Walking down the street with my class, I tried to remember exactly where the home was. We rounded the corner and I realized it looked familiar but didn’t know quite how to get in.
Luckily one of the students spotted the gate nearby. We stood for a few moments in the entrance until we were greeted by a short, grey-haired lady with piercing eyes, the social worker on duty.
“What are you going to do with the kids?” she asked.
“Well, …we didn’t have anything specific planned,” I replied, “We were just going to come and hang out.”
She stared at me, and I felt my stomach lurching. I looked around at my students, and asked them if they had any ideas of games we could play. They shook their heads, looking as uncomfortable as I felt.
She went to fetch the children, telling us to think about what we wanted to do. The kids descended from their rooms and, all too quickly, the girls were standing on one side of us, the boys on the other. They ranged in age from eight to seventeen.
“Do you have a ball?” I asked, falling back on the usual standby I’d used working with kids in the past.
The social worker managed to dig one out, and the boys went outside to play soccer. I still didn’t know what to do with the girls. I sat with them in the living room area, and introduced myself and the two female students with me, one from the Netherlands, the other from France. I asked them if they wanted to read, which got an emphatic refusal, but they also weren’t coming up with anything else. Eventually they suggested going outside as well.
The sun was shining and excited screams came from the field where the boys were yelling for my Ecuadorian and Colombian students to pass them the ball. Everyone was smiling. Juan came running up to me and asked if I would film the game. I sat on the sidelines trying to capture the action and was immediately joined by one of the younger girls. I asked her name and age, and she was soon babbling away in a rather impressively articulate fashion. She told me that for her recent birthday, she had gone to her host mother’s place and she had gotten eighteen different birthday presents - eighteen! She had even had a party.
I felt my heart stirring at her enthusiasm for what was clearly not a common occurrence. These kids were here because they couldn’t live with their parents. Some of them were dead, others not in a suitable state to take care of their children. Some of the kids saw their parents from time to time, some never.
The social worker I’d met on a previous visit appeared with the older boys. They made a beeline for the basketball area. She thanked me profusely for coming, telling me these kids were like her own children. She said her oldest son had died at twenty-one, shot in the heart by a group of young guys trying to steal his money.
“If I could, I’d adopt them all,” she said. “All they did wrong was being born to the wrong parents.”
I looked behind us and noticed a boy I’d met the last time, around ten I thought, on the swings. He was standing up, flying through the air with his chest pushed forward and looked like he was going to fall off. He still had the closed sadness on his face. She told me the story: his mother was a drug addict, and although he visited her from time to time, when she brought him back to the home on the last occasion, he hadn’t let her touch him. She stunk of drugs. My heart ached for this child. I’d tried to talk to him before, but he hadn’t been too responsive. I wished I could come and visit him on a regular basis. And then I had an idea: what if we tried to set up a program like Big Brothers/Big Sisters in Canada, where each child had an adult come and see them once a week. They could do an activity together, and the child would receive constant support from a positive role model. I mentioned it to the social worker and her eyes lit up. We discussed the logistics: there would have to be a mentor for every child, otherwise it would be quite unfair, but maybe we could work towards finding the number needed and then launch the program. Tremendous excitement coursed through my veins, this was something I could really throw myself into.
The social worker went over to the basketball players and one of the younger girls started to film with Juan’s camera. The kids crowded around, posing for one picture after another. One minute I would be sitting quietly watching the action and the next, kids’ arms would be around me, grins on their faces and the camera flashing in front of me. Watching their evident joy and the same joy emanating from my students was magical. I knew that we needed to come back, and more than that, we needed to find a way for these kids to have this companionship as an indisputable part of their lives.ï¿½ï¿½