I strongly considered never going to an orphanage of any kind, much less one in a third world country. I hate seeing children in pain. I hate not being able to substantially change that pain. I feel like the whole endeavor is pointless in the long term, and knowing the big picture of why many people go to these orphanages, which is a sickening mixture of holding some position of superiority over the children and being able to pat themselves on the back while telling their friends in the States about how charitable they’re being to these destitute, hopeless kids, turned me off on the idea even further. The thought of experiencing that process in person made my stomach turn. I can’t be one of those fucking people. And really, how do I even avoid looking like one of those people?
Some of these local Honduran community leaders have to absolutely despise us. I know I would if I was in their position. They’re doing their very best to survive on a day to day basis, and here come these rich Americans once per month, flaunting their expensive clothes and jewelry, ready to throw their spare change from their pockets and act like they waved a magic wand that solved all their problems. Yet, times are so rough that every bit truly does help their cause. The amount of pride they have to swallow to accept money and donations from some of us has to be staggering. It has to be.
After changing my mind multiple times on whether I’d attend the orphanage, I decided to at least give it a try the evening before the group was set to leave. If I ended up hating the entire experience, I could still give from a safe distance in the future, something that would serve the purpose of helping the children while not developing an anti-American sentiment (that type of thing is frowned upon while serving in the military, I guess).
That morning, I was careful to dress as humbly as possible. I took off my wedding ring, wore a dingy white tee with basketball shorts, and slipped on the worst set of sneakers I owned. A couple of other concerns ran through my mind, the most pressing of which was the inevitable language barrier. How can I possibly connect with these kids if I can talk to or understand them? My Spanish was elementary at best, and resorting to Google translate after every sentence doesn’t exactly make for an organic experience.
I didn’t know a single person. The orphanage that we were attending was sponsored by the Army, and I was the only Air Force guy among the 20+ people who ambled onto the bus that morning. The “who is the new guy” stares that I felt as I signed my name on the accountability sheet only amplified the feeling that I was in foreign territory. The Air Force and Army have an interesting dynamic with each other. Their overall relationship stops short of animosity, since we do work together on occasion, but we make our share of jokes about the other branch. They very much do the same. A friendly rivalry, I suppose. I thought about creating small talk with a couple of them while waiting, but instead opted to drown myself in my iTunes playlist. Our Chaplin said a few words that I didn’t hear due to the music blasting through my ear buds, then I felt the bus engine start. We were off.
After a brief trip into a town called La Paz, the bus made a right turn from a public road to the middle of nowhere. We drove onto a road that made me wish for the dirt roads that I often travelled during my time in South Carolina. An endless stream of giant stones and potholes turned a half mile stretch into a 20 minute ordeal, since driving over 5 MPH would mean severe harm for either the bus or the people inside it. The snail’s pace meant that we felt every bump and sudden dip that the road had to offer, and the accompanying discomfort that everyone felt was obvious.
We stopped on the right side of the road, and saw this giant black gate. It was about ten feet tall, rusted over, and imposingly surrounded the property I assumed we were about to enter. The two doors that dictated entry into the property were wide and sturdy, with the tops of the doors steadily curving upward to create a sort of antiquated elegance. After waiting in front of the gate for five minutes, we saw two little kids sprint towards it. They could not have been more than eight years old. They each unlocked a door and pulled them backwards for the bus to enter, with the dragging of the doors against the ground reminding me of someone digging their nails into a chalkboard.
The bus churned through the gate and into the orphanage, where we were greeted by a building surrounded by a barren plot of land. The building was made of stone, and it had “San Antonio Boys Home” painted on the side underneath a cross. There was a soccer field that didn’t have any nets. A large slab of concrete that was used as a basketball court. The rims were about 7 feet tall and poorly maintained. As we stepped off the bus, 30 children of various ages and sizes enthusiastically greeted us. Many of the people who had been there before greeted them back, whether it was with hugs, high fives or piggyback rides. None of the kids were wearing clothes that seemed fit to play in. Most of them were wearing jeans and button-up shirts, and quite a few of them wore shoes normally associated with formal events. The Honduran version of putting their arm around someone in friendship is interlocking arms, and it seemed every kid instantly found someone’s arm to hook. Their reaction took me aback. I was expecting these downtrodden children who needed to be prodded to interact with us, but it was very much the opposite. There was genuine joy in their eyes, as if this was the first time they’ve been let loose from imprisonment.
Before playing with the kids, we gathered everyone around a small whiteboard and the Chaplin taught them a basic english lesson. The lesson centered around how to translate what the kids wanted to be when they got older and the qualities it took to get there (which just so happened to coincide with the Army’s values). As the Chaplin was speaking, I felt someone hook my arm. It was one of the older kids. I looked down at him. He looked up and smiled at me. I smiled back. I guess we were best friends now. After the lesson ended, it was time to play with the kids. We brought soccer balls, a basketball, and a football from the base. My attempt to communicate with my new best friend went like this:
“Ummmm, como se llamas?”
“Me llamo es Shawn”
And off we went.
I should’ve started with basketball. After passing the soccer ball to each other for a few minutes, I thought it would be a great idea to try to take the ball away from him while dribbling. I had been dabbling with soccer since coming to Honduras, and I thought I was developing a knack for it. He ensured that I had no delusions about my talent level. After 10 minutes of chasing him around to no avail, I resorted to defeating him the best way I knew how: with tickles. We wrestled to the ground and while playing in the dirt with this little person I had never met before, I realized that everything I worried about the night before didn’t mean much of anything. Nobody cares about language fluency and the big picture when you’re rolling around in dirt having the time of your life.
After an hour, it was time for the kids to eat. We had brought some burgers and candy to share with the kids, and they were being grilled while everyone was playing. After a quick prayer, the kids sat around a giant wooden table that comfortably seated all 30 of the children. As the kids ate, I noticed that Juan’s eyes followed me everywhere that I went. I went up to him and asked if he was ok, and he just kept looking at me. I rubbed him on the head, smiled at him and walked off.
After eating the burgers, it was time for the candy to be passed out, which quickly devolved into a chaotic scene. During the scrum, I noticed that Juan wasn’t among those wildly scrambling for the candy. He calmly waited for his turn, grabbed a few pieces of candy and offered me a piece. My voice cracked with emotion while declining the candy, since I couldn’t fathom anyone being so gracious and unselfish when their circumstances almost dictate them to take on opposite qualities. Being in that situation forces people to develop a mean streak for the sake of self-preservation. But Juan still seemed like a genuinely warm human being. Like he had been raised in a normal, loving home instead of all the difficulties that came with being a foster child. For whatever reason, I thought about all of this right after he offered me his piece of candy, and it briefly overwhelmed me.
After gathering myself, we resumed playing, and I taught him how to arm wrestle and play Rock, Paper, Scissors (I still don’t know how to say this in Spanish) while everyone else was winding down and getting ready to leave. As our time with the children drew to a close, I thought about different ways to actually help them long term, and I concluded that the best way to do that would be through education. As I looked through the building, I didn’t see anything that would help the children learn anything. No books, no puzzles, no computers, nothing. It was just…them. They were literally all they had. So I resolved to transform the orphanage little by little during my time here. One month I’d bring books, the next month I’d bring school supplies, and so on.
Juan and I took a selfie together and shared a long hug. I promised him that I would come back as often as I could and that I wouldn’t let him down. He didn’t understand it, since I said it in English, but I hoped he at least felt the tone of my message. I dragged my feet on the way back to the bus and glumly returned to my seat. As the bus exited the orphanage and we prepped to traverse the same battered road that led us here, I heard the screech of the gate closing, knowing that a piece of me was trapped on the other side.