Friday, June 20, 2008

Por Los Ninos

After a Spanish lesson in the morning during my stay in Boquete, Panama, I decided to visit Hogar Triskar, a local orphanage, as part of the Por Los Ninos volunteer program. Volunteers, mostly expatriates who live here, come to the orphanage twice a week to spend quality individual time with the children.

It was clear they needed it. They call the foreign volunteers tia or auntie. And an entire crowd of outstretched arms greets them – wanting to be hugged, to be picked up, to be recognized as special.

The playroom had small stuffed animals hanging by threads from the ceiling. I picked up one child and lifted her high enough to touch one of the animals. She loved it. Then another wanted to do the same thing, and another, and another. Then the first wanted to go again. The same thing happened when I gave them horsey back rides. It’s so hard to say no to them, but it’s also not realistic to continually lift about ten kids time and time again. I knew their lives were full of taking turns and of hearing no, so I did my best, but I felt it wasn’t good enough.

My Spanish teacher Margarita had told me that people brought their children there when they were unable to care for them. My host mother Lorena said no, it was crazy women who didn’t want their children any more and gave them up, even when they were still tiny.

I found few small babies there. The youngest was six months old. There were 52 children living there at the moment, but that number seems to fluctuate. The saddest sight was two young girls, 12 and 14 years old, caring for their babies. They had been rejected by their families upon becoming pregnant, so both they and their offspring are being raised in the orphanage.

My 27-year-old host sister, Magdalena, told me that teenage pregnancy is very common. Her own brother had a baby with a 17 year old girl. Abortion is illegal and Magdalena said the social system doesn’t prepare girls. “They don’t receive any sex education,” she said. I could only imagine what their boyfriends or their abusers told them and how easily it would probably be believed. For them to subsequently have no remedy, when they are just children who were probably taken advantage of, I find really horrible.

Compared with other orphanages I’ve visited, the material conditions here were pretty good. The beds looked neat and clean, they had a variety of toys, effort had gone into decorating the room. They wore decent clothing.

But it was clear that some had suffered abuse, like the little boy who stood off to the side. I approached him gingerly, pick him up, paid some attention to him. He smiled, but hesitantly, as though afraid this nice moment would suddenly turn bad. And there was the 10-month old girl, who seemed to look out at the world with a dull stare.

Most of them just lacked the love and security provided by parents, the ability to feel unique and special in the eyes of another. It was clear the foreign residents had done a lot to help. My host father Francisco said the residents of Valle Escondido, one of the exclusive developments, were paying the salaries of some local staff to work full-time at the orphanage. And these volunteers came to try to meet the children’s need for attention, if only partially.

This evening, River lay in my lap, swaddled like a green bean, drinking milk from my breast. As I sang him one of his favorite songs in the cool evening breeze, he looked up and smiled, happy, before going back to his milk. He fell asleep tight, secure and loved. I believe that every child deserves to go to bed that way each night, not to climb into bed next to 20 others, but to feel the comfort of an adult’s arms and the peace of a song sung especially for them.

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