This is a post I wrote several weeks ago. It's a sort of retrospective part 2 to the post "The Prodigal," and I have to warn from the beginning that's it's pretty depressing. I want to take a few steps back and tell a little bit about what it was like to pick up the three new boys from the state-run children's home. The experience has definitely been one of the most impactful of my time here so far, and I know I'll be feeling it's repercussions for a long time. By this time, this is an old story, but it's amazing how vividly and how often my experiences there recur in my memory.
The home is part a network of state-run institutions throughout Honduras. It's meant to be an impermanent home for children who have been removed from their families or picked up from the streets until they can go to more permanent homes like Amigos. Of course, this doesn't always happen and children can end up staying in one of these institutions for much longer. One of the boys we picked up had been there for three years.
Driving up to the home was exactly like driving up to a prison. That's not an exaggeration; it's located right next door to a prison and they share the same high solid concrete wall. At first we actually drove up to the wrong door, a massive solid metal entrance that could open to let a car through. Through a small square window (the Wizard of Oz absurdly comes to mind) a guard told us that this was the prison entrance and directed us to an identical doorway a bit further down the wall.
We drove into the compound toward a large concrete building sitting in a field of dust and pale grass. It was about three-stories high and structured around a courtyard in the center. The prison feel didn't completely go away (especially since with it's stairways to the upper levels and concrete flooring, the courtyard looked a lot like a recreation area you might see in a jail), but the inside was painted with pale greens and purples and yellows which broke up the tedium a bit and reminded me that this was a home for children. As we entered, children stared down at us from the upper levels surrounding the courtyard and called out to us. Here, the children address each other as well as adults as tío and tía so that's what we heard: a chorus of high voices shouting sharply "tía! tía!" for our attention.
The children we were picking up had been told only that day that they were leaving. They weren't ready when we arrived so we went to go visit with some of the other children. One of last year's volunteers (who has since left) was with us and had made several trips to the home. She directed us toward the babies and toddlers room. The room had a wall painted with cartoon characters and a back corner full of toys. In the center were maybe 8 cribs and the wall opposite to the mural was lined with what I can only describe as crib cubbies; they looked like cages. They were painted purple and each had a thin mattress. They were stacked like boxes, two high, and the side facing out into the room had a crib-like barred side that could be pulled up and down to slide the children in and out of their cubby. They were just big enough for maybe a one and a half year-old to lie down.
One of the first things I noticed, after the wall of crib-cages, was the contrast between crying and happy children. Two cute little toddlers were running around, playing with each other, but two younger babies were in their cribs crying. The staff didn't seem to have the energy or the time to pick up these children or comfort them. We pulled a few of the crying babies out of their cribs and bounced them around a bit to try and quiet them. Other babies were sleeping in their cribs or cubbies, seemingly oblivious to the noise around them. One little baby smiled at us and reached for us through the purple bars. There weren't so many children that it was overwhelming, but there wasn't staff to give them attention. A toddler in one of the cubbies had wet the bed. I don't know how long she had been wet, but she stayed sleeping in it for the duration of our visit. At one point she woke up and looked at us with hostility then rolled over in the mess and fell back to sleep.
Another baby was a point of particular concern for us. She was lying behind the crib bars in one of the cubbies and looked from the size of her body like she was maybe 6 months old. She is actually two, and she has a cleft palette that has not been treated. Amigos is looking into getting her a surgery and a possible diagnosis. She looked out with a vacant smile and her arms and legs were like sticks. Something is very wrong, but there are just no resources (or advocates).
One of the main problems here is the lack of resources and the corruption that funnels away the few that exist. However, there's something even bigger here that isn't as easily diagnosed. I think it comes down to a lack of vision. There's nothing in an institution like this - in some ways there can't be - that acknowledges a child's need for love.
The hardest thing for me to see that day doesn't necessarily have to do with Amigos' mission and it's a much bigger problem than I know how to even approach. Adjoining the room for babies and toddlers is the room for the tranquilo, or gentle and manageable, disabled kids. It had maybe eight beds and cribs on each side and each held a child or two with a range of disabilities I could not identify, except for the child in the first crib. I knew from his distinct look that he had Down's Syndrome. He must have been somewhere between 6 and 8 years old. He wore only a diaper, had a shaved head, and his skin and face were covered in visible dirt. There was an eerie fixed smile on his face and a thin rag tied around his ankle and around one of the rungs of the crib. When I walked in he looked at me and reached with his arms. When I reached back, he scratched me with long sharp nails. So I tried to cup his hands in mine and pulled them toward me to kiss them but he twisted in my hands to dig his nails into my palms, all the time with the same expectant smile. When I tried to pull away, the fingers came to my arms again, scratching. So I had to leave him while he still reached out to me from his own cage.
It occurred to me that he has learned that he gets reactions from people by hurting them. He has learned that in human interactions when he causes pain he gets a response, and that may be the only response he has ever gotten from anyone. Of everything I saw that day, it's his face I can't get out of my mind, his smile that stays with me and flashes every once in a while before my eyes, especially when I look at the small place on my hand where he broke the skin. When I go back (and I will), it's him I'll be going to see.
I walked over to a particularly peaceful older boy sitting in a bed in the corner, probably in his teens and dressed again only in a diaper. His skin also was dirty and so were the sheets on his bed. He had a row of small toys and stuffed animals lined up meticulously against the wall. All he wanted to do was hold them in front of me, one by one, touching them repetitively on the head and shoulders. I would give him my upturned palm, which he would take in his hand - so slowly, so gently - and lower the toy gradually into my hand. I did this with him for probably ten minutes before I pulled myself away to briefly see the others in the room and return to the group in the baby's room. With each toy he gently gave me I fought back tears. There are so many lives in that room that could bring light and love into the lives of others and they're being wasted. Jut by visiting, though, this boy briefly touched mine.
And still, of everything at the home, this particular room filled me with the most despair. There is no place for these kids to go, there are no resources. If Amigos becomes solely a home for disabled kids, it loses its mission. And even with Amigos - and this was one of the hardest things to accept that day - there isn't enough room for everyone. Every single child there deserves a place like Amigos and we just can't give it to them.
Just as the institution's terrible physical structure is broken up by colors and painted murals and the corner of toys, the interactions between the staff and the children were marked by spots of light. One of the most touching parts of the day was watching the staff members warmly hug the three boys who were leaving at the door, telling them "cuidense," take care. It's not their fault. There's no one to train them, there's no resources (to say it again), there's no vision for this place. It's the system that's broken, and overwhelmed by the sheer number of kids who need it. (And, I might add, in the U.S. we have a broken system of our own. This is just one I got to see up close. There are a lot of things wrong with this home, and it's easy for me to stand at the outside and point them out. But my initial observations and cultural prejudices may not be just. )
Amigos in all this is a glimmer of light. Each child that gets out of there and comes to Amigos has a chance at not just a future and an education; he has a chance to learn he has value; he has a chance to be loved. Seeing the home made me realize for the first time what a huge need Amigos fills and what an amazing thing it is doing for these kids. The best part of the day was that it began the really special relationship I have with each of the three boys now, all of them with distinct and wonderful personalities. It's amazing how much I find myself caring about them. We're new here at Amigos together, and they're helping me feel like I have a place here, even while they're carving out a place for themselves. All in all, it was an incredible experience to have had so early in my time here. It's taken me to extremes of both sadness and hope, and it's given me three kids to feel special to.