I've been hanging out pretty much one day a week for the last three months at Angelitos Felices, the big foster home here in Copan Ruinas that I've written about a few times. It has been one heck of an experience.
At first glance, the place is awful. It's dark and strangely damp, a big empty space stuffed with children and smelling like a mix of musty clothes, garbage and a whiff of excrement. I've started dabbing patchouli oil under my nose to help me hang in through a couple hours of being inside the place.
The room where the kids sleep would be ridiculously overcrowded even if the bunks were all functional and there were enough mattresses for every bed. But that's not the case, and I have to presume a lot of them sleep on the floor in the dank and empty space on the second floor adjacent to the bedroom.
I was there at lunch time on Sunday and it was an unbelievable scene. Every child set their butt down in short order on the little plastic chairs they all grabbed when they heard it was lunch time. The older kids hauled out three of the low, long tables that are kept in the back of the gloomy main room, and everybody tucked silently into their bowls of rice, spaghetti and tortillas that the older girls were distributing. No fussy eaters in that crowd.
Each got a glass of milk as well but there weren't enough glasses to go around, so they had to drink in shifts. Little ones barely a year old learn quickly at Angelitos that there's no point in throwing a big fit to get your glass of milk quicker, so they were soberly waiting their turn just like everyone else. The babies trail around without diapers, often falling asleep wherever they drop; one of the smaller ones fell asleep in a big pile of hair cuttings on a previous weekend when the barber was there, and this Sunday fell asleep on one of the filthy concrete stairs in the main room.
I'd have freaked out about such a place back in Canada. I'd have been turning it into a series, a major investigation, a humiliation for whatever branch of government was supposed to be overseeing the place - hell, maybe we'd even get a Royal Commission out of it.
But there's no place to exercise your freak-out rights in Honduras, and nobody to do anything different for these kids even if you could. Angelitos is a long, long way from perfect, but the woman who runs the place has essentially been left on her own to figure out how to care for 40 or so kids (some living there, others in day care). How good a job could any of us do in that situation?
Two staff work night and day at the home, in theory for $75 a month but often for no pay at all. I admire them immensely. As grim as the place is, the children look adequately fed and are consistently cheerful. We've taken some of them to the swimming pool and they're well-behaved, well-socialized children, albeit with the worst teeth you've ever seen and worn, dirty clothes that never quite fit right. Every now and then a little scrap breaks out between some of the younger children over some pathetic excuse for a toy that somebody isn't sharing (it was a broken part from a wind-up car the other day), but mostly the kids get along and are surprisingly patient with each other. I have to conclude there's love in that place, as unlikely as that seems.
Figuring out my role there has been kind of like being back at PEERS, where I learned that sometimes all you can do is just be there for people. I show up at the foster home with the fixings for whatever the day's craft will be and aim to give the kids a nice couple of hours. It can be frustrating and depressing, and I really don't like being in that dank, smelly place. But what can you do? Just don't ask me if the experience is "rewarding," because it's anything but.
And all if it has to be put in the context of the Honduran childhood experience overall. One day when a bunch of the coloured strips we were using to make paper chains fell off the upstairs balcony into the road, I watched children that were every bit as poor and hard-done-by as the Angelitos kids come running out of their one-room mud houses to gather up the strips for themselves. This is not a country full of sheltered, well-fed children enjoying their comfy private bedrooms stuffed with toys, that's for sure.
My partner and I are trying to get a routine going of taking the older kids to the pool, owned by one of the local hotels and open to anyone who can afford the $5 to get in. I worked a deal for the first kid swim - $25 for 10 of us - but I'm hoping to work an even better one so we can take a few kids every couple of weeks and still manage it on a volunteer stipend.
It was lovely to see them all acting like happy, regular kids for a few hours, jumping in and out of the water and smiling, smiling, smiling in all that sunshine. (OK, it's pretty unpleasant to have to see the other kids crying as you leave with the lucky few who get to go to the pool that day - I make the woman who owns the place do the selection - but I tell myself that they're all going to get their turn.) A teacher from Stockton, California showed up in town last week and I learned that he also helps out at Angelitos during his annual visit to Copan, so he's going to be taking a bunch of the children to the pool this week as well.
It's not like you have to harden your heart to spend time at a place like Angelitos Felices. But you do have to manage your emotions and tap into the most practical, in-the-moment version of yourself. You have to convince yourself there's no such thing as wasted effort, and that there's truth to that old saying about "planting seeds."
As I've said before, I don't think too many happy endings will be coming out of there. Still, when the oh-so-damaged 12-year-old who I'm particularly fond of cracks up laughing as she clings to my neck for a swim into the deep end of the pool, or when I hear that one of the eight-year-olds has now memorized the words to The Hokey Pokey and is teaching the other kids - well, I tell myself that you just never know.