Most of the children at Casa come from backgrounds of abuse, but that is hard to imagine when you are playing with them, smiling and laughing, making jokes and having a good time. In many ways, they just seem like kids: happy. While there, I often found myself thinking that I didn’t want to know about their past for fear that an overwhelming sense of pity would obscure my mind and hinder our relationship. It is almost surreal being at Casa, because there are simply so many children. They are always running around doing something: playing a game, chasing each other, or trying to find a gringo to talk to. The thought occurred to me during the week that Casa is like a children’s paradise, something like a Christian Pleasure Island (Pinocchio) or Neverland, where there are all kids and no (or very few) adults. Life was never boring, because there were always so many other kids to play with. On the other hand, though, it caused me grief to consider that every one of those kids was separated from his parents and deprived of a loving family to nourish him, whether he had been abandoned by his own parents or removed from an abusive situation. Most of those kids never had experienced, and never would, the same nurturing and loving family-environment in which I was raised. Despite the apparent abundance of joy in the kids’ faces, this fact made me sad.
These thoughts were swimming freely and unexpressed in my mind until a conversation on Wednesday helped give them form and substance. After working hard one morning, I followed Allison over to the campo (playground) where the kids like to climb around on the jungle-gym and swing on the swing-set. There was a young teenage girl sitting in the swing at the campo, barely pushing herself back-and-forth with her feet. She sat alone in silence. Many, if not most, of the kids at Casa are rather outgoing with gringos, and will come up to you unprompted and begin a conversation or game. Even if they can’t talk to you, they seem to enjoy just being near you. This girl, Sarai, was not that way at all; she just sat in apparent reflection. At that point I recalled hearing a staffer say earlier in the week that there are many kids who will run from half-way across the compound just to play with you, but those are not the ones who are in the greatest need of gentle care and affection. He said this as a challenge to us to reach out to those kids who seem to be hurting. Prompted by this, I sat down on the swing next to Sarai and tried to start a conversation with her. I told her my name was Diego, and asked hers. Then I asked her how old she was, after telling her that I was 21 and married to Allison, who had just left the playground to go over to the baby-dorm. Many conversations at Casa start this way, and throughout the week, I periodically wondered whether the kids got tired of telling gringos their names and ages. I then found out that she had several siblings, but that none of them lived at Casa, and Sarai told me that she had just arrived a few days earlier. Feeling like I was getting somewhere with her–who, as I was discovering, was really more lonely than shy, as I had wrongly assumed at first–I asked if she liked living at Casa. She told me “poquito.” Wondering why, I then asked if she had many friends yet. She said “no”. My heart sunk.
For the next quarter-hour, we continued to talk and share, although I was much better at telling her about myself than I was at understanding what she was trying to say to me. I learned that she liked school, and she allowed me to look in her notebooks. After sitting for awhile talking, Allison returned, and we left together to go visit another friend we had made earlier in the week, but the conversation with Sarai lingered in the back of my mind. The fact that kids, at least partially, don’t want to be there took me by surprise, although it probably shouldn’t have. How could they not enjoy the companionship of all the other kids there? Didn’t they appreciate the great opportunity they were getting to receive a decent education? What about the roof over their heads and the food they were fed so generously? In a way, this seemed like ungratefulness. The conversation with Sarai, however, caused me to think otherwise. Casa, although it is a great good for the children of Guatemala, is not a kids’ paradise. What those kids desire in their heart of hearts is to be loved; to have a mother and father who care for them; to have brothers and sisters to play and joke with; to be “normal”, and the sad truth is: that is something that none (or very few) of them will ever have. If anyone, it is I who am ungrateful.
Written By James Covington