"Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring: all of which have the potential to turn a life around."
- Leo F. Buscaglia
- Leo F. Buscaglia
There have always been those people who are wonderful with children. Naturally so. Effortlessly so. They see them and know how to coo, sing and dance for them to elicit a smile. More than that, they know how to teach them, discipline them, help them grow. And then there is me. The son of the Resident Dean in college loved his morning conversations about hammerhead sharks with my then boyfriend so much more than he enjoyed talking to me that he one day came to breakfast with a big, cardboard hammerhead shark that he had made as a gift for said boyfriend -- and which he handed over only after he sashayed over to me, hunched over my bowl of oatmeal, to point out that the shark would eat me. The following year, the Resident Dean had a brand new baby daughter whom she brought to our breakfast meeting. As the mother of two attempted to get some food, she handed me her daughter to watch for no more than two minutes. The little girl took one look at me, scrunched up her face and started wailing, before I had had the chance to say or do anything.
Ready to paint, in the company of wonderful new friends
Fast forward three years and I am sitting in a hot van of Hands for Humanity staff and volunteers, all squealing at the prospect of the day's activities at the orphanage in rural Ecuador. Few of these people knew each other before the project, but in my mind they are united by an undying dedication, drive, fearlessness and desire to serve. About half of them are on the medical staff of the Mayo Clinic, one of the leading, most innovative, service-oriented centers of treatment and care in the United States. Every year, as part of Hands for Humanity, surgeons and nurses from Mayo descend on Portoviejo to evaluate hundreds of patients in need of medical attention and assess how many operations they can carry out in their time in Ecuador. Then the doctors and nurses team up, performing three surgeries a day under conditions that remind me of Gulu Independent Hospital in war-torn Northern Uganda, where we could not find a single bar of soap. While there are operating facilities and patient rooms here, the nurses were constantly taken aback by the lack of perfectly sterilized instruments or by the fact that mothers had to sleep under their children's beds every night and that other family members had to wait in a... locked cage to receive news. In this environment, the vision and hard work of the medical teams make their contribution even more impactful.
Soap bubbles make for a happy day.
Beyond the medical personnel, I was blown away by the stories of the rest of the people I met on this brief service trip. I met a mother of three children, aged 9, 10 and 11, who has decided to home-school them as she and her husband travel the globe for medicine-related work. In addition to standard educational tasks, the children learn experientially, picking up languages along the way and joining their mother on every service project. It may not seem like a comfortable lifestyle -- and indeed, these are children who know to be patient when they cannot shower, when they are covered in mosquitoes, or when they do not recognize the names or appearance of the food -- but the family was together at every step and appeared to be happy, fulfilled and constantly learning. I also met a professional in the beauty industry who has become increasingly curious about corporate social responsibility and environmentally-friendly platforms and found herself fully immersed in South American traveling, living and volunteering alongside her boyfriend, a musician so popular with Fernando at the orphanage that I do not have a single photo of him without the little boy clinging to him. These are all people with a consciousness of the world around them, a desire to understand a little more of it, to engage with parts previously unknown and being among them, in all their friendliness and appetite for work, was a real privilege that reminded me that there is no true loneliness on this journey.
The hat was a big hit and footballs always are, even in a shirt and tie.
As for me, I was miles away from my ex-combatants and victims of conflict, our talk of 'conflict management and difficult conversations' or the definition of their 'life wish lists.' I may not have observed a club foot surgery, but I encountered my own series of 'firsts'. Armed with a paint brush and a flu mask to fend off the oil paint fumes (it did not), I helped repaint the orphanage kitchen yellow, occasionally spattering paint all over myself (to the horror of my hairstylist of a roommate in Bogota, there is still a patch of yellow in my hair). I must have taken over one hundred photos of children, who were so eager to see their reflections in the camera that my lens is covered with tiny fingerprints. I helped one of the children resolve a dispute about a game of Uno: "Is the objective to obtain as many cards as possible, Miss?" I giggled as girls pointed at me and said I was the "gringa who spoke Spanish!" And as the day's programming drew to a close, just as I was drenched in sweat and paint, little girls started emerging out of their rooms in fluffy dresses with sashes to meet boys in matching shirts and ties.
Performing a dance at the birthday celebration. We were clearly underdressed.Every month, the orphanage puts together a birthday party for the children born on that month. This one was a special occasion, as one of the 15-year-olds was celebrating her quinceanera. The birthday girl looked beautiful, albeit a little sad, and the orphanage transformed into a festive playground. The stories of these children are heartbreaking: A 15-year-old has a baby, the result of a rape. Some of the children actually do have parents, but they are either drug addicts or criminals who cannot support them. If children stay in the orphanage past the age of 2 or 3, it becomes very difficult to find a family to adopt them. Little reminded one of this hardship on the day of the birthdays. In my jeans and tank top, I was definitely the ugliest girl at the Cinderella-like gathering. Soon enough, the tunes of a Viennese waltz began echoing in this courtyard in rural Ecuador and the quinceanera lady was escorted into the hall by a teenage boy wearing a very proud expression. There was a waltz and a traditional Ecuadorian dance and then a massive salsa fest, resulting in all of us swaying and twirling with our lilliputian dance partners. I think I was still sweaty when I boarded my assortment of means of transport back to Colombia, but with the tunes of salsa and waltzes still echoing in my head and the stories of the staff, volunteers and children still resonating, I could not have been more inspired. Once again this year, I felt alive.
One of my dance partners is stepping on my feet...
While my other dance partner is counting her salsa steps and instructing me...