The group of girls who held on tight to me had lost their parents, had experienced horrific things no child should ever have to go through, but from their faces which showed half a smile/half a look of terror, you would never know it. Tonight was Halloween and tonight they were just being kids. Moments like these made volunteering at a Mexican orphanage worth the periodic power outages, the scorpions that were daily visitors at the volunteer house where I lived, and the more than occasional upset stomach allegedly brought on by the infamous Aztec warrior Montezuma. My position at the orphanage didn’t involve me directly working with the pequenos (Spanish for little ones, how the children were referred) like some of the other volunteers did. I was the on-site journalist, which entailed writing and reporting what was going on at the home, whether it was for a child who was newly arrived or a special event taking place.
Most of the pequenos seemed to be carefree children, but I knew that beneath the surface, many still bore the emotional scars they had received prior to arriving at the home. I learned about the pequenos who had never assimilated into the home’s community, who unfortunately remained “lost.” They were the ones who turned to drugs at a young age and who often gave up on their education. It’s easy to pass judgement on them, throwing away the chance at a new life, but who can really blame them after all they’ve been through? Especially if you’ve never come close to walking in their shoes? When putting together the home’s annual report, I had the task of meeting with each of the department heads. My session with the social work was by far the most sobering. She regaled me with some of the most upsetting stories I had ever heard concerning various children over the years and their fraught lives prior to coming to the home. However, what was even more upsetting was hearing that for as many children authorities were able to place in the home, many more still live in nightmarish conditions. One hears about the failings and shortcomings of social services in the United States, how they fail at their task of protecting children, and making sure children remain children. Yet in a developing country, conditions and agencies are much worse off, lacking funds, resources, and support. When volunteering with children who have so little, the best thing, the most sustaining thing you can give them is simply showering them with love and support.
The best part about volunteering was becoming part of the family at the orphanage. One doesn’t have the same sense of connecting with a country and its culture when just playing the role of tourist. As a tourist, you’re essentially just passing through; the people and experiences you have and encounter become nothing more than distant memories upon your return home. Coming from a country in which death death is meant to be a solemn affair, it was beautiful and moving to witness the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) celebrations, a Mexican holiday where family and friends get together to pray and remember those who died. A tradition of the holiday is the construction and alters and placing sugar skulls and marigolds atop them, as well as the favorite foods and beverages of the departed which are considered gifts. The older pequenos never really talked about their loved ones too much, but on that day, seeing photographs of their deceased moms and dads and grandparents, along with bottles of tequila and bags of chips, you know that they were always in their hearts. I know there are tours to Mexican cities known for their Day of the Dead celebrations, and yet viewing strangers remembering their loved ones is not the same as viewing someone you’ve gotten to know recount fond memories of past times with their mama or abuela (grandmother).
Pride was often a feeling I often had watching the pequenos whether it was the boys at the taekwondo belt exams practicing their high kicks and jumps or the girls enjoying their quincenera, a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday. I felt my job was equally as important as those who provided direct childcare to the pequenos, since I was the one reporting to the orphanage’s global community what was going and which child had just marked a special occasion. It was my job to share photos of the quincenera girls in their dress finery and the taekwondo students proudly sporting their medals after the belt exam. I feel that people who go into a volunteer experience thinking they are personally going to change the world are naive. Volunteering isn’t about being a miracle worker or thinking what a difference you are going to make, it’s about helping and contributing where you can. There are no short-term fixes in volunteering. Although it can be frustrating and discouraging, positive change takes time to happen. Especially when volunteering with children, it’s about being there for them, being the moms and dads, big brother and sister, grandparents, aunt and uncle to them that they no longer have.
When I first arrived at the home, it was the children who made me feel welcome, who helped in dispelling the feelings of homesickness I was experiencing. I was a complete stranger to them, only being introduced as Julia, one of the new volunteers, and yet they gravitated to me like I was some famous celebrity (the younger children at least). They didn’t care that my Spanish wasn’t perfect or that sometimes I couldn’t follow their constant chatter. They just liked that I would play and hang out with them, that they could style my hair, and tell me stories. For the children who had been abandoned by their families, I think the volunteers really made a difference in the sense that here were individuals leaving behind their own family and friends and material comforts to be here with them.
Whether it’s for a month or year, being a volunteer in a foreign country is not an easy job. There are times of frustration, times in which cultural gaps may feel like a brick wall has gone up around you. And yet the experience is unforgettable and something you will never regret doing. Anyone can say they’ve traveled to somewhere, but not everyone can say they’ve volunteered somewhere or helped in contributing to make an overall difference. Four years have passed since I spent nearly half a year volunteering at the orphanage, but there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think of one of the pequenos and their incredible stories. There are all kinds of volunteering, but I think experiences that involve working with children are the most enriching ones.