Monday, May 31, 2010


I have moments here where I wonder what I'm doing, whether I'm needed, and if I'm contributing enough. This weekend reminded me of how I do contribute and what the children need from me.

I am the oldest volunteer here by nearly 10 years. This, I think is a good thing. I believe I have a perspective on life and children (having nannied, etc.) that the other volunteers are still developing. The bit of training I have in abuse counseling and domestic abuse prevention definitely help as well. There are moments that I have with the children that are so sincere and vulnerable that I play the parenting role more than the playmate role. For example, I saw one of the 10 year old boys hit the little six year old boy, Octavio the other day when they were playing soccer. Octavio gets beat on a lot by the older ones, as he's the youngest, but he also gives it back. Having some idea of the abusive backgrounds that a lot of these kids come from, I know that frequently when one of these little guys hits another one out of anger or frustration, there is a lot more going on under the surface than is seen. When I saw the other boy, (lets call him Carlos), hit Octavio, I pulled them both aside and got down on my knees and talked to them.

"Carlos why did you hit Octavio?"
"Because I wanted to."
"It's not okay to hit him when you feel angry."
"I don't care."
"It hurts Octavio. When other kids hit you, it hurts you too doesn't it?"
"I don't care."
"Why did you hit Octavio?"
"He was bothering me."
"When someone is bothering you it's not okay to hit them. Use words. Tell him to stop bothering you."
"I liked hitting him."
"I want you to apologize."
"You can't play anymore football for now. I want you to come and sit with me for a while."
To Octavio, "I'm sorry he hit you, that's not ok. We're going to talk for a while now and you can go back and keep playing."
Sitting on the bench,
"Carlos, why do you feel so angry?"
"It's not ok to hit when you feel angry. "Some day when you have a wife and a family you don't want to hit them when you get angry do you?"
Very quietly, "No."
"Has an adult ever hit you?"
"I'm so sorry. That was wrong and was not your fault. It's never ok for an adult to hit a child. "
For the rest of the conversation, Carlos is quiet, occasionally sniffling.
"Carlos, the reason I'm telling you this is because I love you. I'm sure these feelings are very confusing to you. I hope you know that you can trust me and if you ever want to talk I would really like that. "
We sat together for about 15 minutes. Him watching the game, me with my arm around him. After a while, I thanked him for listening and told him he could go back and play, but he chose to sit on the bench with me for a while longer. His face was turned away from me and I wasn't sure how upset he was with me. I knew he was doing a lot of thinking and that he was really sad. After a while he joined the others. I was unsure if he would want me as far away as possible after that or if we had bonded. The next day he came and sat with me and we watched cartoons on my laptop.

This event and others similar even more personal, have been the true reason I want to keep coming back to Hogar. When the boys are disciplined they're told not to hit, but I'm not sure, at least in Carlos's case that they really understand why. I think it would be very confusing to see the adults around you (parents, caretakers) being abusive when angry, and perhaps being the victim of that abuse and then being told to respond differently when you get angry. I don't think Carlos had made the connection before with the abuse in his past and the way he was treating the boys around him. Also, I think it was important for me to let him know that I didn't just think he was bad and that I understood how confusing all these feelings must be for him. Many of these kids, if not all, could use counseling. I know that the kids having the most outward problems get counseling. If they are functioning decently then they don't. All the kids here have crazy stories. And the adults here do what they can with the few resources available to them.

When I'm here I do my best to love these kids, listen to them, play with them, teach them and at times to comfort them. As I've mentioned before, the kids here are amazingly resilient and wonderful. Hogar is a safe place for these kids, and I'm glad that this is a place where I can take them aside, sit on the bench with them and talk.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Fresh Jasmine and One on One Time

Sunday came bright and early. Kids were catching up on their Saturday chores and I literally felt hungover from exhaustion. However, Kyla and I pulled ourselves together and spent the day shopping in Coita and then preparing dinner for the boys. Dinner was a success, I think. I base that mainly on the fact that most of it was eaten and several guys came back for seconds. The other day I had one of the kids ask me when I'm going to cook again. That's a good sign. I really want to try and make something in the outdoor wood ovens, but having no experience with them and trying to cook pizza for about 60 kids could be more than I'm capable of. I've heard stories of others who've succeeded, but at this time I'm still contemplating.

I've had a lot of individual time with the kids this week. Paola and I climbed our tree again. We probably spent a couple hours in it just talking. The girls and I have painted nails, colored with oil pastels, chatted into the night, and have just hung out. I've been doing some homework help, and last night helped a little guy named Alexis with his multiplications tables. Alexis was nearly asleep on the floor the other night trying to finish his homework. And Felix (one of the German volunteers) spent a total of 6 hours over the course of two days with one of the 8 year old boys doing homework. Turns out the teacher thought he wasn't doing his homework, so she gave him extra. Unfortunately he just kept forgetting to turn it in.....I'm assuming he won't forget again after the mountain of work he's had to do this week!

I've been into town several times in the past few days. I wish I could show you how amazing the market is. Thing is, when I'm there, crowded under the tarps in the stalls, people pushing past me, women nursing their children, the smell of ripe fruit, flowers, and the earth in the air - I'm just not comfortable pulling out my camera and taking a picture. It feels voyeuristic and intrusive. I already get stared at when I'm there... the only gringa in Coita, when Kyla's not with me. But I have to tell you this market is fascinating. Every corner, every table is full of clothes, and pots, and raw chickens, and tomatoes, and plantains, and shops full of half cows hanging from hooks, and odorous shrimp being sold in baskets next to carts full of sweets and women with their babies wrapped in cloth around their backs. There are children everywhere, many working, several crying or playing. The market is full of sounds. People yelling out specials and cars honking and radios blasting reggeaton music. And there are thin, hungry dogs wandering around, frequently with teats hanging - scavenging among the decaying fruit and bits of tortillas in and around the street. There are bicitaxis (bicycle carts) ferrying women from the market back home, arms full of fresh flowers and produce. I bought my first bouquet of fresh jasmine the other day. It's aroma is intoxicating. I want to live in a bouquet of jasmine. I've been buying lychee fruit by the half kilo lately from a man who has them all arraigned on his cart like a prickly anime sculpture. They are sweet and delicious and bizarre looking.

Today is Friday. The secondary school kids looked great this morning in their nice clothes, rather then their usual uniforms (which are adorable by the way) because it was another celebration of the day of the students or something. I love seeing all the girls all dolled up and the guys looking snazzy with a whole lot of hair gel going on. This is such a culture of hair gel. I've seen various amazing styles of hair since I've been here...sculptures of sorts. Hogar goes through hair gel practically by the gallon. In the mornings everyone looks shiny and ready for school. The boys like to spike their hair up and the girls use it for a smooth, pulled back, pony tail.

The days are passing quickly and I never feel like I have enough hours in the day with the kids. Between their school, chores, various classes here and homework, it's hard to find time to really spend with them. I love weekends, especially Sundays, because there's just a lot more free time. My days still manage to be full though. I float around a lot, playing tag with the younger girls, reading to the little boys, hanging out in my room with the University girls, practicing English with the middle school boys....and providing movies on weekends. I wondered when I got back if they were more excited about the movies I had than that I was back! Ha. I understand though. I love movies too and I like being able to provide them with a treat.

I thing my best times so far have been times spent in one on one conversations with a couple of the kids here. One of the evenings I spent talking to a middle school boy about his very traumatic, violent past and was able to bring him a bit of comfort. I don't think I have ever seen someone cry as intensely - as though in physical pain from the emotional wounds. My heart breaks for these children and what they have endured. I listen, hug them, acknowledge their pain and do my best build them up and assure them that they are loved and that the past is not their fault. I am frustrated by my inadequate Spanish, but perhaps sometimes what they need most is someone who they can trust, that will listen. It has been rewarding deepening relationships my second visit here, building on the foundations from before. There are many differences in this world, but when it comes down to it - we all want to be loved.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Disco Dancing and Lagunas de Colon

Oh, I have so much to tell!

On Friday night the girls got all gussied up for a high school dance (disco) that they had permission to attend. I was invited by Suleyma, on of the senior girls and was actually made a chaperon for the night. The girls looked great. The guys were invited too, but for some reason only a couple of older university age guys went, and I think it was mainly as chaperons too.

We drove the short way in the combi van and got dropped off about two buildings down from the slaughterhouse. Music was blaring, lights were flashing, there was a cover charge…it was pretty great. The aroma of fresh manure and strong cologne was in the air. They had a nice covered area and tables and decorations set up. The first few hours were a lot of standing around waiting for people to dance, then there was an announcement of awards won by the students. Suleyma won 'best personality" which was cute, she was really shy on stage when she thanked everyone for their support. Next to the stage was a big screen showing music videos from popular reggeaton artists. Really racy, raunchy stuff. For a part of Mexico that is so conservative, it was such a strange thing to see at a school function. I swear the videos were screaming sex. Anyway, the music was snappy and the dancing began, and I got to have a pile of fun with girls I hadn't really hung out with much before. Nothing scandalous happened on my watch as chaperon, unless you count the ridiculous ways the High School boys were dancing with us. It's funny going to events like these because I remember being in High School and being so self-conscious. Now it's just fun to support the kids and have a good time and be completely myself and not be intimidated in the least. Granted I shouldn't be because I could practically be their mother!

We didn't get back until our curfew at little after 1:00am. The girls were in great moods, all giggling and talking about boys and other girls outfits….the usual stuff. I didn't fall asleep until after 2am. I was up again at 3:15 because some of the girls decided to forgo sleep altogether and had hit some kind of giggle high. I dragged my body out of bed at 4:15am, because we were all piling on to the school bus at 5am for a day trip to Lagunas de Colon. It was a tired pile of kids on the bus that morning. I don't think we could have fit one more bag on the bus, let alone children. Most of the seats had 3 people in 2, and many kids sat in the aisle. Felix and Robin (the German volunteers) tried sleeping on the floor. There was a baby in the aisle in a little seat, and a couple of older kids at the front of the bus leaning on the dashboard or sitting on the steps. It took us about 6 1/2 hours to get to the lagunas (lakes). Much of the trip was through winding mountains and several of the kids got sick. It was quite the adventure. I've since checked the map to see where we went, and we were practically on the boarder of Guatemala.

The Lagunas were crystal clear pools of water - a series of connected lakes surrounded by tropical trees. The water was a beautiful blue, sweet and so refreshing. Most of the boys could swim, but many of the girls didn't know how, so us volunteers spent some time giving basic lessons. I am a water baby. I love swimming and it was the perfect day for it. So hot but with a slight breeze in the shade. The littlest kids played in a special shallow spot and were so cute in their underwear. The little girls had bathing suits, but the boys rocked their tighty whiteys and had a blast splashing around. All the other girls swam in clothes. Shorts and tank tops or tee shirts. In an effort to fit in I wore shorts and a tank top with my bikini underneath. It is not the easiest thing swimming in clothes, and it just feels so weird.

I thought I was already having as much fun as possible, when some of the kids asked me if I wanted to see the cascade or waterfall. That was not a hard decision, and soon we were winding our way barefoot, along paths past more little clear lakes, crossed a few streams and heard the sound of the falling water. It wasn't just one waterfall. It was a whole pile of waterfalls cascading down a rocky hill surrounded by lush trees. The water pored over little hidden caves and into deep, crystal clear pools and then into a larger river with an amazing rock for diving. It was a scene from a fantasy novel. Slipping and sliding over the smooth rocks I climbed my way up into the first of the little caves that had a waterfall at it's entrance. I've always wanted to be in a secret cave behind a waterfall. It was small, but there were stalagtites and another little waterfall on the inside. It was the prettiest thing looking out, seeing the green moss growing from the ceiling and the water poring over the opening. There was another cave to explore too, and I spent the next little while quite happily swimming in this fairy tale wonderland. The boys were jumping from the big rock at the bottom of the waterfall into the deep, cool water below. I'm not much of a diver, and I always have to plug my nose, but it just looked like too much fun to resist. Sure enough, I probably jumped from that rock 15 times over the course of the next few hours. I smacked my feet on rocks a few times, which really hurt, but not enough to make me not want to try again.

It was such an nice change to be on an excursion with the kids, having fun all day and seeing them laughing and playing. We have fun on the ranch too, but this was a whole day just for them. We packed up and headed out around 5:30pm for our bus ride back to Ocozocoautla. I shared two seats with two secondary school kids, Luis and Ruby. We were pretty snug, but I was just glad to not be sitting on the floor. Every one was so wiped out. Especially the girls who had barely slept the night before, me included. The trip home took nearly 8! hours this time. Apparently, Tio Audi who was driving was trying to take less curvy mountain roads for the kids and at the same time trying to avoid the unsafe highways where robberies frequently occur at night. I think we may have gotten lost a few times. By the time we pulled back into our ranch it was 1:15am and it was a pile of child-like little zombies that exited the bus. And I don't know how Tio Audi drove a huge bus for over 14 hours that day on narrow mountain roads, but he did. There were limbs that I couldn't feel. I fell into bed, hoping that Sunday would be a day of rest for everyone.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Dinner Date with the Muchachas

It has been crayon melting weather the past two days. I slept on the roof again on Wednesday night, though I woke up stiff and covered in dew. Last night I choose to sleep in my bed because there is indeed such a thing as being too old to sleep on the ground two nights in a row. My body just isn't as resilient any more.

We have a new little girl at Hogar. Her name is Josefina and she is 8 years old. Her first night here she was so shy. She clung to the director, Tia Arde, while she was introduced to the rest of the girls. Josefina has the same hair as me. Short and wavy. She's a scrawny, little, freckled thing, with the personality of a little sprite. The rest of the night she clung to me leading me around, shy to be alone with the other girls, but full of restless energy. I would imagine that the first night here is probably very hard. The girls were great though...they made her feel welcome and asked her questions, and Kristel, who is also 8, slept in the bed next to Josefina's so she wouldn't feel lonely her first night. One of the girls gave her a stuffed animal for her bed.
It took her ages to settle down for the night and I heared from the other girls that they didn't sleep very well. Josefina and I spent the morning together exploring the grounds, coloring, painting with Kyla, and running around. She is incredibly bright and very high energy. I'm not sure she has ever been to school, but she can read, understands math, and is eager to get into everything. 'No' seems to be a optional word for her. I don't know her full story, but I do know that she doesn't know where her mom or dad are. I think her mother abandoned her and some people took her in and helped her get accepted into Hogar. I'm so glad she is adjusting well and seem happy. The tias (aunts) who cook for us thought she was my daughter this morning because we have the same hair and she has a lighter skin tone. I thought that was pretty cute.

Other news...I climbed that fantastic tree again with Paola. This time we carried cement blocks over to it and made a ramshackle staircase filled in with branches. Paola made it up successfully her first attempt, but I fell - though I was laughing so hard it took me a while to notice my scrapes. We were in the tree again for about an hour. It really is a great place to escape to.

The past few days have been busy. I keep lending out my computer, mostly to the middle school boys for homework and email. I've been herding the sheep in the evenings with Luis, and I'm getting better at that. I actually got them into the shed last night with very little difficulty. There is a new baby sheep, so tiny and wobbly. Kyla and I named her Myrrh. I want to have a baby sheep as a pet. I've also spent quality time with a University girl named, America, doing Zumba, which has just been hilarious, and I've had a chance to have one on one time with Martha, a very sweet 10 year old girl who really misses her mom. There is always something to do here....especially with the little ones who have fewer chores and more free time.

Kyla and I have been gardening. The girls dorm has a nice space out front and just needs a few more plants and some major weeding to be lovely. Kyla manned the pick axe to break up the ground and pull up the crab grass and I navigated the spiders and biting ants and weeded around the plants. It felt good to see our progress. Yesterday we went to the market and successfully bought produce for 25 people. We thought it would be fun if we made dinner one night, so we planned the menu and ran around town yesterday and found everything we needed. We spent the afternoon cooking and made a really tasty pasta sauce with chorizo, basil, onions, garlic, olives, capers, thyme and tons of fresh tomatoes. We made a big green salad with avocados as well. I think the girls were a bit wary and confused by the food at first, especially since they didn't see any tortillas or beans, but it turned out to be a great success. We didn't have enough utensils, so many of the girls ate with their hands a la "Lady and the Tramp". It was very cute.

They don't eat many fresh fruist or vegetables here and it was really great to see them asking us for second helpings. Kyla and I played music and put flowers on the tables, and everyone lingered over dinner longer than usual and the conversation was cheerful and happy. Kyla and I did clean up duty too, and it was fulfilling to be able to feed the kids and give them night off from their chores. We are going to cook for the boys Sunday night, hopefully it will be just as well received.

Tonight I'm going to the high school dance with some of the girls. Kyla thinks it's funny I want to go. I bought a Latina disco worthy shirt the other day so I'm ready. I'm always up for fun and dancing, and it gives me the opportunity to spend some time outside of Hogar with the high school girls. I think it will be great. However, tomorrow morning at 5am, we are all piling into the big, blue school bus for a 5 hour trip to a waterfall. It sounds like a fantastic day and a lot of time in the bus. I think I'm going to be really, really exhausted because our curfew for the dance is at 1am. But, I'm really looking forward to a whole day away with the kids and seeing some more of Chiapas.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Chasing Sheep, Climbing Trees

On Sunday I went to the older boys' soccer game and laughed as a heard of cows meandered down the path the team was taking their half time break on. Kyla picked cactus fruit and we spent the second half of the game picking tiny thorns from her fingers.

The past two days have been great. I've been trying to focus on spending a day with the girls, then a day with the boys. It's hard to get quality time with everyone, but that doesn't keep me from trying. On Monday I climbed trees with Paola and Luis, my dear friends (12 and 15, brother and sister), and we had such a great time. We climbed this enormous fairy tale tree at the far side of the corn field and sat high in it's branches feeling the wind in our hair and talking for over an hour. I can't believe we've never climbed that tree before. It's like an oasis or sanctuary, a safe place to go and just think and have time alone.

Monday night I put all the girls names in a bowl and randomly chose names for selecting clothes from the donations I brought. Much thanks to my friend Mercedes who gave me a ton of cute clothes before I left Tulum to donate to the girls. Each girl got to go through the clothes twice taking an item they wanted. It was an hour of giggling and fun and various stages of dress and undress and trying on clothes that weren't even close to the right size and needing teamwork to untangle each other. Afterward the girls were in good moods, still swapping clothes and lounging around in their dorms. I played tag with some of the littler girls and we raced around the cabana until we all were out of breath and exhausted from so much fun.

Yesterday I went into town with Kyla and had a much needed cup of coffee. I've gone through caffeine withdrawal again and my headaches are gone, but I just feel half awake for about the first 5 hours of the day! While in town I got workbooks and coloring books for the little boys to help make learning fun and be able to do some projects with them. That afternoon we all sat around a table outside and colored, and worked on numbers and some word games. I tried to teach them the song, "Head and Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" and I think their favorite part was watching me do it alone, making a fool of myself! Ha, I didn't mind, and I'm going to continue teaching them a little bit of English and I just know they will be singing along with me before long! After my time with the little ones, I helped some middle school boys with email and computer stuff. It's been fun to show them some basic computer things and I'm hoping to help them learn how to type. Kyla downloaded a typing program a few weeks ago, I just need to ask her which one and do a little research myself.

Luis and I hung out again. He helped me with my Spanish language workbook and I helped him chase sheep into their pen. Now that's a hilarious event. First of all chasing sheep is just fun. They 'baaaaah, and gallop and most of them head in the right direction. Getting them into the shed was a whole other thing. Sheep really are stupid creatures. I don't feel bad saying that, because I think they are wonderful, cute, and funny, but boy, getting them to go into their shed really was impossible. It's like crowd control with a crowd that just doesn't get it. They would move as one, but it was like a giant wiggly amoeba that we had to direct through a small door. I was standing in a pile of sheep poop, laughing so hard I was almost crying as sheep were bleating and confused and looking worried..... oh, my, I can't wait to help again today. By the way, we never did get them into their shed. Only into the pen.

Hugo, the dancing machine, borrowed my laptop to watch Micheal Jackson's "Live in Bucharest" DVD and learn new moves. On Saturday I saw him teaching a group of 7 girls a whole choreographed dance. I don't know if they will be performing it, but I sure hope so! It was great to see him teach too, he was so good with them and so confident. In the past couple of months he's grown even more confident in his performance, so that now he's dancing any chance he gets. So last night he danced for about 2 1/2 hours. I have him on video.

After finishing Avatar last night with the older kids, I headed back to my room where the first thing I did was trap a huge cockroach and return it to the great outdoors. Honestly, they are too big to kill. It would be like stepping on a mouse or something. I fell asleep reading my new book, " Helping Abused and Traumatized Children". So far my biggest help to them is just letting them know that they are important to me and that I love them and think they are special. I have a little girl date today with a nine year old who really misses her mom. She's been pretty sad these past few days and I promised her some one on one time today.

That about sums it up for now. I'm really glad to be back.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Back at Hogar Infantil

It's been a while since I've updated everyone on the constant change that is my life. The past few weeks have seen me back in Michigan for my grandfather's surprise 80th birthday party and then a brief week with Caleb before another 21 hour trip to Hogar Infantil.

Now that I'm back in Chiapas, and life is bound to be full of crazy stories, I will be writing more frequently again. I apologize for the inconsistencies, however, sometimes it's just hard to find words to write.

I arrived Wednesday night, back at Hogar, very exhausted but excited to see the kids. I was swarmed by hugs and welcomed back very happily into the fold. This however feels like a very different trip. I am more aware of the workings of Hogar as an organization, and let's just say I'm not so naive anymore. This trip back is punctuated by the fact that I need to decide for sure if Caleb and I will move here in a few months. So I feel a bit of pressure. In some ways it feels like I never left Hogar. It's only been two months since I was here last, but it feels different now because I have changed. However, my favorite thing, which is spending quality time with the kids is still just as wonderful as before. As usual it's the difficulty of trying to balance my time with every one. I had a great time talking to the University age girls lounging in my room yesterday afternoon. It's been really good catching up with them. I read children's books donated by Caleb's sister, Michaela to the little boys who gathered around me like a little flock. I was pleased to see them reading to each other too, as Kyla and I have been trying to emphasize reading for fun, not just school and out of obligation. The day was wrapped up by watching a terribly pirated version of Iron Man 2 that one of the boy's had. Though it was pretty unwatchable and half the time we were guessing what what going on, the guys were thrilled to see Iron Man anyway.

The little boys' cabana renovation is going well. One of the older guys, Williams, has been putting a lot of time into working on it. Most of the boys have been working hard on making bricks for the walls and digging the trenches. In my naivety I thought that when I started this project, perhaps they would hire workers to do the renovations for the cabana. I didn't realize that the kids would be doing it, but that's how things work here. There is a Tio that is overseeing the project and frequently works with Williams. The expanded walls are up and the roof still needs to be installed, but for the most part the skeleton of the bigger, better bathrooms is up. I'm sure it will be finished this summer. Now if I can only raise the rest of the money for this project, all will be well!

Kyla and I have been sleeping on the roof of the girls cabana because it has been so hot. We look pretty ridiculous on our rolled blankets with our mosquito netting camping underneath the drying laundry. Also, my mosquito net is really just a piece of green, sheer fabric so I look like a genie or that I'm on safari or something. I don't know what the girls think. Probably that we are just ridiculous Americans. :)

Capi David, the president of the U.S. Board is here along with some visitors for a few days. I've made a point to spend some time with him, and pick his brain for more information about Hogar and pestered him with my fundraising ideas. He's been pretty good humored about it, which is good because I know I will continue having questions and ideas. Tomorrow there is a big board meeting with the Mexican board (patronato) and I'm going to ask permission to attend. Not to have a voice, just to observe. My Spanish is so sketchy that I don't really know how much I will understand, but I think it would be good to meet the members of the Mexican board.

By the way, since I've been writing this, I've been watching two boys chase a sheep around the pen, trying to catch it and it's been the funniest thing. The whole heard goes racing around the shed, two skinny boys running, sliding, flailing arms at the closest sheep, who has managed to evade them pretty well until now. However, she just got caught and I'm not sure what their plans are for her. I love the sound of the sheep bleating in the morning and the rooster crowing and the strange sound the birds make at night. The birds sound like an muted traffic jam with honking and screeching….

More tomorrow, for now I'm off to have some more fun.