Spending every Sunday for more than a year now with a ragtag group of kids from deprived, troubled childhoods has turned out to be a surprisingly heartening experience.
The kids at Angelitos Felices foster home were like little cyphers to me when I first started volunteering there last April. Their squeaky little voices were impossible for me to understand in those early days of learning Spanish, and I also found it hard to see past the overwhelming grimness of where they were living to even consider getting to know them as individuals and not just tragic cases of societal neglect.
But time passes, and now we talk a lot: About painful teeth; how to use a tampon; why you can't wear your brother's shoes when he's got foot fungus; why you shouldn't toss garbage on the ground. We talk about all the things they want and need, from new shoes or a belt to hold up their pants to sno-cones, big wedge-soled flip flops just like mine, a bracelet, a wind-up car, a collared shirt sporting their school logo, green mangos stolen from a neighbour's big tree.
We talk about the scantily clad women who work the cantinas that we pass by on our twice-monthly walk to the pool. The man with no legs. The drunks in the square. There has even been a couple of carefully worded conversations about birth control with some of the older girls, and some equally careful talk about their disappointment at being left to grow up without parents at Angelitos.
All of it has served to remind me of how much we have in common with each other regardless of how different the circumstances of our lives. These kids' childhoods look nothing like those of my own children's in terms of creature comforts, decent schools, free health care, good food and fun. And yet the things that preoccupy them, thrill them, puzzle them and keep them moving forward are so similar.
When I first got involved at Angelitos, it felt almost like palliative care. I didn't think anything I could do would actually change the future for the 25 children who live there, but that I ought to try nonetheless to make things more comfortable for them in the time I was here.
But now that I've had time to get to know them, I see how capable they really are, and that we're each bringing something to this partnership we've developed. They are survivors: Much healthier than you'd ever expect given the near-complete absence of medical or preventive care; as tenacious and optimistic as Tigger when it comes to bouncing back from endless disappointments. They're a remarkable group of kids.
No need to get all Pollyanna about any of this, mind you. They're still almost certainly heading into hard lives of profound poverty, and I worry constantly about the older girls ending up pregnant and the older boys being lured into the dangerous world of gangs and low-level drug trafficking. The rainy season will be starting any day now, launching months of impetigo, fungus and staph infections that will spread like an Australian bush fire through the place. At least four of the kids have significant developmental disabilities, and all the charming, cheerful attributes in the world won't keep them on their feet in a country without social supports.
But still, the longer I'm around the children, the more hope I feel. They've got way more strength and purpose than I gave them credit for initially. I see that there are things I can do in these two years that - while falling well short of miracles - will build on the inner resources they already have and leave them in better shape for the journey that lies ahead.
The 13-year-old with rock-bottom self-esteem and developmental problems, for instance. I couldn't have known when we started our pool visits that she'd turn out to have a knack for swimming, or that she'd learn faster than any of the other kids. But that's what happened, and I see the impact it has had on her every time I catch her blissed-out face as she swims (and swims and swims) in the deep end of the pool.
The eight-year-old known for breaking things in fits of anger. He's not a bad kid at all, just a frustrated one who's so eager to please that any concrete, well-explained task turns him into a conscientous, thorough "worker."
The nine-year-old who tends to get excluded from fun activities as punishment for acting out. She's just an independent thinker who hates being ordered to do things without any explanation as to why. It's not in her nature to go along, but now she understands that a little going along keeps everyone happy and gets her out of Angelitos more often.
The boy on the edge of puberty, the one I fear for the most in terms of gang involvement. Something as simple as a hug, or a thrill ride at the carnival that gets him laughing like crazy, takes that hint of menace right out of his eyes and returns him to the little boy he still is. It took him longer than the other kids to learn to swim, but you can see the sweet victory in his eyes now that he, too, can manage the deep end of the pool.
Plant seeds, they always tell you in social justice work. The metaphor makes me crazy, because my nature is to want a whole new garden. But a year passes, and I see these little sprouts thriving.