July 28, 2011

I left for El Crucero on Thursday morning around 8am. I asked my driver Hiro, to stop at the food store on the way so that I could buy food to bring with me. As we made the 40 minute trip, I watched the landscape change from the city to the mountainous countryside and I realized I was finally flying solo. I was on my own adventure now and would need to rely on my own initiative. I was supposed to meet both Mariel, the volunteer psychologist working at the orphanages for MoH and Elena the translator at El Crucero later in the morning, but this was my mini-mission. I was in a third world country, no one was guiding my actions but me and I was equal parts excited and anxious.

Alison was not coming with me. She had told Mariel that she didn’t want to go to El Crucero, she just wanted to go home. Allison is struggling greatly at the baby orphanage – Juan Pablo (aka Casa Cuna), as her mother is now dropping off her new baby brother and while he gets to go home at night, Allison must remain at the orphanage. Needless to say, this is devastating to her as she faces an almost daily rejection by her own mother. She has been acting out and misbehaving which is not at all usual for her. I am even more anxious for her to go to El Crucero permanently for this reason among many others. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t see her but certainly wasn’t going to force her to come. I would make other arrangements to see her.

I arrived at El Crucero around 9am, it was still pretty early but I was happy when I could read the pleased look of recognition on Madre’s face as she realized who I was. She immediately called me by name and came to embrace me. It was a warm feeling. I had only met this woman in February and while I had stayed there then, a lot of time had passed in between.

The driver and one of the novices (there are 6 young woman studying to become nuns that also live at El Crucero), helped to bring in the food, gifts, clothes and other donations from the back of the truck. As we brought the food into the kitchen area, Madre laughed and opened the refrigerator and freezer door to show me what was inside. I was amazed to see it was full of food! Completely full! I was thrilled to see this and it brought tears to my eyes. I found out later that one of the many things she has accomplished in the last few months is to make arrangements with 4 or 5 different food stores and providers that supply weekly donations of food – milk, meat, cheese, eggs, bread, fruit and vegetables – all the items that we have wanted them to have. She had made some amazing progress and I thought this an auspicious start to my visit.

A full refrigerator!

Madre was very busy, as she had 70 adults attending a school reunion and after initial pleasantries and stumbling through without a translator, I told her I was fine and that she should go take care of whatever she had to do. I used this time to walk around the compound, hoping to greet any children I might find. It was during school hours so only a few were outside, mostly the little girls and boys. Nadezna came running to greet me with a big hug. She was followed by Mileydis, and the sisters, Maria and Lupe (Wendy Guadulupe). Then the little boys, Alexis, Carlito, Kenneth and little Kevin ran over to me and hugged me as well. They weren’t completely sure who I was, but I think they realized that they had seen me before and I looked familiar and fun. I have found that the children are demonstrative; showering you with hugs and kisses. I realize that in some part, this is due to their own emotional issues of abandonment and lack of family – they are always eager for attention and affection – but they are also really sweet children, genuinely happy to see you.

Guadlupe and Nadezna

After a while, the older girls started to appear and as I greeted most of them, I could see that they were very pleased that I remembered their names. Silsa, Veronica, Katherine, Jessica, and Naome encircled me with hugs and kisses. This was what I came for. “Recuerdome?” I asked them, “do you remember me?” and they nodded yes. Then they made a game of helping me to remember the girl’s names I couldn’t remember by giving me clues of the first and second letter of their names to help me guess. We all laughed as I sorted them out.

My lack of Spanish was hitting me really hard and I was frustrated that I had not yet mastered the language. After a while, the girls went about their own business as our semi-conversation wound down. So I wandered around, taking pictures, looking for other signs of progress and eventually ended up in the chapel as it is a quiet and beautiful place. Amidst a facility that is falling down in many places, this lovely chapel is a quiet oasis, maintained with love by the Sisters. While the disparity of this situation is difficult to comprehend – where does the money come from to keep this place pristine when the children have a leaky roof and decrepit plumbing? – I forced myself once again to not judge by my own American-girl standards. I was in their place, these were their priorities, and I was a guest. I would have to help them on their own terms or not at all.

The chapel at El Crucero

I saw Sr. M &M and went to greet her. Her big smile and sincere hug were another warm welcome as it was evident we were both happy to see each other.

Sr. M&M and Kevin, her nephew

Mariel and Elena arrived but immediately went into Mariel’s scheduled sessions with the children. She is now meeting with quite a few children on an individual basis to council and help with their emotional issues. She is definitely making progress. She also is working with the children in groups and helping them work together and learn skills to help themselves. But Mariel is leaving in October and I am saddened that this resource will be taken away from the children. I can only hope and pray that what they have learned from her, they will retain and take with them into their own futures.

Me, Elena and Mariel

The Sisters invited us to lunch of chicken, rice and a delicious cucumber salad. What a meal ! and a far cry from previous meals of rice and beans. Their food situation had turned around completely and I was delighted. We talked a little with Madre and the other Sisters and they seemed genuinely happy that we were there. It is always uncomfortable to have them wait on us and serve us, but they insist upon it; Nicaraguan courtesy.

Eating with the Nuns

Later that afternoon, the three of us, Mariel, Elena and I had a 2 hour meeting with Madre to discuss all of the children. Some of the children are no longer at the orphanage and some new children were added. Most of the reasons that children were no longer in the program were not good ones. A young baby named Enrique had gone back to live with his 19 year old mother despite the fact that she could not care for him. The Nuns were unhappy with this and are trying to encourage her to do better. Two of the older boys that lived at the farm had dropped out of school and were following an all too typical path of drinking and delinquency. Without the Nun’s knowledge, they had sold the two goats and the ox leaving them without working farm animals. Both unfortunate signs of a culture with deep rooted problems that cannot be resolved over night.

Our conversation turned to my Allison. Madre told me that she thought Allison was coming with me as she was unaware that Allison didn’t want to come. I explained this to her and then asked again, when we might be able to bring her to El Crucero permanently. She surprised me by saying that her plan had been to do this while I was there. Not wanting to let this opportunity to make this pivotal change in her young life – El Crucero might not be perfect but it is a better environment than Juan Pablo where she is now – we decided upon another plan. On Saturday, I will meet Madre at Juan Pablo and together we will all drive back to El Crucero. Her suggestion is that the “novelty” of my bringing her will over-ride her apprehension about going there. I am not completely sure that this will work out this way and fully expect that Allison will be upset however, we are all in agreement that this is the best move for her. Her two young friends who are also 5, Rosita and Orquidia Guadalupe (my daughter Vanessa’s sponsor child), will come up soon after so that they all can start first grade in January. But in the meantime, I’m sure there will be separation issues. I hope that our best intentions are the right decision. I believe in my heart that they are but I ache knowing that she will be distraught for a time.

I also found out that the surgery that Allison’s mother has been unable to facilitate due to her own problems is not as major as I had been told. This was welcome news and the hope is that living at El Crucero will make the surgery and necessary post-surgery orthotic shoes a reality. Another wonderful thing that Madre has put in place is that soon, a doctor and a dentist will visit the facility WEEKLY to check the children and the nuns. This woman is incredible. She has done all of this by networking and pushing to improve the lives of the children. I think no one can say “no” to her.

The additional part of our plan is that after staying over again on Saturday night with Allison, we will all go to the Farm, La Finca, on Sunday. I had wanted to go for a while to see what possibilities might be there for income and vocational training so this was a welcome surprise. Mariel and Elena will come up on Sunday morning to join us but for Saturday evening, I will really be on my own. Oh I wish I could speak Spanish! Juan – I should have kept studying!

Dinner of rice and beans but also the delicious Nicaraguan white cheese that made it all taste great. Dinner conversation with Madre and the other Nuns revealed the other advances she had made. Security guards are now present 7 days a week now and it was no longer necessary for the Nuns to patrol the grounds at night dressed as men, although she still had the gun. The electric transformer had been replaced by the Power company at no expense to them and an NGO was coming to inspect the old and dangerous wiring and make repairs. The children were receiving dancing and sewing lessons. And lots of food! A lot of progress in only 5 months time – what would this woman accomplish in a year!

I was exhausted and when I started to yawn at the dinner table, Madre teased me about going to bed. Mariel and Elena stayed in the main building to work on homework and I crossed the dark courtyard to the girl’s dorm alone. The night sky was very black with a wind that promised to become stronger as the night went on.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the light on in the girls dorm as there had been no electric when I was there before. Another wonderful accomplishment. After washing up in a cold bucket of water – there were no improvements to the bathrooms unfortunately – I sat on my bed while the older girls congregated around me. I took out the pictures I had brought to share with them; Vince, my girls and of course our new puppies, Sage and Gwena. I had more pictures of them than my family and the girls got a big kick out of them. They are the cutest puppies in the world after all.

The Girls Dorm

Lying in my bunk bed, with my sweatshirt as a pillow, I struggled to fall asleep even though I was tired. My brain was reeling from all that had been said and done today and from seeing all of the children once again. I felt more comfortable this time and eventually feel asleep, warm and content despite the ache in my hips from the rock hard bed.

I woke early at 5am and lay in bed for an hour listening to the quiet breathing of the girls. It was much quieter here than the Mission compound. Eventually, I heard Sr. M&M moving around in her small room off of the dorm area. When she came out, dressed in a robe and without her habit, her short black hair pillow-tumbled from sleeping, I could almost forget she was a nun. But her grace and her clear path to her own expression of faith shine from her like a beacon and her vocation is unmistakable.

Katherine, Mileydis, me and Lupe

I got up and dressed while most of the girls were still asleep, Mariel and Elena who were in bunks right next to me, included. Sr. M&M and I greeted each other with “Buenas Dias” and broad smiles. Eventually, the little boys could be heard singing and laughing next door and then everyone was up and awake. There was no school today due to a Teacher’s conferences so they had been able to sleep a little later than normal until the 6 and 7 year olds gave them no choice but to get up. Not unlike a normal family only with a lot more children and Nun’s for parents.

Breakfast was delicious pineapple – Nicaragua has the BEST pineapple- and cold cereal. Gratefully, no rice and beans. At 8:30, we had our meeting with Sr. Debbie and Mauricio to sort out some communication issues regarding the Orphan’s Hope Project. Most of these were due to growing pains of the OHP process and after an hour and half, we had covered this and other important priorities. Agreement was reached and I felt we had accomplished our goals. One major decision was made that would expand the use of the monthly funds we are providing to the Nuns via the OHP program. This is due to the fact that Madre has been so successful in obtaining donors for food. As these donors can be inconsistent, food purchases are still the priority however, we gave her the option to use the funds for other items such as personal hygiene, additional educational supplies and other items when needed. The monthly accounting receipts that are provided to us give us a listing of how the money is spent. We were all content with this change and see it as positive development.

I said goodbye to the children and knowing I would see them again Saturday made it quick and relatively painless. I rode with Sr. Debbie and her entourage the rest of the afternoon, the highlight being our meeting with the Caritas organization to discuss the HIV orphans that we plan to add to the Orphan’s Hope Project. We learned that there are 50 children and that the only information we will have is their first names due to confidentiality concerns. Because of this, we will not be able to set up individual sponsorships but instead, ask for sponsorships for the program as a whole to help with expenses for the children. We learned that only 5 of the children were in school as they did not have the funds necessary to go, something we wish to focus on. But at least they were all on the anti-viral medicine that would help sustain and prolong their threatened lives. I asked a lot of questions – of course – and got as much information as I could so I will be able to communicate the issue and the need once I return to the U.S.

Afterwards, we were able to meet with a number of the children and their families who were there to pick up supplies. Sr. Debbie had brought 7 beautiful hand-made small quilts to be given as gifts to the children. Because we were not allowed to photograph their faces, again due to confidentiality issues, I took pictures of each child, wrapped in their new quilt, from behind. It was a poignant moment for all of us as we contemplated the lives these children live.

HIV Orphan and her new quilt

I approached one young girl seated in a chair at the front of the room and knelt down to speak to her. Nancy was about 9 and had a beautiful face. I asked her if she had family there and she said no. She didn’t smile and her large brown eyes had an expression that was much too old for her young body. I have never known anyone who was HIV+, nor anyone who had died of AIDS, but if this is what it looks like, it is a terrible thing made even more so in a young child with no real life to look forward to. It was heart-breaking. Anything we can do for them, we should do and would.

A hectic afternoon followed of shopping and stops that Sr. Debbie needed to accomplish and we were back at the compound for dinner. I am sitting in the kitchen area as lights out was 30 minutes ago. Now that the internet is working, I will post this very soon. Unfortunately, it’s not wireless so I can’t do more than make a quick post but it is better than none at all.

If I can blog again on Sunday when I return from El Crucero and La Finca, I will do so. That’s of course if I’ve got any brain power left – this is all such a grand adventure – it fills me up and sucks me dry. Thanks for reading about it.

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