Saturday, September 17, 2011

But what exactly are you doing??

The investigation on the youth of the vicaria is zooming along. This is probably one of the most interesting and meaningful things I’ve ever participated in. It’s also one of the most exhausting. The project is so necessary, but so immense. I wish I could just post my briefings on here so you could learn everything you ever wanted to know about where I live, but it’s all in Spanish. I’ll try to put up a few summaries soon, particularly about the more peculiar aspects of the vicaria, like land regulation in the agricultural district. Okay…maybe that’s only interesting to me.

Here’s a little summary of what I’ve been doing and why you haven’t heard from me in weeks:
To begin with, the zone assigned to us is right in the middle of the poorest and historically neglected region of Cochabamba. In addition, the vicaria where we operate spans two districts, one of them is primarily urban and the most densely populated in the region. The other is the largest and least densely populated, where the majority of the habitants don’t even have access to water or electricity. The two are both extremely troubled areas but about as different as you can imagine. Right now I’m doing a massive literature review and collection of secondary data, but I’m already starting to see themes emerge that we can begin to plan our own studies on. Because the information is so poorly synthesized I’m getting a crash course in land regulation, school administration, urban planning, migration studies, cartography, economics and labor distribution, public health, etc. etc. etc. The information comes as fast as I can retain and process it. At the end of each month I give two presentations and turn in two reports: one to all the social services coordinated through the church (which is the majority of the social services, given that everyone is afraid of Zona Sur. The state hasn’t even established police presence here despite it being almost half the population of the county), and the other to the Comisión Juveníl, a small group dedicated to identifying and responding to the problems of the youth in the zone.

The first was a geographic and demographic study of the two zones, an analysis of their common and contrasting characteristics from the perspective of our social services, and some ideas about how their characteristics both illuminate or hide psychosocial difficulties, For example: district 5 supposedly enjoys a dramatically higher quality of life than most other districts, but indicators of community violence, school enrollment, etc. are pretty grim. Looking carefully at the census data you can see that the majority of the indicators they used for standard of living don’t have anything to do with the actual socioeconomic situation of each family, but rather access to government-regulated resources like water and electricity due to proximity to the city center. The location of the district improves some factors but hides a lot of the actual needs of the community.

The second will be a summary of psychosocial conflicts and identity formation in migrant communities in the periurban zones of the vicaria. Most of the information comes from interviews from neighboring districts. The university had a bunch of interview transcripts that they just gave me. Never underestimate what you can get hold of simply by asking. Using existing research I’m trying to identify which communities are comparable. Can I use an interview about internal migration from Villa Pagador to talk about the experience of young people in Loma Santa Barbara? Yes. To talk about youth in Itocta? No. Because one hit its population boom six years before the other and one community is primarily from Potosí while the other is from Oruro. What a mess. But it’s REALLY helping to identify some of the most urgent concerns in the vicaria and will give us an idea of how and where we want to do our own studies soon.

The summaries and presentations help us to coordinate, extend, and improve services. A lot of the existing works, including all the ones run through the church, don’t communicate and don’t necessarily recognize the needs outside their particular region or specialty. Laying out the data gives everyone a common lens to view the problems in the populations we serve and a common vocabulary to begin problem-solving together.

Finally, when OFPROBOL is searching for a financer for a new project in the zone, they need a briefing on how, empirically, we know there’s a need for the project. I’m preparing one now on why we suspect a high instance of sexual violence despite the very low reporting rate in the zone. We’re hoping to create a second operating base in Zona Sur for CUBE, an organization dedicated to preventing and responding to sexual violence. When they get settled, probably early next year, I’ll be extending one of their previous studies to be able to compare sexual violence and reporting rates amongst teens in the Zona Sur and the wealthier city center.

So that’s the basic outline of what I’m doing this year. As you can see, the year is going to fly by!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Videos 1 and 2

Some noisy sugary fun from awhile back in the hogar

Alicia and I dancing in the hogar for the anniversary party

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Power of Presence

I know that you’re waiting for more of an explanation about my decision to stay, but I’d rather post some old stuff first. Sorry. Kind of.

I remember early in my second year I was teaching some of the older girls to make pancakes and they were telling me stories about past volunteers. One of the oldest girls, who I had recently had some pretty intense talks with, looked at me with her eyes full of some unspoken meaning and said “lots of people have come. You’re the only one who stayed.” It was then that I realized that, yes, my work was becoming more meaningful and more effective, the longer I stayed and the more I learned, but the act of staying in itself was its own message. It was a way of saying to the girls, “I’ve seen you at your best and at your worst, I’ve witnessed the good and the bad. Despite the bad, and because of the good, I want to keep walking with you.”

I taught, I scolded, I celebrated, I danced, I learned, but, more than anything, I was simply here. Here to teach five year olds to tie their shoes, here to light candles when the power was shut off for weeks, here to listen as a girl whispered to me about her nightly flashbacks of being raped by her cousin. Here to hold a nine year old in my arms after she tried to take her own life. Here to teach second graders to turn cartwheels, here to accompany a teenager to court to face her abusive stepfather, here to say to them after they danced in the church for the first time “I’m so proud of you!” and here to tell our little girls “I remember when you were this big.” I’ve done a lot of different things here over the last two years, drawn upon a lot of experiences, and learned a lot of new skills, but I don’t think any task has been as important as the simple act of being here.

It shouldn’t be any surprise, really, that simply being present with someone can be such a profound, though challenging, act of love. God’s greatest act of love was to die for us, but I’d argue we undervalue His showing up on this earth to begin with. We know we are loved by God because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:11 ). Though his miracles and teachings were essential, sometimes when I read the gospel I feel it was his ordinary presence, walking amongst the poor, kneeling beside the sick, eating with the rejected, that shocked and confused and comforted the most. In fact, it was in the ordinary act of sitting down to share a meal with his disciples, not the hours of teaching and interpreting of prophecy beforehand, that Jesus was recognized on the way to Emmaus.

When we come to teach, to plan, to heal, to develop new projects, we are making a statement about the worth of others; they deserve a better life and future. But a lot of our girls, in addition to these things, desperately need to simply know that they are worth the love and attention of others, just as they are. That message isn’t conveyed by all the work we do to shape them, though yes, that is important. It is revealed by simply being here with them. It’s a way of saying, goals and dreams and "development" aside, I´m happy to be with you, just as you are.

Found this under my bed...Holy Week

Holy week in Bolivia is absolutely beautiful! The entire week is packed full of traditions and images and prayers that force everyone to stop and really think about this beautiful time and what it means for our faith. An extra special effort is made to show that, for Bolivian Catholics, Holy Week is the climax of the liturgical year, and the events it celebrates are the core of our faith.
I apologize that this post is a little “dry.” It doesn’t really have much of the imagery it should to truly capture the events of the week. But…if it’s any consolation, there are pictures (uh…soon)!

Every palm Sunday the crowd gathers together a few “blocks” down the road to listen to the gospel reading in which Jesus, amidst the excited crowds that laid olive branches in his path, entered Jerusalem on a donkey. Padre Pepe, both years, took care to explain that entering on a donkey was a symbol of humility and peace (a horse-mounted king would be a symbol of war). Then Padre Pepe climbs on a donkey, and we reenact the same scene, waving our palm branches and shouting praises to our God, who sent us a just and peaceful king in Jesus Christ. It´s a wonderful opportunity to put the imagination to work and consider what it would have been like to witness this event in Jerusalem and to consider how it impacts our lives today. It’s kind of alike a big interactive Ignation exercise.

On Thursday, we celebrated mass, and we of course reenacted Jesus washing the disciples´ feet. Because this is the day we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, mass was followed by a holy hour filled with prayers for world peace.
The next day, Good Friday, we gathered in the church at 5 am to carry the big crucifix through the town to pray the Stations of the Cross. As the sun slowly rose, we stopped at houses throughout the area where the owners prepared little altars. After praying one of the stations, we pray for whoever lives there. Padre blesses their home, and we continue, singing, down the road. The whole thing lasts something like three hours, but it’s definitely one of my favorite events of the year. There’s something really special about the parish gathering together to bring the reality of Christ’s passion outside the walls of the church and in to the community. Although it’s typical to fast on Good Friday in the US, in Bolivia there’s a tradition of feasting. There are twelve different foods, including fish, arroz con leche, and bizcochos that the people eat while traveling to different churches. Sometimes they just set up a makeshift barbecue outside the church and have a cook out. The funny thing is, I can’t seem to find anyone to explain exactly why they do it. They usually mumble something about the twelve apostles, then shrug and say “it’s just what we do.”

Saturday night, Easter vigil, is the height of the celebration. The mass is what you would expect in a US church; everyone gathering outside to light their candles, the blessing of the Holy Water, etc. The three newest girls in the hogar were baptized that night and looked absolutely adorable in their matching white dresses. After mass, most of the catechesis classes and the girls from the hogar perform dances in celebration of Jesus’ triumph over death.

This year, I helped the girls put together a particularly special dance. I wanted to get the older girls thinking about their role in the hogar and also to get them thinking about what Easter really means to them. The first half of the dance only featured the older girls. When we were putting the dance together I asked them what words and phrases expressed what Easter meant to them. They came up with words like joy, togetherness, no fear, etc. Then I asked them to come up with a movement that expressed that feeling or idea. They demonstrated things like jumping, bowing, holding hands and moving in a circle, etc. After they all had a chance to share, I helped them arrange their chosen movements in to a finished piece of choreography. The portion they created ended with them kneeling on the ground, at which point the little girls entered carrying baskets of flowers. The little girls had some simple choreography, mostly just simple “follow the leader” style movement, which ended with the little girls kneeling in a circle and the older girls dancing their “togetherness” movement around them. Then each girl knelt with one of the little girls on their knees in front of her. From behind, the older girls guided the little girls’ hands in a series of movements that echoed the first piece of choreography the teens had created. They guided them to bow, to reach, to yada and todah and all those other wonderful things I learned from Judy Mandeville’s sacred movement class. Finally, the older girls helped the little ones to their feet, and lead them to throw petals from their basket towards the adorned cross by the altar as they exited.

I was so proud of the girls. What they danced was truly their creation and a genuine offering to the Lord. The little girls looked so small and innocent and the older girls looked like guardian angels teaching and guiding them in prayer. The church was so uncharacteristically quiet and I felt like the girls were truly communicating something about this most holy day.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Your attention, please!

Life keeps flying by. I keep thinking of wonderful topics (community visits in Santa Cruz, my trip to the US, the continuing adventures in the hogar, Holy Week, dance competitions, birthdays and mothers day, and on and on and on) to write about and finally get serious about my goal to share more of my experience here with you all. I really will recommit to the task soon. For now, however, I'm skipping over these subjects, no matter their importance or how long they've been waiting in the background, to make an important announcement.

In my last post, I wrote about being comfortably directionless, ready to do more, but in no hurry to leave. I was immersed in discerning the best place for me next year, and God has generously dropped a beautiful opportunity right in to my lap! My current director put me in touch with another Salesian office of project development. They coordinate the funding and development of projects like technical schools, food banks, day care centers, etc. initiated by Salesian groups. We had a long talk about everything they were willing to teach me about project development, and all the ways I could use my research and statistics skills to support their work. They asked if I would be willing to work with a priest to evaluate a series of projects, beginning with a technical school, that he's been building to support families, children, and young adults living in rural poverty throughout his diocese. It's basically a "create your own position" job that will allow me to use everything I know to the extent I'm willing, and give me opportunities to learn plenty more besides. And it's all for the service of others within a faith-based organization. Does it get better?

Here's the carefully avoided punch-line: It's here. The priest, unbeknownst to the folks at OFPROBOL when we first spoke, is my own parish priest, Padre Pepe, who is often considered the father of our hogar. I'll be living in the hogar for a third year, enjoying the relationships that have grown and deepend over the last two years, taking care of our littlest ones in the morning, then heading out with Padre Pepe to spend the bulk of the day immersed in this new exciting position.

I'm sorry to everyone who got an extremely vague response when they asked at any point over the last month "when are you coming home?" I was waiting to work out the details with my director and the sisters, discerning my final decision, and breaking the news to my immediate family first.

I still have a lot more to say about other factors that influenced this decision, how much I miss you all, and a few more thoughts about the transition from year two to year three, not to mention all the things I haven't shared over the last few months. For now, however, I'm just happy to share this exciting news with you all.

I love and miss you all. I couldn't be here without you.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

What now?

When I was finishing my BA at Whitworth, I was pretty much a grad school fiend. I read APA journals for fun. I had “brain crushes” on developmental psychology researchers. I was ahead of schedule according to the multiple drafts of my color coded “four year (turned three year) plan” for graduation. I was so excited to start working towards a clinical psych PhD and couldn’t think of anything else I could possibly be happy doing after graduation. Beginning my senior year I could only imagine myself doing one of two things after graduation: starting grad school…or sulking all year long over rejection letters until starting grad school the next year.

Eventually, however, I started to wonder if there might be something a little unhealthy about that mentality. Of course, it’s important to have goals and it’s good to be determined about them, but I worried that I was getting too obsessed with moving forward forward forward. I think I was more shocked than anyone when I decided to join Salesian Lay Missioners instead of moving on to grad school that year. I couldn’t explain why I made that decision; I just knew I was called to it.

I remember a friend asking me what I thought would be most difficult about my year abroad. I said that all my life (as typical of…well…just about everyone my age) I had been preparing for the next step, pushing towards the finish line, striving for the goal. But I knew that in Bolivia, there was no finish line, no ultimate goal, no “next step.” Past volunteers had talked about the importance of being present, of simply sharing life with the girls in the orphanage one day at a time. I didn’t know how to do that. I just knew how to race onward. But now there was nothing on the horizon to run towards. Just the long, unconquerable year stretching out ahead of me. I left knowing that God had something meaningful in store for me, but I truly doubted I would be completely content until I was in grad school where I belonged.

Well, guess what, folks. Two years later I have received my fifth and final “thank you, but…” letter from clinical/community PhD programs..and l am the most content I have ever been. All five programs only accepted between 2 and 4 percent of their applicants, so my feelings aren’t too hurt. More importantly, however, is the fact that I really did learn to “just be.” Yes, psychology, especially research, is still my vocation. Yes, I want to be in school still. Yes, grad school is essential to prepare me for the work I feel called to. But the person I am today looks at the degree-hungry girl of two years ago and pities her a bit. I want to tell her she’s more than her resume. I want to warn her that at this rate she’s going to spend her whole life preparing to “do” and never actually “doing.” I want to tell her that she is capable of meaningful things without a string of letters after her name. I want to tell her that everything happens in its proper time, and that what looks to her like a tidy path forward is actually a graceless trampling of the experiences and people she’s ignoring on the way towards her unknown future. I can’t tell her these things, but it looks like she figured them out eventually anyway.

I’m happy to announce, friends, that I did it. Or, rather, God did it to me. Though I still happily anticipate the career path of tomorrow, I have finally discovered the beauty of today. I explained to a friend recently that I honestly have nothing to worry about. The most beautiful thing someone can do with their life is wake up in love with God and eager to serve the people around them. My plan for now is to do exactly that every day. Then, when it’s time, I’ll do it someplace else. Maybe in Oregon, maybe in Hawaii with my sis, maybe in Chicago or Alaska or Rwanda or Bolivia or Antarctica. I don’t really know. If you have some ideas, send them my way. But above all don’t be worried, because, to my own surprise, I’m certainly not.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Can I Have a Redo?

The sisters gave me an impossible task on Holy Thursday. I had less than an hour to get all 45 girls (hyper-active kindergartners and capricious teenagers alike) to eat dinner, clean the kitchen, change in to their Sunday best, and arrive smiling in the pews for mass. Oh yeah…and I was completely on my own. As I ran around the hogar screaming over my shoulder for kids to get back in the dining room, huffing and puffing at little girls for constantly losing their socks, and shooting teens annoyed looks for “going to church dressed like THAT” I suddenly could see so clearly how far I was from the volunteer I wanted to be.

Where was the unshakable calm from my teaching time last year? Where were the playful comments that used to be enough for most of the girls to get the hint? Where were the private, compassionate corrections so characteristic of the Salesian way? Where was the girl who insisted that all discipline should strengthen a child’s skills and relationships, not merely scare her in to behaving? That girl was nowhere to be found. Instead, this crazy, red-faced educadora was running around screaming across the hogar, dragging kids by the hand here and there and demanding to know why nobody was chewing fast enough. This is not who I want to be. I was so ashamed and so angry to realize that I see this stranger more and more often as the year progresses.

I think part of my struggle is feeling like there’s too much work, too many girls, too little time, too little consistency to discipline and correct the way I want to. I feel like my primary role now is to meet practical needs, to get the kids organized, and discipline. That doesn’t leave much time to give the kids the attention they deserve when they truly behave, or the supervision that would stop a lot of issues before they started. I’ll be completely frank. I don’t really like my new role as much as I loved teaching and working one on one with our higher-needs girls. There are a lot of things I love about my work still, but there is little opportunity to give the kids a more holistic upbringing when their needs are constantly competing for my time. I hate seeing who I become when the stress overwhelms me, and I especially cringe when I think of the effect it may have on the girls.

I realized last night during mass that a HUGE contributor is the change in my prayer life. I used to spend almost an hour and a half every morning in prayer with the sisters before I even saw the girls. I would end each night with a focused Ignatian examen to look critically at my day through God’s eyes. I was growing. I was grounded. I was filled and ready to overflow on to these little girls. This routine slowly dwindled as I started working as an educadora, until I was praying a distracted and regularly interrupted liturgy of the hours in the morning and chopping my examen down to “thanks for this day. I probably screwed up. Remind me to think about that later. Sorry for whatever. G’night” as I crashed in to bed.
Spending an hour in prayer before the blessed sacrament last night after mass helped me really put things in perspective and see how I could start over again. It was incredible how much of a difference even just that one isolated hour made in my attitude towards these girls the rest of the night and all through the next day. It was also refreshing to see how much more effective my old means of correction and discipline truly were. Even though I know that returning to a more active prayer life will bring me back towards the volunteer I was six months ago, I think I may just desperately need a vacation.

Fortunately, I’ll be leaving Wednesday to spend a few days with some fellow volunteers in Santa Cruz, and then flying out Friday to be with my sis and her family for a week (and my parents for a few days too!). Hopefully it will give me the boost I need to finish this second year with as much joy and love as I started it with.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A few weeks ago, all of the SLMs in Bolivia came to Cochabmba to spend three days in retreat together. It was wonderful! The sisters were fabulously hospitable and gave us an entire building to ourselves. It was so wonderful to be together, and it really amazed me how instantly I felt part of the group, even though almost all the volunteers are from the “orientation class of 2010”- my site-partner Mary Pat´s group. Dedicating your life, at least temporarily, to living in the same country, serving the same population, and being guided by the same Salesian philosophy sure gives you a solid common ground.

Our last day together, we went to mass at the Cathedral. Cochabamba is full of suffering and poor people. Many people, men, women, children, people with obvious illness and disability, crowd the streets, and especially the doors of the churches, asking for help. To give or not to give? That is the question. Well, not really. Everybody has a different philosophy regarding the question, each equally valid, and I’m not going to make a statement about it in this space today.

As we made our way out of the Cathedral, I was separated from my group. In a stream of church-goers, both Cochabambinos and tourists (and the poorly-categorized “others” like ourselves), I shuffled slowly through the crowded doors. Flanking the exiting crowd were dozens of tired and hungry people with outstretched hands. Sometimes they grab hold of you as you walk past, or barefooted children leap in your path, pleading for just one “pesito.” As we passed through the noisy, jostling doorways, I felt someone, apart from the steadily bumping and pushing group, nudging me from behind. A woman’s voice, anxious and urgent sounding, pleaded “Move!! Keep going!” in American English. I turned around, leaning sideways to show her the children in front of me, offering a silent and simple explanation for my delay. She looked genuinely panicked. Her purse was clutched to her chest, her face was tense, and her eyes darted across the dirty hands and faces hoping to capture her attention. I was clearly impeding her escape from the people who called to us, touched us, reached out to us.

Shamefully, I remember occasions in my own life in which I have reacted the same way to the needs of others. Fear and disgust are such deep and primitive emotions that they cannot simply be willed away. And maybe that’s a good thing. I don’t mean to imply that we should all hope to react as my foreign acquaintance. Rather, I want to say that these negative emotions need to be redirected, not dissipated. I had no desire to tell that woman to relax, to calm down, that there was no reason to be upset. I did not pray at that moment for God to fill her with soothing indifference, because I did not want for her to become like the millions of proudly hardened middle and upper class who step over the homeless in the street and shoo away the children selling gum and cigarettes on the sidewalks.

Allowing those feelings to rule us is the path to dehumanization and vilification of the poor. Suppressing them is the path to complacency. But redirecting them is the path to justice and change.

Be disgusted with poverty and injustice, but do not be disgusted with the poor

Be angry at the systems and norms that bear down upon the weak and exploited, but do not be angry at their hands reaching up to you.

Fear the selfishness within us that leads us to abandon our brothers, but do not fear the abandoned.

Fittingly enough, the next day’s gospel reading was a synopsis of what Jesus was facing during his ministry. There are a lot of similar passages throughout the four gospels that I think are a little richer in imagery, but this is the one that came up so this is the one we’ll look at.

“After making the crossing, they came to land at Gennesaret and tied up there. As they were leaving the boat, people immediately recognized him. They scurried about the surrounding country and began to bring in the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. Whatever villages or towns or countryside he entered, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak; and as many as touched it were healed.” Mark 6: 53-56

Every setting in the gospels presents a similar scene. The sick and poor are collectively one of the most important figures of scripture. If you don’t believe me, set aside an evening to read through any one of the gospels in its entirety and take note of how often Jesus is interacting with, comforting, or advocating for the “underdogs.” I don’t know how we got it in our heads that social justice is an optional side-thought in our walk with Christ, when it was in many ways the center of Jesus’ life on earth.

I am unoriginal, so I’m just going to copy out of my own journal my prayer in response (I have a frustratingly short attention span and find I often have to journal my prayers because I just can’t keep focused most of the time in normal reflection. It’s tedious but so worth it).

“Today’s gospel shows the sick flocking to Jesus and his disciples in massive numbers. I imagine them coming in great droves, a constant stream of suffering and grieving people, jostling and pressing in on Jesus and his disciples, grabbing and reaching and crying out, and oh, how their hearts are broken. It had to have seemed like too much! Everyone pressing in, pleading for relief, a look of compassion, a word of mercy, a brush with his cloak at the very least. Oh, Lord, thank you for giving me this image to think about. No matter how overwhelming the need gets, you do not turn away, and I pray that neither will I! Even a brush with your cloak, the passing of your shadow, is enough. Fill us, oh God, so that we, as your body, like the hem of your clothing, can be enough to offer your peace.

Also, God, I wonder if any of your disciples felt like that woman at the Cathedral yesterday yelling ‘Keep going! Move!’ ‘Come on, Jesus! Can we please just get out of here!’ Probably. Forgive us for the times we do the same.”

sleeping is...awesome!

After a few days of valiant fighting, I have finally succumbed to “el gripe.” Really, that just means I have a cold, but “gripe” sounds so much more dramatic, don’t you think? My wise and generous community has banished me to bed for TWO WHOLE DAYS. I thought a better solution would be to work it off. My plan was to take a fifteen minute snooze, then be back at it as good as new. Five hours later I woke up to MP bringing me lunch and I realized the sisters were probably right. Now that I’ve started sleeping, I can’t stop, it’s too glorious! My room is small and dark, my bed has a big dent in the mattress, giving it a lovely nest shape, and I have almost-but-not-quite too many blankets. The girls have no homework and the sisters aren’t teaching due to the transportation strike, so I’m not even shirking responsibilities. The girls can’t come bang on my door because they can’t even get in to the dorm where my room is. It’s like crawling back in to the womb for a few days, only better because I can leave Coldplay’s Parachutes on repeat all day long.

And now, randomly…some fun quotes!

Yesterday afternoon, Melody (5) and I were both sniffing and coughing and one of the girls sighed “oh how sweet, mother and daughter sick together”
“Melody, did I get you sick?” I teased
“Well then who got us sick?”
Throwing her arms up and grinning proudly she shouted “Meeeee!”

Our youngest girls have an older girl who washes their clothes as part of her chores, but each one is at least responsible for her own socks and underwear. The other day I was taking our kindergartners out back to help them wash and Melody was swinging her tights around. As her wad of dirty clothes passed her own face she yelped, shook her head, and thrust her fist of laundry as far as she could away from her nose. Watching her blink in mute astonishment at the smell of her own dirty feet, I almost fell over laughing.
“Uh oh. Does that smell bad?”
“ahuh!” she nodded, eyes still wide.
“what does it smell like?”
“It smells like me!”

“You have to whip the tree in the springtime, otherwise it won’t bear fruit. That’s why, when I was in formation, the superior smacked each one of us after we finished whipping the avocado trees one day. So we would be fruitful.” –Hna. Aida

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Sleeping downstairs with the girls now means that every so often I wake up to hear sniffling coming from somewhere in the darkness of the dormitory. I can feel how long I’ve been in the hogar because I can usually recognize the girls just by the sound of their crying. Last night the youngest in the dorm, Melody (4), was sniffling from the corner of the room. When I laid my hand on her cheek and asked “are you crying, little Melody?” she threw her arms out and buried her face against me.

Rocking her back to sleep, murmuring and humming to her as her tears dry and her breathing slows to the steady, rhythmic sighing we adults often lay awake craving, is one of the simplest but most important parts of my day. My dorm is full of girls who were beaten, abused, abandoned, rejected or forgotten. Tiptoeing past their beds at night, or stopping them in the hall to ask about their drooping expression, or settling down beside them in silence when I find them hidden, staring glumly at the ground in the garden, is a way of reminding them that, despite whatever they were taught by their families, the world does see and care and sometiems even respond when they are hurting.

I feel so powerless and overwhelmed by the world sometimes. I want to change the circumstances these and so many other children are growing up in. I want not only to offer these girls everything they need to succeed and find peace in this world, but also to change the very systems that make their pain a possibility in the first place. So often I feel weak in the face of poverty, exploitation, violence, and human selfishness. I love my work but still sigh at night, longing to do more about this broken world we live in. Rocking Melody back to sleep, feeling her fingers, which she had wrapped around a fistful of my own pajamas, slowly relaxing and uncurling, I was struck by the knowledge that in this moment I was changing the world she lived in. She awoke in the night to a world that seemed lonely and frightening. Now, nestled in someone’s arms, her surroundings were changed to seem safe, warm, loving. Even if I didn’t change the world, for a few precious minutes, I changed hers, and for a moment I feel satisfied.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Revolution Jazz Meets Hogar Maria Auxiliadora.

The Jazz Academy where I dance had it's summer recital during the four nights leading up to Christmas Eve. It was a blast! I never imagined I would be dancing in a beautiful old theater (dancing on a wooden raked stage was an adventure) in downtown Cochabamba. The best part, though, was Christmas Eve. A few weeks ago I talked with a few of my friends to see how they would feel about dancing in the hogar. The girls knew we were performing in the city, but they also knew we wouldn't be able to bring them all to the city to see the show. The dancers I talked to were on board, so Luis, our director, agreed to bring the Cuerpo de Baile to the hogar.

Neither the girls nor the sisters had ever seen anything like jazz dance or a dance recital. They kept asking me things like "are you going to dance Christmas carols?" and "are you all going to dress the same?" and "can you teach us all the dances tomorrow morning?" Knowing most of them would never get a chance to see something like this, I was a little bummed when Luis announced the line-up. Fame and Africa. That's it? Only two dances? It was better than nothing, but I went to bed after our last show praying that God would move his heart and help the group to see what a beautiful gift their presence would be for the girls.

The next morning, when I showed up at the terminal to bring the group to the hogar, there were already a handful of guys from the Street group waiting.Luis had recruited them late the night before to come perform for the girls as well! When Luis and his sister and co-director Patricia arrived, my duo partner Alicia had made sure they had everything we needed to dance our own piece as well. Overnight our show had doubled in size and length. Before half of us climbed in to a trufi, I told them how excited the girls were, that they sprang out of bed when I reminded them we were coming to dance today and were scrubbing every last corner of the hogar at that moment. I think that image stuck with them, because when the last of the dancers arrived ten minutes behind us in Luis’s car, another duo was ready to perform as well. As the girls peeked timidly around corners giggling and blushing and running to line up their chairs Patricia walked in to the dressing room and announced “girls! Someone go tell Luis we have to dance Salsa for them too! I think they’ll love it!” Wow, God had answered my prayers. He had inspired the group to offer their talents to these girls as an unforgettable Christmas gift!

And their generosity was not unrewarded. The girls were a dream audience. Every leap and extension and pirouette was ooohed and ahhhed and applauded enthusiastically. By the end of the show the girls were essentially star-struck and are still talking about the dancers by name. They remember what they wore, what they said, who they talked to, which dances they were in, etc. The experience has really stuck with the dancers too. They snapped pictures with the girls, put them on Facebook, and left comments over the next few days like:
“This energy, this group, and the happiness on the children’s faces was the best Chrstimas present. Everyone put in their part to make this poassible. What a beautiful memory! Congrats to everyone!!”
“everyone put in their own Little grain of sand to make these girls from the hogar so happy and give them a great Chrstimas gift. I feel so proud and so happy. Merry Christmas, everyone!”
“Super! Really, we have to do it again, and we don’t have to wait until Christmas or some special occasion things like this.”
All of these comments were written by teenagers and 20-somethings, most of whom live miles away from poor rural towns like Itocta and a few of whom showed up that morning hungover and apathatic.

Not only did the girls have an unforgettable experience, but I think the dancers became more aware of the tremendous gift that their talents can be to others.

From Cosechando Talentos / Hogar Maria Auxiliadora y Revolution Jazz Dance
Due to some changes in funding and laws, we've had a pretty dramatic change in staffing. One of the educadoras has left, one is on vacation and might return as a day employee only, our administrative assistant will help us out now only on weekends as a volunteer, and our cook will hopefully be back in a few weeks. For now, we're holding down the fort with 47ish girls, two sisters, and two volunteers. Yikes.

A few weeks ago I moved in to one of the two dorms and took on a few extra duties outside of teaching and tutoring during the day.I'm now the only one in the hogar from 6am until about 8:30 am. Every day, after seeing all the girls up, dressed, fed, and ready to go, I feel like supermom! Fortunately, the older girls help out a lot with the littlest ones. After prayer, I'm also the only one in the hogar for an hour so during dinner time until the sisters arrive again. I thought it would be really overwhelming to be here alone with all 47 of them on a regular basis, but I've gotten used to it pretty quickly. Although I'm working more hours, it's nice to take advantage of this time to catch up with some of the older girls, since most of the school support I do is with the elementary schoolers.

The lazy days of summer are really taking hold of the girls. I thought a full-on riot was taking shape the other day when I forced them to play for an hour after dinner before watching TV. "But Amber!! You're so evil!!! We don't even know what to do!" Exactly...that's how I know you've been watching too much TV. Getting all four dozen of them out back and introducing them to tunnel tag and duck duck goose seemed to break the spell of that bewitching glowing box for a few blessed minutes. They transformed from droopy-eyed zombies back in to little girls who laughed and played and cared about something besides Korean pop-stars. It was worth the many dozen times I was called "mala" and the comical threats to call the sisters and report the terrible abuse I was inflicting upon them by depriving them of their precious "tele."
Quote of that day, "You guys, if Amber keeps serving dinner, she might make us play EVERY DAY!" Sorry, girls, I'll be dragging your butts out to the soccer field every chance I get as long as I'm in charge at night. Which, considering our budget, is going to be quite awhile. Bwahahahaa!

We also have two new little ones (6 and 4) in the hogar and in my dorm. They're pretty cute, but they're still getting adjusted. It takes awhile for the girls to adjust to the norms of the hogar. Some of those lessons stretch our patience, and some our compassion ("you can come out from under your bed now. I'm going to scold you, not hit you"). Here we are with the other youngest girl in the hogar:
From Paseo December 2010