Most of you who know me, know that I don’t have any children of my own. Laura has two children, both now young adults on their own. Those who are very close to Laura know that she is an excellent and loving mother and her children have turned out well because of it. Still, most would not identify Laura as the mothering type. We now find ourselves, now as we are looking forward to the possibility of grandchildren, acting as pseudo parents for 31 children. We certainly did know that this would be the case when we accepted our positions as volunteers here. However, being in the midst of it, as we are, can present some unique, unanticipated, challenges. All of the children here come with unique gifts and challenges. It is difficult not to lose any. When we leave the facility with a group we are often counting heads. Hopefully, we return with the same number we left with. It is often hard to tell them apart.
There are two young girls about the same age who look like twins. In the beginning we both confused them and called them by the wrong names. We have soon learned that one yells whenever she talks and the other only whispers. Similarly there are two brothers about two years apart. They are easily confused as well. But again, we have come to know them by their behaviors. When you put all these kids together, what you often experience is chaos. There are sometimes fights. There are always complaints, a great deal of whining. There is competition for everything. But Laura and I are the experts. We will figure everything out and set things straight. Yeah, right! We are perhaps just now beginning to name some of the intense challenges that the children, and therefore, we, face. This past week, was particularly a strain.
School has been out for about two weeks. They won’t return until February. We have to think of things to occupy the kids. Boredom is a seasoned and clever advisory that we must defeat at all costs. We are running something of a camp, dividing the kids up into smaller groups and arranging various hour long activities. One of the other younger volunteers here came up with the schedule. Sometimes it works, sometimes we have to throw the whole thing out and ad-lib. But what I have really found interesting is that I have been in charge of horticulture. You all know me right, Paul, the guy that just loves to be outdoors with his hands in the dirt. There is a small area near the back of the property where there are about eight small sections of planting beds. It has been used in the past, but has been neglected more recently. It was my task, with three, four, or five uninterested children, to weed it out, prepare the soil, and plant mustard, carrots, beets, radishes, and something else that I won’t know what it is until it grows. By the way, this neglected part of the property is the most likely habitat for the snakes (they can be really big and often poisonous around here), scorpions, tarantulas, and most unfortunately, those killer centipedes. Well, I told the kids, if we could get it together, we could reward ourselves by going out for pizza. They thought this was a clever incentive for them, and they never even guessed that it was a clever incentive for myself. But, we did it! It looks great. Because ground here is so incredibly fertile, you only really need to have the seed in proximity to the soil and it will start to grow roots, everything is already growing. It’s sprouting! Meanwhile, Laura has been the arts and crafts lady. Although Halloween means very little here, all the kids made paper jack-o-lanterns a few weeks back. In as much as that was such a hit, she had them make paper turkeys this week. I don’t know if we are committing serious cultural sins, but Laura is a marvel with scissors and Elmer’s glue.
So we are doing things that we never would have dreamed possible. This makes us feel great. The child’s approval, the child’s smile, an unsolicited hug, can make you feel like you just won the lottery a thousand times over. But just when we think that we are doing everything right… Last Wednesday the local priest came to celebrate a Mass in our chapel. He’d done it before on a regular schedule, but it had been quite some time. This was his first time back and both he and we hoped that we could start a new routine. This was something out of the normal routine for the kids. We did not anticipate that it might cause some anxiety for our more vulnerable children. We got the children together in the chapel. The Mass started. Something seemed amiss. All of a sudden we realized that two of the children had climbed onto the roofs of the buildings. The director and I went out and dealt with it. The Mass went on. After a great deal of work and even a greater amount of embarrassment on our part, we got the kids down. The priest understood. We think he’ll be back.
Both Laura and I realize that as far away from our comfort zone that it might be, the easy part of our job is growing vegetables and making paper turkeys. We also need to realize that the smiles and the hugs are what the kids want to do; it is their natural inclination. But the tough part of our job, the one we really need to be present to, is how vulnerable these children are. They need us to help them, they need to grow in their sense of confidence and self-worth. Mostly they need us to listen to them very closely.