On the Bus
A 20-hour bus ride initially sounded very intimidating, but after an uneventful night of somewhat restful sleep and a number of stops in remote towns for bathroom and snack breaks, the whole trip from Santa Cruz to Rurrenabaque turned out to be quite reasonable. The only concerning part was when our giant two-story bus with 30 rows of seats plunged down an uneven ramp onto a wooden barge only a foot bigger than the bus on each side. The two outboard motors on the barge and the wings of angels got us safely across the river with only a few major tips of the bus.
Figuring Things Out
When we arrived Friday evening, we got to spend some time unpacking and setting up our mosquito nets before going to sundown worship, a Friday tradition, and joining everyone in intensely heartfelt and off-key acapella music. On Saturday we attended church for most of the morning and spent the afternoon napping, unpacking, and trying to learn names. The director of the operation, Melissa Harding, asked all the new volunteers to eat in her house that weekend with her dozen or so adopted children and an ever-changing number of foster babies, temporarily displaced kids, teen moms, and others who I still haven't figured out exactly what they're story is.
Then came Sunday. Sunday was the house parents' first day off since the last cohort of volunteers left in May, so all of us filled in for them to spend the day in town for some essential downtime. I and my friend and other volunteer Zoro cooked three meals for the older boys' house, reminded them to do their chores, and tried to get to know them. Fortunately, they were on their best behavior; we felt a little guilty for those that supervised the endlessly energetic 4- and 5-year-old boys.
There are six buildings where people live at Familia Feliz.
- La Casa de Hardings - Melissa's house is the biggest and most chaotic. Melissa and the older children keep things moving with admirable efficiency and authority.
- La Casa de Los Guerreros - the house for the 7 older boys who aren't Melissa's adopted children, ages 9 - 14. I eat meals with the Guerreros and fill in for the house parents on Sundays with Zoro, one of the other volunteers from my university.
- La Casa de Los Lilas - the house for about 8 younger girls. Katie-Jane is the only volunteer in our cohort who is actually living in one of the children's houses, which keeps her busy but happy.
- La Casa de Los Leones - the house for the 9 or so younger boys. They're quite a handful but are a blast to entertain, and they're kept in check by their house parents Brother Juan and Sister Marie, an older couple who work and live at Familia Feliz full time.
- La Casa de Flores - this is where all the volunteer girls live: five from my university, one from Andrews University, and three or four more who live at Familia Feliz full time as assistant house parents or teachers.
- La Casa de Gringos - where I live with the two other guy volunteers. It small but comfortable and cozy!
Above are some of the boys from the Guerreros. An absolute stellar bunch.
The Work Begins
We didn't want to only hang out with each other at meal times, so we decided to only eat breakfasts together as volunteers, mostly because no one else has time to feed us in the morning. On the first day I decided to make pancakes since we had about three ingredients in our kitchen, and the tradition stuck. So far we've managed to come up with quite a variety of pancakes and scrambled eggs every morning. For lunch I eat with the Guerreros as well as most dinners, that way I can get to know them and practice my Spanish.
Monday morning Elizabeth and I found out we would be teaching high school English and math during the week. Despite our best efforts, we've been a little discouraged at the level of distraction and other responsibilities these kids face every day, not to mention curriculums that make learning and retention difficult. Even so, I've been surprised by their ability to pick up math despite the language barrier I'm struggling to overcome.
At Familia Feliz, the kids only have school in the morning. The afternoons are chore time, which often seems to devolve into "make sure the children don't hurt themselves, each other, or the structural integrity of a building" time. Me and the other two guy volunteers were tasked with repainting the second story of the Guerreros and cutting wooden slats to cover holes in the floor and walls.
For two, non-consecutive nights and the better part of three days I was extremely sick. Not to be dramatic but I'm pretty sure I almost died. The first time I was sick with something contagious since only a few people, including some locals, got it. The second time seemed to be something I ate. After some Imodium, electrolytes, and anti-nausea meds, I recovered with a new found fear of the local pasta brand and a stronger desire to keep drinking filtered water instead of just "getting used to" the tap water.
Teaching and Learning
Even though it's been less than two weeks since we got to Familia Feliz, I've already learned a lot about the dynamics here and what needs to be accomplished. For one, I've never been a teacher before, so that's pretty overwhelming. Most of the kids are way behind in school and most of them have learning disabilities that make school nearly impossible. The high schoolers are not excited about learning and need to be motivated in a way that actually rewards them for hard work.
We've learned some of these kids' stories and I can say with certainty that all of them come from traumatic backgrounds, making their emotional well-being, physical safety, and basic needs our top priority, unfortunately leaving education further down the ladder. The seven or eight full time staff has been doing an incredible job of caring for these kids. Honestly I don't know how they did it without more volunteers, but now that we're here we're trying to find our place as helpers as well as leaders. We're praying for guidance in order to motivate ourselves and the students to make their education useful and enjoyable instead of unendingly tedious and sometimes downright unhelpful.
Despite our misgivings about teaching, I feel like we've accomplished a lot this week. The kids are already are warming up to us and Familia Feliz is starting to feel like home. We've had to take it one day at a time here since we arrived, with no idea what's happening tomorrow. I'm grateful for an amazing team where each person can take a new day full of surprises in stride with nothing but a humor and appreciation for the new absurdity.
One of the most eye-opening moments for me was when Melissa brought back a 5-month-old baby boy of whom she had spent the day trying to gain custody. He was covered in bruises after his mother had tried to end his life. Neighbors had heard a commotion and called the police, who found him alone and took him to the hospital where Melissa got him the next morning. Even fully mentally expecting stories like these did not prepare me for the emotional intensity of the situation in first person.
Because now he's here, where I sometimes hold him and get to see him smile through his black and blue face. And just a few days ago he was somewhere I've never even had to think about. I am here to see the bruises and know any chance of normalcy has already been taken from him. He's too young to walk and he will have irreparable scars with him for the rest of his life.
When I was trying to react to this little guy's story I realized I was totally unequipped to communicate about such trauma. One of the older kids noticed and reminded me: "that's just the way it is here."