Friday, October 12, 2012

Hungry for attention

The tortilla masters: Carina and Sofia
Yesterday I climbed up to the smoky little half-kitchen that's tucked into an attic-size space at the Copan guardaria to help a couple of the girls make tortillas.
I'd had visions of everyone being fed and ready for a fast visit to the playground when I first arrived, seeing as I needed to get back to work. But it was soon obvious that wasn't going to happen.
I don't much like the tortilla room, as there's always smoke hanging heavy in the air from the little "eco-friendly" wood stove that I'm sure would be great if it only had a chimney. But it seemed anti-social to say no when invited along.
The girls whipped my butt with their tortilla skills. One, age 10, has been making tortillas for more than six years. She smacked the corn dough quickly between her palms and made perfect, smooth-sided circles every time.
The other, 15, is already assuming a motherly role at the children's home, as do all the older girls. She smiled at me indulgently as I handed over my scruffy looking tortillas for her to cook on the wood stove, lapsing into her teenage self only long enough to remind me that I'd promised to bring her a pair of earrings one day soon.
As we patted out the dough, more children made their way up the dark concrete stairs leading to the tortilla room. We got to talking and joking about this and that, and suddenly I realized that we were having a Kitchen Chat. I remember my own kids loving the relaxed conversations that can happen in kitchens when everybody's preparing food together, and it was revelatory to see this group of kids falling happily into the same kind of easy banter.
I've spent many months now thinking about how I might get more stuff for the 25 children who live at Angelitos Felices - toilets that flushed, showers that worked, diapers for the little ones so there wouldn't always be poo on the floor,  more food, better clothes, shoes that fit.
But the more I get to know the kids, the more I realize that what they want more than anything is my time. They don't pay much mind to their thread-bare clothes, lack of toys, ridiculously wrecked footware or painfully monotonous daily diets. But they sure do like having somebody who hangs out with them.
I've been going up there every Sunday to spend time with them, but I missed two weekends recently when my spouse and I took a small holiday to Guatemala. Man, the kids lambasted me for that when I showed up on Tuesday to say hello, which is how I ended up guilted into a lunch-time play date two days later.
It's hard for a North American parent to conceive of just how little adult attention these kids get. We typically start thinking about our children's well-being before they're even out of the womb, and for the most part will spend several hours a week for many, many years engaged in activities on behalf of our child.
These kids get the basics, but that's about it. They eat, they sleep, and some of them go to school. Sometimes they go outside to play, although not often. At least the water-system renos we did at the home last month has given them functioning bathrooms.
You can't fault the weary caregivers for not spending more time with the children. They're working for slave wages, if they even get paid at all. At any given time there's just one woman on duty in the home, and she doesn't have a moment for anything other than the endless chores that pile up like the mountains of dirty laundry generated by the kids.
Nor can you fault the woman who owns Angelitos (although much of the community would like to). She might not be running the kind of place that any of us would want to imagine a child growing up in, but at least she's putting a roof over these kids' heads in the absence of any consistent operating funds. People in Copan spend a lot of time gossiping about how somebody ought to do something about the home, but only the young American woman who recently opened an alternative day care appears to be actually doing anything significant.
So in the meantime, it's Angelitos or nothing. I have to believe that better days lie ahead for the abandoned and abused children of Honduras, but right now there are more than 20 children and young people living in Angelitos and they're not going anywhere. Whatever might happen in the long-term to improve things for kids like them, these kids are stuck in this moment.
I regularly hear from travellers asking me how they can help the children of Angelitos. People have big hearts and they really do want to make a difference.
There's no end of ways to do that for this gang, who have so little. But as long as you're coming this way, spare a thought for just making time to hang out with them. Somebody with the time to care is the real luxury item in these kids' lives. 

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