Sorry ya'll, this is a long one. This week was crazy.
When I was mentally preparing for Bolivia, I was ready for compromise. I was ready to let go of my American expectations and embrace a new way of life. Granted it’s not always been easy when we have to do things in a way that I don’t think makes sense, but it has been easy because life here is simply done differently. For example, why do we have to burn the pasta in the bottom of the pot before adding any water to boil it? Are you sure we can’t add just a little bit of salt to the rice? Would it be possible to have a single week where we have classes every single day? How come I can only say buen día before noon even though it technically means “good day”? Any chance I could eat a vegetable that hasn’t been chopped up into microscopic pieces and boiled to oblivion or an orange that was allowed to ripen? But truly, all of these things are just me being picky. It isn’t difficult to learn and adjust to these cultural quirks and small compromises. It just takes time and humility.
However, what I didn’t expect was to have to comprise on big things. Things that are taboo or plain wrong in my culture. Moral dilemmas. Compromises where there is no compromise, I just simply don’t have a choice in the matter.
This week everyone got sick. Half the campus has had a fever in the last five days. Fortunately, the virus seems to only last a day or so in adults. For example, my roommate got up in the night to use the bathroom, and when I also got up to wait my turn, I found him on the ground, dazed after having passed out. Then by the end of the next day, he was well enough to run across campus and tuck in the little Leones. A couple of days later, I started to wonder if I had a fever or if it was just that it was 110 degrees outside. I ended up having a low fever but fortunately, I was able to make it through the day and into recovery the next.
In conjunction with this inevitable epidemic on campus where kids who hate washing their hands are constantly in close proximity, we learned that the Ministry of Education can get us in trouble for having too many sick kids on campus. Apparently, this would mean we don’t take good enough care of them. So when, for once, we had quite a legitimate reason to cancel classes, we had to go to class anyway because the Ministry of Education decided to have an inspection on Wednesday. I obviously had no part in the decision to hold class, but it felt wrong to not only force sick kids to go to class, but to mislead the government into thinking we don’t experience normal everyday human problems like contagious diseases. What could we do instead? Get the whole place shut down for good?
Sickness and Sightseeing
While I was sitting in the cold shower, trying to tame my fever in said 110-degree heat in the greenhouse that is our bathroom, I noticed the sounds of a small brush fire outside. A little while later the pleasant smell of campfire smoke drifted under the roof into the bathroom, and the sounds of the flames started to escalate. I decided it might be a good idea to cut my shower short, just in case. Outside, it looked like the entire jungle was burning on the other side of the road. The older teens and a few volunteers were jogging toward the gate. As we realized the enormity of the inferno, we slowed and walked. What were we going to do? Throw water on it? Call a fire department?
As we stood and watched, it felt like we should be doing something. What if our power line burned down, or our precious store across the street? Melissa drove past us in the van, paused, declared the situation normal, and proceeded into town for groceries. What could we do? We watched, sweating buckets in the humid sun, or our fevers, or both. So we stood, shrugged our shoulders, and went home.
I realized this sort of resigned acceptance of reality is an integral component of living here. Sometimes we do our best and our best is simply limited. We try our best to keep bugs out of our food, and ants still find the sugar (and the baking powder for some reason). We try our best to educate these kids with outdated and under-qualified English curricula, and sometimes they just don’t understand. We try our absolute best to make the lives of these kids better, and sometimes their trauma is just too much for us to heal.
An Expanding Job Description
One of the first to fall ill, and one of the ones yet to recover, was baby José. He had to spend two nights off campus at a clinic with a sleep-deprived volunteer by his side and an IV drip in his arm. It ended up being a blessing that he was off campus, however, when his mother showed up pretending to be someone else and trying to convince us to hand him over. Once we realized she was, in fact, the same mother who had tried to end his life and that she was the reason he was with us at all, she was quickly escorted off-campus. About then is when I discovered my busy Sunday of parenting the Guerreros by myself while Zoro was at the clinic with José would be getting busier. Apparently, José’s father had escaped prison and, according to la Defensaría, the couple “might try to break into Familia Feliz” that night. So pairs of volunteers took turns sitting by the gate all evening with instructions to call the police if they appeared.
As the evening stretched into the night, more of the volunteers started to accumulate at our makeshift guard hut (a hammock and stool). We spent our time chatting with both genuine and nervous laughter, shining flashlights at suspicious noises, exploring the fence line, demonstrating our voices for intimidating druggies in Spanish, and practicing the use of the only item of defense we’d been giving: a rusty machete. When Melissa informed us that “they probably wouldn’t show up after nine,” I wondered if criminals not planning heists late at night counted as one of those cultural quirks I needed to get used to. We decided to stay at the gate until one in the morning, just to be sure.
About a week or so ago, Melissa’s not-technically-adopted 19-year-old child showed up unexpectedly. He had been living in Santa Cruz while Melissa was on hiatus from Familia Feliz, which she only got back from shortly before we arrived. His arrival was apparently not just unexpected, but not entirely wanted. We found out that Melissa had been grateful to have him off campus, since his developmental delays had resulted in him fighting with the younger kids who he most related with, but who he was also much stronger than. She initially wanted him to room with us to keep him out of trouble in her house, but he ended up unpacking in his old room in the Harding house from when he lived there back in 2018.
Several days ago the volunteers were eating breakfast and making small talk when some brave soul brought up some… suspicious… behaviors they’d noticed this new member of Familia Feliz expressing. Several other people confirmed they’d also noticed the same or other behaviors and with growing collective concern we decided we needed to have a conversation with Melissa. During this conversation, we learned the older teen in question had been the victim of abuse when he was younger. We were glad to hear Melissa was aware of the current problems, was keeping a close watch, and was doing her best to prevent high-risk situations. In fact, she was also doing her best to send him back to Santa Cruz, but with political protests blocking travel beyond Rurrenabaque and this being one of the only homes he’d ever known, she had nowhere to send him at the moment.
I made the rash decision to open my mouth and offer for him to move in with us as initially suggested. None of us were exactly excited to have a new roommate with a history of violence and theft who couldn’t be reasoned with like the young adult he was and who we would need to be fed and watched every day, but I decided I would much rather that then put the Harding kids at risk by letting him stay in that house. Then everyone got fevers, so his relocation has been paused until the campus recovers.
In this situation, it feels like standing in front of that fire. How is it possible to protect the abused when they could also become an abuser? How do you tell someone you’ve raised since they were nine to never come back to the only home they’ve had for actions that, as someone with a mental disability, they can’t be held fully accountable for as an adult? How do you extinguish the inferno of the cycle of abuse?
I don’t know.
I do know that I’m grateful to work with people who are willing to put the safety of these kids above all else. People (@ Carlo and Zoro) who are willing to let a difficult individual into the safety of our home to keep others safe. What else could we have done?
In addition to the madness this week when everyone got sick, the threat of escaped convicts loomed outside the gate, and the arrival of an unwelcome guest, we received other terrible news.
As a disclaimer, I don’t hang out much with the Lilas. However, from the times I have interacted with them, I’ve learned that they’re absolutely precious. Whether it’s making jokes about my height or Spanish every time I see them, or making rounds across campus with freshly baked brownies, they are, by definition, wholesome. So I felt at least some of the devastation the other house parents felt when one of the volunteers shared a conversation she’d had with one of the Lilas.
The girl was asking about our plans for winter break, when most of the kids leave campus to stay with relatives, and we get a month off.
“I think we’re going to be traveling to some other places in South America. What are you doing for break?” The volunteer returned the question.
“Oh. I wish I could come with you. My mom is sending me back to my uncle’s house.”
“Are you glad to see him?”
“No. He’s very bad. So are his friends”
A further gentle question led to an hour of sobbing. The realization of what she might be going home to was horrifying. What was more horrifying was that just like the fire, there was nothing we could do. Familia Feliz is trapped in the beauracratic hell of being reclassified as an orphanage instead of a school, and as a school we can’t legally keep parents from taking back their kids on holidays. Only in very specific cases will the local judge make an exception, such as the one with baby José or with kids who have no family left who wants them.
We sat in shocked silence and outrage after this new and horrible information had been relayed. This was one thousand times worse than the ever present dread that we will have to say good-bye to these kids when we leave and send them off into a dark world where we may never see them again. This meant that this would happen while we are still here, before we even have to leave. It made me think of the Guerreros, who I have become friends with, some of whom have expressed thoughts of self harm, whose families couldn’t even remember their birthday, whose parents are so deep in addiction they might forget to buy them food when they go home for Christmas.
Over break, while we’re in an airport or on top of a Peruvian mountain or in an AirBnB with a hot shower, the little ones we’ve come to love could be sent back to a nightmare Familia Feliz was built to protect them from. And there’s nothing we can do to keep them here.
It’s terrifying to be helpless.
I think God is teaching us, or at least me, that sometimes it’s ok to be helpless. Because en verdad, I am. The thoughts of mankind are evil continuously, even mine. We’re helpless to help ourselves. It’s one terrible thing to be helpless at the hands of someone else, but it’s another to be helpless inside your own being. I’m coming to comprehend something I’ve always known, that Christ is the only path to hope and healing. There is no way I will ever overcome the selfishness and darkness in my heart, or even kindle the desire to overcome, without His constant help.
In the face of an inferno, a cycle of abuse, a bureaucratic nightmare, a wave of disease, or a couple of criminals who can’t be trusted with their own baby, we’re helpless.
But we’re not alone.
By the selflessness of God in us, we’re not here by ourselves, for ourselves. We’re here with Someone stronger and more placid than all of our problems.
When the jungle was on fire, sparks came across the road and started burning the bridge that crosses the ditch to Familia Feliz. So we got a few buckets of water and smothered the smoking embers. If we hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. But maybe we saved the rail-road tie bridge from completely collapsing.
When we stayed awake watching the gate, maybe our flashlights and loud, annoying gringo voices made someone hesitate outside that night. Maybe when our prayer of protection and of handing over the job of guarding campus to the army of angels because we were just too tired to stay awake resulted in some prospective intruders encountering a wall of light.
When everyone was sick, we had Sierra to faithfully wake up every four hours, every night, to give medications to sweltering children. And when she got sick, she had the rest of us to help do her job.
When someone came to campus who might not be a person that should be allowed to stay, we had the ability to inconvenience ourselves and make the Harding house a safer place.
When we remember that kids have to go home to terrible situations, we can also remember that we have them here now. We can remember that we’re giving them a chance to escape the darkness.
When someone’s trauma is too great for us to heal we can remember they have the opportunity to meet the Great Healer here.
In the here and now, we can let them climb trees and bake cake for no reason at all, we can let them build forts in the woods and spend all day in the creek. We can laugh in the darkness and remember we’ve been called into the light. In the face of an impossible blaze, we can grab God’s hand the same way the Leones grab ours, and be at peace, not with a deluge to drench the jungle, but a bucket of water to put out an ember.