patrick’s vision into a nurturing reality.
Indeed, God’s Child currently serves approximately 2500 children. Only a fraction of that number actually go to school at the Center. Most program participants receive desperately needed help in order to remain in school near where they live, and benefit from other supportive services extended to their families. A rigorous evaluation process takes place in the fall of the year, and selected children in the most severe poverty are admitted for the next school year, beginning in January. The children, and their families, must “earn” ongoing program participation – the kids have to apply themselves at school, and the families must both support these efforts, attend to the child’s physical needs, and participate in other supportive services offered by God’s Child. Financial support for this program comes in the form of “sponsorships”. Donors sponsor a child’s participation in this program for $25 per month.
We were incredibly impressed by the well organized staff, and by how warmly they all greeted as we were shown around. We attended an orientation session, and received more information about the program as well as warnings about the need to be on guard for our personal safety. We shouldn’t, for example, walk around with cameras around our necks, as this is an “invitation” for a problem. Credit card fraud is not uncommon, and pickpockets are active in certain parts of the city. For safekeeping, we were encouraged to turn in our valuables where they would be kept in a vault. I handed over most of our currency, my ATM card, and all but one credit card. What currency we kept, we were advised to divide it up into various pockets – if we were going to get picked, maybe they won’t get it all. And we were given hints on what to do if robbed (give them what they demand, and get the heck out of there as fast as possible) or mugged (scream and scratch and claw….).
In the afternoon, Ileana led us on a walking tour of Antigua, and we visited the ruins of what were once magnificent cathedrals but were destroyed by earthquakes long ago. Rich in history, surrounded by volcanoes, bathed in gorgeous weather (mid-80′s during the day, mid-50′s at night), filled with young Spanish students from all over the world, Antigua makes a magnificent first impression. And then it grows on you.
Our cell phones didn’t work, and my beloved blackberry was seriously out of commission, but we made our acquaintance with an Internet Café where we could check our email and make an occasional call back to the states. This became our nightly pre-dinner ritual.
For dinner this first night, we were joined by yet another volunteer at a great little bar/restaurant/bookstore – The Rainbow Reading Room – that could have been in any college town anywhere in the world, but we were glad that it was in Antigua. Feeling very good about our first and very successful day we walked back to Oscar’s – content, happy and excited for the next day to come. Anne was scheduled to work with kids in a classroom, and I was to join a construction team to begin construction on a new house. After filing Oscar in on Day One, we retired to our cozy little rooms that amazingly already felt like home. All was good.
It wasn’t until the next day that I discovered I’d lost the only credit card in my possession.
Friday: Our work begins
Friday we began our work in earnest.
Following our breakfast with Oscar, and our morning 20 minute walk to the Center, Anne headed off to her classroom and I jumped in the back of a little pickup with Hector and Christian, two full time God’s Child employees. Both are great guys and well educated. Hector grew up in the program and has taught at the Center. Christian has studied architecture. This summer, however, both are building houses full time, and the three of us drove to the construction sight in the back of a little red pickup truck.
God’s Child excels at building homes. The houses are simple and small, but consist of four sturdy walls, a roof overhead, and a cement floor – representing a huge upgrade for all who receive one. The exterior walls are painted a pretty, bight blue, and you can see them every now and then in the shantytowns surrounding Antigua. The program has a goal of completing home number 2,000 by the time of its 15th anniversary celebration in April.
Our family of 6 (kids ranging in age from 5 to 9) had been living in a series of small little shelters with other family members – tiny little structures cobbled together, made out of plywood and tin sheets. The main cooking stove for the entire extended family was a fire pit located outside one of the dwellings.
We arrived at the base of a steep pathway leading up to the actual construction sight, a small little piece of land in the side of a steep hill. The spot for the house had been cleared, and the first order of business was to dig a trench for the foundation – this was something I could do. Hector and Christian expertly set the stakes to mark the location of the corner stones, carefully measuring and re-measuring to make sure it was lined up precisely. This was something I could not do. Neither of them spoke a heck of a lot of English, and so during those times when the activity was way over my head, I looked on most earnestly and intently, attempting to convey a willingness to help as soon as the tasks once again reached down to my level of incompetency. I’m quite sure they figured me out very early on. When I would start to feel completely useless, I would momentarily turn my attention to playing with the many kids running around.
In addition to the 4 kids in the immediately family, there were about 6 cousins also in the same general living area. These kids were mostly shoeless, but almost always smiling. They loved to play, and they LOVED having their photos taken. “PHO-TOE!!! PHO-TOE!!!!” was their chant when they collectively determined it was time for another. And, much to my pleasant surprise, they seemed to think I was a riot! They spoke not one word of English, and seemed at first puzzled as to why I couldn’t understand them, but they got a kick out of my antics nonetheless. It was great having a new audience, having lost my ability to amuse my own kids (with my “dancing”, for example) long, long ago. Even the various mothers and grandmother seemed to think I was a stitch. (“Thank you, folks, we’ll be here through Monday….”). Maybe the
language barrier helped.
After the trench was dug, “we” began to lay three layers of concrete blocks for the foundation. Drawing upon my vast experience in this line of work (pouring cement floors for Butler farm buildings during the summer of 1974), I became the Cemento Boy. Having established that I could stir, shovel and carry buckets of cement with the best of them, Hector and Christian concentrated on the skilled task of laying the blocks, and I was the cement grunt. “MAS CEMENTO” they would say when ready for another bucket, and I would bring them another – usually with a spirited announcement of “CEMENTO!!!”. We got along great, and I enjoyed working with them very much.
At the end of the first day of construction, the 3 of us again jumped in the back of the pickup for the short ride back to the Center. It reminded me of piling into the grain bin car in North Dakota nearly 30 years ago, and the satisfaction that comes at the end of a long and hot day under the summer sun. Only now, instead of building a steel grain bin alongside a wheat field, I was helping put a roof over someone’s head on a hillside above Antigua – an immensely satisfying feeling.
Anne’s day consisted of helping in the 1st grade classroom and later the library – playing with many of the hundreds of children who come to the Center each day. She said she has never felt so loved. Ileana was right, these kids crave affection, and want nothing more than to be hugged or held. She did plenty of both throughout the day, as well as joining in games of tag, soccer, bingo, merry-go-round, jump rope, etc. The Center empties out in late afternoon, and Anne was finished with her duties when we arrived back from the site.
As we walked back to Oscar’s, we talked about the day and made plans for that evening. We decided a quick shower was in order, so we could hustle to the Internet Café before dinner with Christian downtown. Panic settled in when I realized I had indeed lost my credit card the day before, but we were able to reach a volunteer still at the Center who was able to retrieve my backup card from the vault and deliver it to me at the restaurant. Of course, I didn’t have the telephone information necessary to cancel the card, but was able to reach Jean in Spokane (who, with Charlie and his best buddy Chris were visiting sister Terri en route to spend a week with Kate in Missoula, MT), and she made the call to prevent financial ruin resulting from my blunder.
Saturday: The Homeless Shelter
The Center is essentially closed on the weekend, and so Anne joined us at the construction site on Saturday. It was great to have her with us. She worked hard – shoveling and leveling cement, and whenever there was a break in the action she was surrounded by the children. “PHO-TOE!!..PHO-TOE!!!”. They loved Anne (aka “Anna”) and she had company wherever she went..
The house we were building has an extraordinary view of Antigua and the surrounding volcanoes. The largest and most active, Volcan de Feugo, was venting steam throughout the day. By the end of the 2nd day the foundation was complete and the cement floor was poured. The frame, walls and roof would all be done on Monday, Hector assured me. Sunday was going to be a day off.
Driving back to the Center late Saturday afternoon, we asked the driver (another God’s Child employee who shuttles workers and materials around to the various sited) to pull over a road side stand, and we treated everyone to around of 16 ounce ice cold cokes. Ahhh…refreshing in any language!
We walked back to our house, quickly showered, and Hector (our assigned guide for the evening) walked us down to the huge market, where all sorts of hand made items are sold. Mostly, we made mental notes of things to pick up some other day – the market is open and busy every day of the week. After a few minutes in the Internet Cafe, we walked to the Homeless Shelter run by God’s Child. Anne stopped along the way to buy a bunch of flowers from an elderly woman on the street, and put them to good use before the night was out.
The shelter is in a rough part of town, right behind the market. It is functional and busy, but struck us also as sterile and institutional. Stark walls and floor, a raised, walled-in area in the middle from which the staff serves bowls of food and containers of juice; it had the feel of a prison cellblock. Mostly, the staff stay up in the raised, semi-enclosed area, and the main contact with the people seeking food and shelter is from this position on high. Anne said it felt “condescending”.
After getting over some initial nervousness and uncertainty, Anne and I started engaging with the people. One man, Bob, spoke very good English, and claimed to be a graduate of an American university (in or near San Francisco). I first thought he said Stanford, and I said “good for you!”. He smiled, looked around, and said “I don’t know…look where I am!”. Bob really liked talking with Anne. He went to his bundle of possessions and came back with a series of ink drawings he had done. He signed one for her, and had his picture taken with her. She gave him a handful of
flowers, and he proudly tucked them into his shirt and wore them as a corsage.
Another guy, in really tough shape, called me down to the floor where he and his father had their sleeping pads rolled out for the night. His English was also quite good, but he was either drunk or mentally troubled, or both, but he wanted to talk. He grabbed my hand in a vice grip, held on, and proceeded to talk…about the health problems of he and his father, their need for drugs, the stitches he just got on his eyebrow from passing out and hitting his head. He said his name was George, and as if to prove the point pulled up his shirt to reveal a number of crude
tattoos, including one large one across his chest that said “George”. Anne also came down to the main floor and began to talk to people, and hand out flowers. She talked to George, the artist Bob (she could call him Bobby, he said), and others – including one particularly lucid young man who said he was writing a book. When we were getting ready to go, he came up to us and thanked us for coming, and said it was so nice to see, in his words, new people – people who they could talk to. It makes it nice to come the shelter when there are people he can talk to, he said. I appreciated his words.
On this night the shelter, located in a rough part of Antigua not far from the market, provided a meal and lodging for approximately 20 men.
We hailed a 3 wheel taxi called Took Took, which are ubiquitous throughout Antigua, and for a couple of bucks we bounced over the cobble stone streets on the way home. We ended the night sitting around the table, laughing with Oscar and Maritza.
Sunday: Volcan de Pacaya
Our early morning plans called for Anne and I to be picked up by Christian and a driver at 6:00 A.M. for a day trip to a nearby, active volcano – Volcan de Pacaya. Though this meant getting up very early, I assured Anne that we would be able to sleep during the hour and a half ride in the van to the trailhead. We waited and waited outside Oscar’s house. Christian appeared on foot, but no van. Eventually, an old and nearly completely full school bus roared up to the bottom of the hill, one block away from where we were waiting. The driver got out and whistled for us to walk down to get join him. Our transportation had arrived.
En route, while bouncing around on the bus, through the impoverished villages and over the winding mountain roads, which eventually turned to dirt, I managed to read the Waiver form that we were required to sign:
”Danger: Pacaya, just south of the capital, is one of several active volcanoes in the nation. Last year, it erupted spectacularly in an earth-shaking, fiery display of molten lava visible from the city. It is still active, with small, frequent explosions…. Ironically, it is not the continuing volcanic activity that has stopped many (tour operators)from taking groups to the top; these days, armed bandits are considered a much greater risk than lava….Bandits have mugged and attacked tourists
on the route up the volcano. So although you are in a larger group than you would like to be, the adage “safety in numbers” could not be truer in this case.”
We got off the bus for a chaotic cattle call. We were instructed by the local guide to line up for the hike, and he pointed out many interesting features of the volcano. At least I think that is what he talked about – it was all in Spanish and I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. Our group was from all over the world, and spoke in many different languages. Anne and I appeared to be the only Americans. Suddenly, we were moving forward and upward, up the steep trail and into the forest, sort of like a human huffing and puffing Tower of Babble.
After the first hour, we emerged from the trees and moved onto a flatter plain, underneath the rocky cone of the volcano. The view was amazing. Steam was pouring out of the top like an overheated tea kettle. I had no idea how much further we were going to be permitted to climb, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to be turned around at any time. Instead, having somehow miraculously dodged the many gangs of banditos that must have been having a siesta when we marched through the forest, we were led on, undaunted, to the fiery top of the mountain.
I should point out, as Anne in fact pointed it out to me at this point, that when packing for Guatemala I had sort of forgotten to tell her we would be climbing a volcano during our stay. She arrived in Guatemala with one pair of beat up moccasins and two pair of sandals. None of this selection will you find in any outdoor gear guide under the “Excellent Footwear for Climbing Volcanoes” category. The last hour was very steep, and the trail consisted of loose, sharp pumice that could not have felt very comfortable to size 7, sandal-wearing feet. But Anne
marched straight on up, stopping only occasionally to look at the steam pouring out from the top and remove the lava rocks from between her toes.
The end of the line was a perch just under the very top of the crater, where our group gathered amidst the steam to stare up in amazement at the big chunks of molten, red lava erupting into the sky, not far from where we stood. We were close enough to HEAR the eruptions -a deep
GA-WOOMP….. followed by a WOOOOSH as the red, molten pieces of inner earth soared into the air. The sulfur stench was overpowering, making us cough and stinging our eyes, but man was it worth it.
After most of the group had started back down, Anne and I hung out just a little longer…pretending we were at a 4th of July celebration (AHHH…..WOOOO…), waiting for the grand finale. The volcano did not disappoint. Eventually, in awe, we turned around, and started to make our way back down.
Sliding down was easier than trudging up, in a way. It was like skiing. Sort of. Only without skis. Or snow. Instead, we were sliding down a steep slope, the surface of which was nothing more than loose clumps of sharp, jagged rock. Some of us were wearing sandals.
Eventually, our international band of volcanologists made it back to where we started. We loaded up the bus, and made our slow way back toward Antigua. As we drew closer to town, however, traffic start to become very congested. I knew it wasn’t a good sign when we started to see temporary roadside “vendors” selling watermelon slices to frustrated drivers. And then, traffic came to a complete stop. We were hot, thirsty and packed into the school bus like warmed up sardines, and it was clear we were not going to be going anywhere any time soon. Suddenly, the driver turned around and said: “Due to the Sunday Procession, traffic is very bad. From here it is a 20 minute walk back to town. I suggest everyone get out and walk”. At least that is what I think he said, because everyone got out and started walking.
We didn’t know exactly what a Procession was, but we were about to find out. Or, more accurately stated, we were about to become one.
After walking for considerably longer than 20 minutes, the cars that were clogging the road were replaced by people. Thousands of people, as if gathered for a parade. Kind of reminded me of the old days in North Dakota, but I had no candy to toss. Eventually we caught up with the
first of several ” floats”, wooden crucifixion scenes on top of large, wooden platforms (think flatbed trailers) on the shoulders of about 20 people dressed in purple hoods and gowns (think KKK-garb, only purple). The “float” was swaying back and forth, a brass band was playing, a big drum was banging out the slow march step, the large crowd was pressing in close, and incense was heavy in the air. Our forward progress came to a full stop – the crowd was so thick that we simply could not take another step. Eventually, we made our way through and around the crowd, and got out ahead of the Procession, which was headed to the same place we were – Antigua.
Finally, we got back to Oscar’s house in time for a shower and quick rest, before doing our internet thing and joining yet another program staff member for dinner at the lovely Hotel Santo Domingo, a gorgeous 5 star hotel that is amazingly inexpensive. This “day off” had proven to be
quite eventful, and once again we were ready for bed early – and we both slept well.
Monday: A roof overhead
The morning began with our usual breakfast/Spanish lesson, followed by our now familiar walk to the Center. I followed Anne to her 1st grade classroom, and tremendously enjoyed watching her new little friends run up to her – obviously thrilled to see her again. “Anna!! Anna!! She kneeled down, was engulfed in hugs from her little fans, and I shot a few pictures. Then it was back to the construction sight for me, with just Hector this day – Christian was taking another team to a new project site. We were, however, joined just for the morning by a couple of young men – one from Texas and the other from Norway. I told anyone who would listen that the Norwegian and I were related – indirectly. We spent the morning framing the house, and the extra hands came in handy. When it was time for the two new guys to move on, Anne and a driver arrived with our lunch, and Anne stayed with us for the afternoon final push.
The walls were to be made of concrete sheet rock. Anne got busy painting large sections of wall material the signature bright blue, while Hector and I started to hang them. Fortunately, by mid afternoon, a group of experienced volunteers from Dickinson arrived to help wrap things up – kind of like an old-fashioned barn raising.
When we had flown down from Kansas City several days earlier, we brought with us 3 large suitcases filled with items to donate – things that had been recommended to us by God’s Child – clothes, towels, bedding, soap, toothbrushes, etc. We had been told that that baseball caps go over big with the kids, and thanks to Charlie’s buddies in Kansas City we brought along over 50 caps. And, we had plenty of little girl shoes and clothes thanks to Anne’s Terrence and his little sister. Our suitcases had been turned over to the program, but we had found them this morning still stuffed and waiting to be unloaded into the huge bins at the Dreamer Center. Anne and I raided our luggage and put a package together for our family – enough caps for all, and plenty of little girl items for the darling little baby girl. It was great fun to hand out these things to the delighted kids, and the caps were tossed on immediately. The mother disappeared with the little girl, but quickly reappeared with the baby decked out in one of the pink little outfits. This adorable little one spent a lot of time in Anne’s lap during the afternoon, when Anne wasn’t otherwise painting, pounding nails, or playing in a large dirt pile with several of her other
little buddies, that is.
By late afternoon it became clear that, thanks to the Dickinson crew, we would win the race against time, and finish the house on this day. As Hector attended to finishing details (squaring the door, installing the window), the rest of us started to pick up around the site and making
preparations to go. Anne and I organized a “photo op” on the steps outside the new house. We were surrounded by the 4 kids, their 6 cousins, two of the moms and the grandmother. The picture wasn’t complete, however because Hector wasn’t in it. So, we changed the chant from “PHO-TOE!! PHO-TOE!!!” to “HEC-TOR!!! HEC-TOR!!!”. Finally and reluctantly, Hector left the last minute details long enough to join his chanting fan club on the steps, and become a part of this Kodak moment.
Then it was time to say goodbye. Many hugs were exchanged, and a few final gifts imparted. I gave my work gloves to a great little 10-year-old guy who had become a buddy. His name is Edgar Ignacio, but it seemed he had a formal nickname (Nachito) which was further abbreviated to Nacho. Anyway, Nacho became one of my favorites. Over the course of the 3 days I taught him how to count to 10 in English, and gave him my work gloves when it was time to go. In exchange, he proudly gave me a picture he had just completed – a purple whale swimming happily in the sea. As they all gathered to see us off, we promised we’d be back to visit, and we will keep our promise.
It is hard to describe the experience of spending 3 days with an impoverished family – playing with the children, becoming immersed in their lifestyle for a time – while helping to construct their new home. Once again in the back of the little red pickup, bouncing over the narrow, cobble stone streets on the way back to Oscars after our final hugs and goodbye’s with the family, Anne said “I feel so good right now…”. Well said, for that was exactly how I felt as well.
Quick shower…. quick visit to internet place…. and then we treated Oscar, Maritsa, and Ileana to a very fun dinner downtown. Oscar (who proudly sat in a chair bearing a sign that said something like “President William Clinton sat in this chair in 1999” ) entertained us all. Toasts to newfound friends were exchanged, and the dinner was a delightful way to end a truly delightful day.
Tuesday: The malnutrition center
What we did, what we saw, how we felt on this day…will be very hard to adequately describe. I will try not to spare any details, even the painful ones, because to do so would be do an injustice not just to our experience but also to the children who touched our hearts. On Tuesday morning, Ileana, Anne and I traveled to San Paulo, to visit the children’s malnutrition center.
San Paulo is a bit off the beaten path, about a one hour drive from Antigua, and you get the sense that it doesn’t see a great deal of tourists. We drove past a bustling market in the center of town, and saw dozens of indigenous women dressed in their brilliant colored textiles, heading to the market to sell their goods – fruits, vegetables, flowers and all sorts of hand made items.
As we approached the malnutrition center, Ileana explained that the Center serves starving children from all over Guatemala. On average, 40 – 60 children will be there at any one time, and stay for a minimum of 4 to 6 months. Sadly, their families rarely visit, simply lacking the makeup or the resources to be in regular contact with the children. God’s Child sends volunteers to the Center as often as possible; believing that it is helpful for the kids to receive loving attention and stimulation as often as possible, and the staff at the Center welcomes the visits. We were
warned that a few of the kids may be in serious condition, and that many others would not be able to register any sort of joyful signs of emotion. We were told that the kids always get distressed when it is time for the visit to end, and that we should be on the lookout for just the right time
Bracing ourselves, we arrived at the Center – a brick building that looks like a 1960′s style nursing home in North Dakota – sterile corridors and rooms, faded paint and murals depicting past efforts to make the place seem more cheerful. But there is no doubt in my mind that the staff of the malnutrition center are all saints.
We were introduced to the Director, who invited us to head off on our own to spend time with the kids.
We spent the first hour in a classroom with kids ranging from 3 to 10, I’d guess. Many if not most looked reasonably healthy, as healthy as our little friends from the construction site. Marko…Antonio…Ryan…these guys warmed up to me fairly easily, and soon we were playing a spirited game combining soccer/balloon bouncing in air/lifting them up one at time, then two at time, then three at a time – and then it was time to invent another game! One absolutely adorable little girl, who was Ileana’s favorite from past visits dating back to last October, soon became parked in Anne’s lap. She giggled the giggle of little girls everywhere when Anne tipped her upside down…again and again and again. I lifted the kids up, one by one, so they could see outside the window, and look out into the surrounding trees and hillside. My sense is they don’t get to see the outside very often. But they did seem to be in pretty good health, responded to our visit very well, and seemed perfectly capable of joy and laughter if given the opportunity…
Then it was time to visit the little ones.
At the end of a long hallway, past room after room of square, empty, institutional cribs that actually looked a bit more like cages, we came to a large room. Half of the room consisted of individual compartments for the cribs, and the other half was a bare tile floor (partially covered by
a thin rug) – the play area for the children. The air smelled faintly of both disinfectant and dirty diapers.
The children looked up to us as we approached the little barricade that kept them in the playing area. Mostly, we were greeted with a blank or vacant stare that suggested neither happiness nor alarm. Each was wearing a “1 size fits all” diaper; a large, square, non-form fitting contraption
that Ileana believes adversely affects normal hip development. My guess is that she is right.
We moved past the barricade, and sat with the kids on the floor. Some ignored us, but others allowed us to eventually interact with them. One very cute little boy was especially active – picking up toys and shuttling them back to his little living cubicle. We figured he pretty much ruled
Another little boy was the only one isolated in a wooden “play pen”. He did not look healthy, either physically or mentally, and seemed angry at being alone and removed. Anne picked him up and played with him for a while, and his mood was better after that.
But there are 3 little girls I want to mention in particular – Gloria and Veronica, who I spent time with, and another that spent precious time with Anne. We did not get the third girl’s name. All I know is that she absolutely broke our hearts.
I’m not sure how old Veronica is – around one, I would guess. She was terribly weak and skinny – her little legs were like twigs and her face had the gaunt, sad expression that you normally only see in National Geographic. I placed her on my lap, and there she sat – unresponsive and unattentative, but also giving no indication of any desire to move.
While I was holding Veronica, adorable little Gloria toddled over to where I sat with my back against a brick wall. What happened next struck me as both sweet and odd – she got as close to me as she could, putting her little hand on my arm, but then just stood there, unmoving, staring at me with a look completely devoid of any emotion whatsoever. All my usual tricks – peek-a-boo and the like – produced no reaction. She just stood there for the longest time, staring straight at me, while I held Veronica, who sat motionless on my lap, staring straight ahead. It felt like they
were both too tired and too weak to even feel anything. Or, quite possibly, maybe food isn’t the only thing they lack. Maybe they don’t know how to be happy – to love and be loved. At least that is what it felt like to me.
After a time, a nurse arrived with a basket of bottles and cups filled with warm milk, and instantly any activity taking place on the floor came to a halt. The smallest ones got their bottles, and began sucking away. The other ones, the ones old enough to hold a plastic cup, like Veronica
on my lap and Gloria at my side, took their cups and proceed to slowly and steadily sip the milk down. They all seemed hungry, but some seemed to tire out before finishing. I wound up holding both cups for my little girls as they continued to slowly work away.
When both had finished, I sat Veronica down on the floor, and put Gloria on my lap. Both accepted the new locations without complaint. Gloria laid her pretty little head against my chest, and I started to sing “All the Pretty Little Horses”. Actually, I repeated the first verse over a few times – it has been about a dozen years, and I couldn’t remember the second verse . Somehow
I don’t think Gloria cared. She continued to quietly stare straight ahead for five or ten minutes, until finally she closed her beautiful brown eyes and drifted off into a peaceful nap.
Anne’s little friend…
This little girl, dressed in a pretty little dress, seemed especially sad while we were there. She wasn’t whiney or fussy, she just seemed very sad and lonely. Maybe she was about two years old. When the nurse brought the milk in her mood brightened a little, but she started to cry softly
when the nurse left again. Anne went over to her and began to comfort her. Soon, this little girl was snuggled in Anne’s lap, and sipping milk from her cup. Eventually, she fell fast asleep in Anne’s arms and lap, and there she stayed until it was clearly time for us to go.
She was sleeping so soundly we thought that we thought we could sneak out without waking her. With great care and gentleness, Anne tried to find a nice spot on the carpet to transfer her to. Anne almost had her arms removed from under the little girls head when she began to stir. At
first, she had that empty look that little kids have when awakened suddenly – not sure where there are or what is happening. Then, when she realized that Anne was leaving, her face dissolved into sad, sad tears. She held up her arms and tried to hold on to Anne’s neck, and started to cry. “Mommy, Mommy…” she was saying in Spanish. Anne tried to comfort her. We needed to go, and so Anne did what she had to do, she kissed the little girl on the cheek, removed the hands from around her neck, stood and walked away – crying as she left the room. “Mommy, Mommy”…the little girl whimpered, as Ileana and I followed Anne out of the room.
We found Anne in an empty room at the end of a hallway, sobbing silently. I held Anne for a while. Ileana joined us, and I don’t mind telling you that there wasn’t a dry eye in the bunch. We stepped outside and sat on a bench, and tried to gather ourselves. We talked for a bit about what we had just experienced.
I was so immensely proud of Anne that day, and of the young woman she has become. I was deeply touched her tenderness and compassion … her loving and nurturing nature… all of which were on full display with those children. I have no doubt that leaving the little girl on the floor
was one of the hardest things Anne has ever had to do. I can say with certainty that it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to witness. But I take comfort in the fact that, at least for a while, this little one found peace in Anne’s loving embrace. And while this little girl will
never know it, I also believe that she may have played a role in helping shape Anne’s future… a future which just might include helping other needy children in some way…a future grounded in the lessons learned during our time in Guatemala.
Eventually, Anne, Ileana and I got back in the van, and drove down to the ancient market of San Pedro.
Good bye for now…
When we arrived back in Antiqua by mid-afternoon, it was time to turn our attention to final details and preparation for heading home. We made one last pass through the market, and bought a couple of beautifully colored woven blankets to bring home. We met with program staff, and explained our interest in sponsoring the four children from the new house into the program. A final dinner had been arranged for us – Anne and I were joined by Ileana, Hector, Christian and the volunteer coordinator for an informal “closing ceremony”. We were each presented with a beautiful silver necklace, designed by program alumni, who as a young boy in the survived the civil war in the 80′s when most in his village were killed. My understanding is that the closing ceremony is routinely done for volunteer groups, and can be an emotional experience. For us it was more just a lovely dinner with 4 new friends – our emotions having been drained earlier in the day, on a hillside in San Pedro, at the malnutrition center.
As I tried to describe my reaction to the week just past to our friends that night, I told them that we had come to Guatemala hoping to help in some way, but that given our lack of language and carpentry skills it wasn’t clear to me how useful we could really be. A couple of days into the week, it seemed like our efforts to assist were sort of token – that the main benefactors of this trip may well be Anne and me. By the end of the week, however, I had come to firmly believe that help had flowed both ways. Sure, that house would have been built without us, but we did help, and I believe the family will long remember that we were there. I hope we can sponsor all four kids into the God’s Child program, stay in contact with them, and ensure they have an opportunity for a quality education and hope for a brighter future. And the kids in the school who adored Anne now have one more reason to want to grow up and make a life for themselves. And… those kids at the malnutrition center in San Pedro – we did help them, at least in some way and at least for a little while.
Back home, Anne is looking into the prospects of graduating from high school next December, in hopes of spending the several months in Antigua working with God’s Child before heading to college. I am currently exchanging emails with Patrick Atkinson, the founder of the program, exploring whether I might be able to contribute something going forward by joining its board of directors. We will not forget the children of Guatemala – they have touched our hearts forever.
And we will be back.