Friday, November 14, 2014

Parish Presentation!

Hi there!!

Okay so this really is the last one. I am giving a presentation at my parish this Monday night about my time in Honduras! I spoke at St. Stephen's parish in Pennsauken, NJ before going to Honduras and the generosity of the parishioners there really made the year possible, in addition to the generosity shown by so many of you who are following this blog. To give back, I wanted to share a little of what I learned and the pastor, Fr. Rocco, who has been amazingly supportive from the beginning, said, of course!

So here is the write-up that was published in the bulletin. If you're in the South Jersey area and free that night I would love to see you there!

Lots of love, and thank you all so much, once again, for all of the support.

Time: 7 p.m.
Date: Monday, Nov. 17
Place: Parish Center of St. Stephen Parish
6300 Browning Rd, 
Pennsauken Township, NJ 08109

What I Learned from a Year in Honduras 

In August I came back to the U.S. after living and working for a year at an orphanage in Honduras. For twelve months I ate more corn tortillas and beans than I care to remember, cohabited with scorpions, attempted to keep four of the world's cutest special-needs second graders from taking the last of my sanity, and learned to like hugs that were dusty, sweaty, and long at waist height. The experience was life-changing, and this parish made it possible. 

About a year and a half ago I spoke at Masses about the volunteer year I was beginning at Amigos de Jesus orphanage. I was inspired and humbled by the outpouring of generosity and support I received. Throughout the year I heard about so many of you who continued to support me in prayer. 

Now that I'm home, I would like to share some of my experiences with you: of the children's heart-wrenching stories and incredible resilience; of daily life in the third-world country I called home for twelve months; and of the work being done by this home, started by a Philadelphia priest, to get at the heart of the problems that forced hundreds of Honduran children to flee their country for the U.S. this summer. 

Join me on Monday, November 17th at 7 p.m. in the parish center for stories and conversation about my year at Amigos. Thank you once again for your incredible support. I'm really looking forward to sharing some of the things I learned with you.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Message from Home

One of my last nights at our despedida, goodbye party.
I promised this last post a long time ago. There have been a lot of times when I've almost written it or written it all out in my head, then haven't actually done it. I can't say exactly why. Laziness probably. Busyness. Tiredness. There's probably a little subconscious stuff going on too, but there you have it.

Levin, the time he decided, totally on his own,
to dress up as a king for the day.
So an update! I am happy to say that I have a job back here in the States. I am extremely fortunate. My Mom heard about the job and I applied and interviewed via Skype while I was still in Honduras. I came back to the states on August 12 and I started work on September 2. I am the "social ministries communicator" for Catholic Charities and the Diocese of Camden. I basically have two people I report to, one the executive director of Catholic Charities Camden, and the other the communications director for the diocese. For the latter I get to write news stories about social ministry going on in the diocese -- out of parishes, out of Catholic Charities, from parishioners -- for the diocesan website and newspaper, the Catholic Star Herald. For Catholic Charities my job is a little broader, doing general communications and a little bit of marketing. I manage their website news content and a few other pages, work with social media, and write press releases and stories. I hope to do some more newsletter-type things in the future too. It's nice when both responsibilities overlap, which they often do. Really it's an amazingly ideal situation. I'm writing, and about things I care about, good work people are doing, and I'm meeting inspiring, incredible people.

The three boys who came to the home around Christmas
and became my students in January.
And I work about ten minutes away from my house where I've moved back in and taken over the third floor guest bedroom. It was a major dream come true the day I took out all of my books from their boxes in storage and arranged them on the bookshelves up here. Fiction, non-fiction, religion, philosophy. I felt a little like I was back in my library in Honduras while I was doing it. I love just looking at them. Once an English major, always an English major. It's nice living at home again. I'm wrapped once again in that blanket of love I grew up with, and I get to be part of my younger siblings' lives. And I'm surrounded, still, by children. The noisiness of our dinner table is a little like the craziness of the comedor, but don't tell my mom that. She's seen the comedor.

My special needs one-on-one student, Rana.
One of the best parts of my job are my Spanish-speaking co-workers. There are a lot of them in the office and a few who will only speak to me in Spanish. It's been so great. One of my worst fears was losing my Spanish, but I don't think it's gotten too much worse. My job also has me covering Spanish stories once in a while, too. I recently went to our Diocese's Hispanic family celebration, a day that was entirely in Spanish, and I got to even interview people in Spanish! It was amazing.

Another strange development has been the Amigos kids' use of Facebook, and even Skype! After we left some of the older boys figured out how to download Skype on their phones and I've skyped several times with them! It's crazy to see them on my computer screen, to speak in Spanish with them. I really can't describe it. In September, four of the kids came to the States for the annual fundraising visit Amigos has. Our executive offices are right in Malvern, P.A., so I was close enough to go to a lot of events, even to meet them in the airport. There was a magnetism to their visit. I couldn't stay a way, even though I felt them scratching away the scabs I had made. It was so beyond wonderful to be with them, to laugh with them, play with them, remember inside jokes we had. I felt again that belonging and was reassured that I still have my place with them. But each night when I went home, and especially when I had left, the reality of our apartness had to be faced.

Levin and his little brother Wilbur.
The pictures you see are the ones I've been using as the desktop backgrounds on my computer (and the really good ones are courtesy of my amazing fellow volunteer, Emily Pettinger). Every time I open my computer I see their faces and I smile. I miss them so much. I think of them so often. Being at work is usually my saving grace. When I'm there, I become consumed by the work at hand and I've been pushing myself there like a crazy person, which is entirely characteristic anyways, but also sort of a necessity now. But even there I'll see their faces suddenly in something someone says. Some location will stir up a memory. The slightest thing takes me back there, to the road to San Pedro Sula, to the school, to Buen Samaritano and the wheelchair-bound people there, to the soccer field and a child telling me he used to eat dirt, to our porch and boy saying he wishes he knew where his mother was, to our kitchen where I once spent hours with a teenager scanning google maps of Honduras searching for some kind of needle in a haystack that only he understood. And to happy moments too. The way the sun would set behind the hills, the warmth of a summer night, the stars, listening to Spanish romantic songs from the 70's with my friend Jacob, sitting with Levin on my lap one night after dinner, feeling the bone-crush of little Edgar barreling into me one morning before school. I'm back there in an instant, so many times a day.
Getting asked to be my student's godmother at his Baptism.

In one of my favorite novels of all time The Brothers Karamazov (I'm really not trying to be pretentious -- if you've read it you know it's great stuff!) the brother Ivan makes his case that freedom is not worth the suffering of innocent children, that the world order set down by God in the form of free will, and atonement, is not worth the blood and tears of one abused child. "Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child's prayer to 'dear, kind, God.'"

Dostoevsky had an answer for that, and it's all somewhere in the God who didn't remain just God but became man and died, and somewhere deep in my own personal culpability, which I am to spend my life atoning for. But the logic of Ivan sometimes is clearer, more seductive, more plain. Then again, it's no way to live.

That personal culpability sometimes takes more concrete and immediate terms. I left them after a year of getting to love them, I needed to leave, and I went into it knowing I would. I took so much from them, then I left. I might have given a little, too, but ultimately I'm gone. That's an incredible responsibility. The story doesn't have to end there, unless I let it. But distance and forgetfulness are funny things; I feel them creeping up on me already.

Really all this wrestling is something everyone does anyway, I've just given it my own twist. The truth is, when I think back on my time there now, what I remember most is being happy.

And when I think on my life now, the proper response is gratefulness.

Thanks again for reading this blog. Many of you supported me financially too, which I am so very grateful for. I may post just one more time to let you know when I'll be giving a presentation on my time in Honduras at my parish, St. Stephen's in Pennsauken, N.J. I've been working with the pastor there to set a date and when it's all settled I'll let you know. Most of all, I know many of you were with me in prayer this year, and that was such a blessing. I can't thank you all enough for your love and support on this journey!

There's a beautiful prayer, written to commemorate the martyrdom of Msgr. Oscar Romero in El Salvador, that tells how all work like this must necessarily be incomplete. I was reminded of it recently by my boss at Catholic Charities. So I won't try to wrap this blog up too neatly either, but will instead use those words.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. 

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church's mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Mom's Published!

Hi all!

My mom wrote a beautiful reflection on her time here at Amigos in May. Click the link to see it on the Amigos blog!

She's pretty great, huh?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Surreal Countdown and Lots of Good Times

Let me tell you about my day.

I let myself sleep in this morning, skipping Saturday's pancake breakfast. Funny, when I got here it was my favorite breakfast of the week! Real almost-gringo pancakes, and even though there wasn't syrup, my sugar-deprived body quickly learned to like honey. Now the sugary sweetness of an all carb breakfast makes me nauseous and weak the whole morning. Give me a hearty plate of beans and rice, with salty cheese and tortillas, the usual fare the other days of the week.

We do chores on Saturdays. While I was cleaning the bathroom I heard Levin's voice calling from the gate. The kids know they can't come in without permission so high pitched endlessly repeated versions of "Laura!!" "Emma!!" "Emilia!!" "Joanna!!" are a common occurrence, drawing either a groan or a smile from whoever's being summoned depending on the kid. This time for me it was the latter. He had brought me two deep red "moras," a raspberry-like berry that grows nearby. He's done this for the last three mornings now. I told him the first time I really liked them and he hasn't forgotten yet.

My project for the morning was to continue organizing and labeling the new books that came for the library when the annual container shipment arrived about two weeks ago. I grabbed my computer for tunes and set out to round up some willing boys. After about fifteen minutes I had my crew, seven helpers, and we set off for the school. Listening to my by now impressive selection of super cool Spanish music they worked, sticking on different colored labels to storybooks in English, not a single complaint, not one slack worker. They ranged in age from 8 to 15. They didn't have to go, but our kids like helping, simple as that. I never stop being surprised at how willing they are to pitch in. It's something to do, and this is their home, their family. They want to be part of it. Also they got to hang out in the library and read books afterwards, which they love.

After lunch the plan was to take a hike to the phone company tower that sits in the highest mountain near us. We're out in hilly farm country so the hike starts when you exit our gate, turn right, and continue going up on the dirt road that leads to the hogar. And up and up and up! It was 2 in the afternoon, the sun was intense, and I was sweating about three minutes in. Everyone but the youngest children were in on the hike. I walked most of the way with three of the youngest guys. They were troopers! We climbed steep hill after steep hill, and it was oh so very very hot. One guy kept repeating over and over how un-thirsty he was. He would say something suddenly like, "I'm tired," *pause* "but I'm not thirsty," and trudge stoically on. We walked passed pineapple fields blanketing rolling hills and through pine forests interspersed with broad-leafed shiny tropical plants and brilliant orange and red flowers. We reached the peak and the tower at about 3:30 and the view was spectacular. We looked out over miles of flat farmland, the shape of the vast valley we live in suddenly apparent: far in the distance was a wall of blue mountains mirroring the ones we stood upon. The wispy clouds brushed their peaks. "From those mountains you could touch the clouds, huh," one of my little guys said.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Getting Closer to Goodbye

My four original students, all demonstrating pretty accurately
their individual personalities. All photo credits go to the amazing
Emily Pettinger.
Once again, far too much time has elapsed between posts. The last time I posted it was just about May and we had all begun to think in earnest about the approach of going home. Now, just a few days away from the two month mark, the thought of leaving occupies more and more of our thoughts. We're planning our goodbyes, setting goals and making to-do lists.

My thoughts and feelings about leaving are, as always, a mix. The last month was harder than I expected. I had hoped, starting out in May, that the last three months would be easy ones, filled with great parting moments with the kids and finally a sense of deep-rooted security in my place here. The month started with our final retreat as a volunteer community. We went to the beach and spent a long weekend in a beautiful practically-beach-front house donated to us by friends of friends. It had air conditioning, hot running water and cable TV, so basically paradise. I spent my 23rd birthday on May 8 floating in the  Caribbean Sea and chowing on spaghetti with meat sauce and red wine. It was a wonderful retreat. We all enjoyed one another's company more than we ever had before and had plenty of down-time to be in it. The retreat consisted mostly of looking back at our time at Amigos. We shared stories, laughed and cried together. And we ate amazing, ultra-gringo food, like bagels and cream cheese and cold-cut sandwiches. (As Amy, our director, observed oh so aptly, Hondurans never eat cold food! Even the milk in breakfast cereal gets heated up).

Over those four days I missed the kids a lot. I wrote down stories of things that had happened and spent a lot of time thinking about the kids who were important to me, the things they had shared with me, their terrible suffering, the ways they had made me laugh so hard, and the intenseness of my love for them.

I came back from retreat ready for the last three months to be one big high culminating in a heart-wrenching goodbye. I still haven't learned that there will always be good and bad, that there has to be. That life here, and everywhere, is always a mix of ups and downs. We aren't, after all, really in paradise yet. The bads make the goods real.

The boys and I present our science fair experiment,
"The Amazing Egg," another good moment in May.
A week after coming back from retreat I got sick. The insidious thing about it was that I was only really bed-ridden, not-able-to-move sick for maybe a day. The rest of the two weeks the darn thing held on I was okay enough to walk around and work, but feeling like I had a giant sack of potatoes on my back. I was tired all the time, always felt nauseous, and never had an appetite. I watched as my clothes got looser as day after day of practically no eating went by and still I wasn't hungry. I finally was able to start taking in earnest the antibiotic I had brought with me in the second week and after about four days I started to feel better. I'll never be quite sure what I had.

The week before I got sick, four new children came to the hogar, a four-year-old boy, two girls aged 8 and 10, and a 10-year-old boy. My main teaching job during the day is working in our transitional classroom, which is theoretically supposed to be just for new kids who come to the hogar, assessing their levels and placing them in appropriate classrooms. The thing is, since our bilingual program can't take new kids after Christmas, kids who might be a fit for one of those classrooms have to stay in transitional. We had gotten three new kids right before Christmas so those three were in my class, plus a fourth with such severe behavioral issues that there was no other place for him. I had had those four boys since starting with the classroom after my vacation in January. It had been tough. Three of the four have learning disabilities, all are at different academic levels, and all have behavior problems. But the four had gelled. I had English goals for them and was working through a science curriculum. In math I worked with just the most advanced two and it was enough because even with two the levels were completely different. Even though behavior was a constant battle, I felt like I had finally begun to get a handle on it and had a system that they at least understood, if they didn't always respect it.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Spring Shower

The heat has been oppressive the last few days. It's like a blanket, as my fellow volunteer Emma described it. A big heavy blanket that clings to your skin, weighs down on you head, makes it hard to breath. You start sweating as early as 7 a.m. and lie in bed at night without sheets to the sound of the fan pushing warm air around. The water in the big bucket in our shower feels warm after a day of sitting in the super heated air.

The only thing that brings relief is the rain. It's rained about four times now since the start of the dry season in late February. The heat and heavy humidity are worst just before the rain. This week the pressure built and built unable to find release. In school I felt sapped of energy and just as cranky as the kids. The fans are too loud to have on during class so we bake under the tin roofs of the classrooms, continually wiping the sweat off our faces.

Finally last night we began to see the tell-tale signs of coming rain. The general haziness of the sky had collected itself into a broad grey sheet. The wind picked up and began to set the papaya tree in front of the comedor waving. The kids stood in their lines in front of the comedor for prayer, but were allowed to run off quickly before eating to move their laundry indoors from the laundry lines. Almost all of the young boys and teenagers broke from their lines, whooping and running towards their dorms, caught in the exuberance of the promise of rain and the break of routine. They ran towards and past me as I watched behind the roof of the comedor the wind pick up a cascade of dry leaves and heave them into the air in front of an ever-darkening, billowing sky.

As we finished dinner, the drops started on the roof. Rain here is always loud, filling the rooms with its echo on the metal roofs. The prayer was scarcely audible over the din. When it was over, the kids poured outside, the teenagers standing coolly watching the rain from under the overhanging roof, the little ones screaming and running out into the water. Before long a soccer game had begun, of course, the littlest ones running around the older ones' feet and darting back again under the cover of the roof.

Two of the teenagers leaned jauntily against one of the dorms as the rain fell, watching the general hilarity in the yard in front of the comedor, the pequeños especially relishing the mud, rolling around on the ground, soaking themselves to the skin. "It's as if they've never seen rain before," one remarked disdainfully to the other.

I sat watching the rain come down, loving the feel of the cool wind and the cold rain that blew onto my face. Little Levin, my Levin, came and sat down beside me. "Let's tell stories," he suggested. So we did. He went first, a story about a group of good lions unjustly killed, but in the end somehow they had all come back to life again. He knows I like happy endings. I told one I recycled from a book I had read in the library. In front and around us, the yelling and playing of the other kids made the air noisy. Nearby on the porch where we were sitting were groups of jovenes, teenagers, laughing and talking. But I felt like it was just the two of us, sitting there, enjoying the coolness of the air, the smell of the rain, the freshness of the water and the rapt attention of each other.

I don't often realize how much moments like these mean to me until later when I can't stop thinking about them. There is such richness to my life here. Part of that richness is the sadness of knowing how soon my time will come to an end. C.S. Lewis defined joy as inseparable from a kind of sadness. Joy is all at once a great happiness mixed with the great sorrow of knowing it cannot be grasped or held in place, that it cannot be totally fulfilled here and now. It has a necessary element of loss and longing.

When I say these moments are full of joy for me, I mean it in that sense. The beautiful moments I sometimes share with the kids - of their vulnerability, of my learning to love them, of mutual trust - fill me with joy, a joy that always implies the sadness of the brokenness of their pasts, of their families, of the country they will grow up in and one day need to survive in on their own; the more selfish sadness of my own impermanence.

But joy is joy. Like rain that falls like tears bringing release and relief.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Apodo Effect

"He's calling me a nickname!" says Victor, his arm fully extended as he points at Joel his classmate. He's looking at me with an intensely hurt expression that's a warning I understand well: "I'm telling the teacher now, but in about a second I'm gonna hit him." I'm glad Victor, a short 12-year-old built of pure muscle, has chosen this more diplomatic option for now, but I know it's basically inevitable that Joel will get hit, go on using nicknames, and go on being called them by Victor (who's just as guilty truth be told).

The word here for nickname is apodo. It's a useful term; kids use it to talk about the nicknames they have here at the hogar or the ones they use for other people. It's also a negative thing, as it was for Victor that day (every day to be honest). "He's calling me a nickname" in this sense of the word really would translate to English as "He's calling me names." But there's a sense of ownership in it, too; he's not just calling me names, he's calling me my name, the one assigned to me, the one that hurts because it's just mine, and it's kind of true.

Nicknames are an incredibly common part of life for the kids here, and for anyone who comes to live here. Everyone, no exceptions, has a nickname, or seven. It's one of the first of the many idiosyncrasies of the kids' lives here an outsider notices. In some cases a nickname has morphed into the person's everyday name. In others, the apodo is a hated kind of insult, but sticks just the same.

Apodos are, very often, hilarious because they are so accurate. I am always impressed when a new nickname emerges (I've been here to see a few) by the kids' perceptiveness, eye for detail, and crushing accuracy. For example there's a 9-year-old here, a short little ball of a boy. He can be sweet, but he's mostly infamous for picking on the other kids and causing trouble. His nickname is Shrek, the character from the Dream Works movie. I would never have had the ingenuity to invent the name, but with his perpetually shaved head and especially the ears that stick out from its sides, there is something unmistakably Shrek-like about him that's hard to forget once you've heard the name and that draws an immediate laugh of recognition. He hates his nickname. The other pequeños, our younger boys, love to get a rise out of him by calling him his apodo. It always works.

As much as the kids might hate them, I can't help but feel like there's also something to them that means belonging. Being given a nickname means you've been taken in as part of the family. One of the first things that happens to a new kid who arrives is the bestowal of a nickname. Give it a few weeks and the boys will find some oddity of appearance or personality and assign it the perfect name. One of the boys I teach arrived to the hogar in December. He was here for less than a month when the kids found it: zombie. Once again, I never would have found such a fitting word for that whatever-it-is about him. But zombie sort of nails it. He loathes the name. "Don't put apodos" is a constant in my school day.