What is volunteerism? Could you give a definition of the term, and show the children some examples of what it looks like?
Makenzie, Erica and Taylor stared at me wide-eyed, and Justin was silent. We were sitting in the director's office of one of the YMCA affiliated children's home in Mexico City for rescued children, where these and other university students had come to spend their spring break doing community service. I came as a translator for the group, and at that moment shortly after arriving we had just found out that our task for the afternoon was to speak to the different groups of children and teenagers--aged six through seventeen--about what it meant to do volunteer work. The students would have to split up and each one would present to a different age group. The catch? Each presentation would have to be in Spanish, which these students had a limited command of. So, what do you think? Are you up for this? Do you want to do it? The director kept beaming and asking over and over in Spanish, which I relunctantly translated. Of course they didn't want to do it; how could they do it? And it was obvious from their expressions that they felt the same way.
The children that the students would be presenting for were niños de la calle--street children. They told us their stories: parents that were drug addicts, that abused them. Impoverished families, some of whom had emigrated from Central America or other states in Mexico on their way north--to try to find a better life, or more realistically, just some kind of work--anything to put a meal on the table but didn't get that far. People who had nowhere to go, no one to offer assistance, and nothing left to their children. Desperate people. The children suffered, and the fortunate ones were eventually brought to this place, this casa hogar, which served as a safe haven for their bodies and souls--literally. They lived in the boarding house throughout the week, were served meals, performed chores. They were transported back and forth from school and taken care of from morning to night. They said prayers before their meals and were given a chance to discover what it meant to be loved.
Just be real. Just be yourselves with the children--that's all they're looking for was the advice given to us by a staff member as we were briefed about what kinds of circumstances brought them to this place.
One boy's situation had been so cruel that he was missing most of his left arm--because as a small child his mother had yelled at him to not touch this, to not get into that, and at her breaking point took out a knife and cut it off. Yet this now-seventeen year old even joked about it with Justin as they played a team-building game which involed holding hands: "I can't give you my hand--it's the only one I have!" Yet it's an uphill battle, according to the staff. They say that the children receive healing for their souls during the week only to go back to their families on the weekend, which presents all kinds of problems. But they are still their families and the children's home refuses to cut them off from them altogether.
So we went into an empty classroom and the four students got started on their presentations. They made posters with illustrations of soup kitchens and people planting trees and picking up garbage to clean up the community, and wrote out scripts of what to say in Spanish. They told me what they wanted to say in English, I dictated it back to them in Spanish, and they wrote it down. Then they practiced reading through it in Spanish. We joked around that their high school Spanish was coming in handy, and I was really proud of their work. They had taken on the challenge--and were rising to the occasion. Makenzie went into the classroom with the youngest children, the six to nine year-old bunch and read to the children about community service and her personal experiences in Ireland. It was phenomenal. After the presentation, I had to keep the children's attention and we sang songs and laughed as the children practiced their new English words. I had never imagined I'd be teaching the children--I had visualized myself as the silent observer, stepping in only if translation were necessary. When we had finished I felt that Makenzie and I both had personally made great achievements as we had had to improvise and meet the challenge.
We bonded with the children as we ate lunch with them, helped them with their chores and hung out during their weekly music class (which involved lots of choreography and solos by the especially talented ones!) and we laughed, held hands and just spent time together. I mused about how easy it was to be "real" with them as we were advised, even though hours before I'd been slightly terrified to even meet them. Then came the closing remarks. The director asked each of the four students and myself to make comments about our experiences with the children. The remarks were emotional and it was obvious that we had been impacted. Taylor said she didn't want to leave. Then the children stood up, one by one, and spoke of what they enjoyed of our visit. Even some of the teenagers were obviously touched and thanked us for coming, and then we were presented with gifts--a stuffed animal for each of us. One of them looked a little tattered, obviously well-used. Wasn't that the bear I saw on one of the child's beds? one of us speculated. Even considering what little they had, they gave it freely. But most freely, they gave us their hearts.
We were attacked by embraces, and literally pushed back by their force. I looked down to see one little girl crying, with her arms attached around my legs. She wouldn't let go. I knelt down and kissed her head. In that moment I finally realized the truth that when you become a mother you have the responsibility to mother other children. The affection I felt in that moment came directly from a mother's heart. I looked in her eyes and said that everything would be okay. I held her close. I know that I was only there for a moment, but I hope in that moment she realized that she is not alone. I pray that she will be well-cared for and grow up to be a confident young woman, capable of achieving her own dreams and more important, capable of sharing love from her once-shattered heart.
The students from the group and this "translator" herself left the children's home completely transformed that afternoon. What had been presented to us as an impossible task turned out to be not only possible, but transcendental. Because irony of irony, the assignment was to teach the children what community service was all about, yet the message was taught to us by the children of the street who reminded us that life isn't just about circumstances. It's what you do with those circumstances to persevere and become something more than you ever dreamed you could. Meet your challenges with grace and always be yourself.
I am humbled by the lesson.