You would think that with school being over for the Bolivian school year and with some of the kids going home to be with their families for Christmas break things would be more calm and we would have more time to recoup our collective energy. You would be wrong.
These last few weeks have been more draining than the whole rest of the school year, at least for me. However, they’ve also been very rewarding.
En El Monte
On the last Sunday before all the Guerreros left for vacation, their house-mom Saray planned an adventure in the monte (jungle) for them. I was told we would be packing a picnic and going to a river nearby. As per usual, I gravely misunderstood the definition of “nearby” and “river.”
We started by walking down the two-lane highway for about a mile. Sure, the 105 degree nuclear oven of jungle, solar radiation, and asphalt blurred my vision and made balancing a bit more entertaining than usual, but it was only a mile. Muy facíl. After turning off the road into the shade, the kids seemed to think the river was but a gingerly stroll through a small orange orchard away. How foolish of me. Three or four miles later I was regretting my flip flops and reevaluating my expectation of the river being right down the road. I was also shocked to see residents of Familia Feliz not only walking faster than their usual pace – one so slow I literally cannot slow down enough to stay in stride with them – but in fact walking much faster than me.
While the length of the journey was a bit different than I expected, it went by quickly as I was distracted with experience what felt like the true Bolivian jungle for the first time. The sounds and sights and sense of isolation were unmatched.
Upon arrival at the rio, I discovered the lack of rain and the surplus of language barrier presented us with more of an arroyo, a little stream of water in the middle of a rocky creek bed. Nevertheless, the heat was strong enough to boil off my reservations about fresh water parasites and undiscovered diseases lurking in the foot of water where we waded and swam.
Roger and Daniel taught me how to fish, Saray cooked the boys’ favorite food (normally forbidden on campus), and me and some of the boys hiked another mile upstream. I thought we were going to a rock to jump off of into a deeper pool, but after questioning each boy we realized we were all following each other to nowhere in specific. We were all just as pleased with the adventure.
An atmosphere of melancholy drenched the mottled jungle afternoon of expedition and relaxation because this was the last time Saray would be with all of her kids she had spent a year raising. It meant most of them would be going home for break, and I didn’t know how many of them would return at all next school year. This meant that just as I was getting to know them they would be leaving forever just as soon.
Full of Fiestas
If there’s one thing I could convey about Bolivian culture, it’s that Bolivians love ceremonies. We spent a solid week throwing event after event, all the cost of sleep and sanity.
The first party was purely enjoyable. Because the Guerreros were losing members first, the volunteers wanted to have a Christmas party and give them their presents before they left. The presents were thoughtfully bought with the guidance of Saray: much-needed shoes and church shirts, as well as some luxuries like toys and candy. They were all visibly surprised and very grateful, and we all celebrated over coveted soda and special pizza. We even set off the sketchiest fireworks I’ve ever seen. I think it was just gunpowder in a cardboard tube you held closed at one end.
The next event was kindergarten graduation. I expected a small, quick ceremony; a chance to give the kids candy and celebrate them before they left. As per usual, I gravely misunderstood the definition of “kindergarten graduation.” What happened was an event at least twice as nice as my high school graduation and more involved than my college graduation.
Since Bolivians also don’t like preparing in advance, we were told to make 300 cookies the day before. The director of campus was gone all week. On top of this, I had been sick with a fever and cough all day, and spent most of it taking care of the seven insane Leones boys with Lisiane, who was frantically stitching together five-year-old sized graduation gowns and caps from scratch. After a quick nap, I started the cookie dough at 7pm. The other volunteers joined in a little bit later, but I had to tap out at midnight when I realized my temperature had been a cool 102 for most of the day. I woke up at 5am to use the bathroom and found that the others had just finished the cookies. Madness.
The next morning, I discovered the church had been remodeled sometime between 4pm and 8am. A thousand decorations had been cut out and glued together from scratch. All the pews had been removed and replaced with every table on campus. Food I have never even seen in Bolivia was elaborately decorating said tables, discretely covered with magically fabricated table cloths. Forgotten family members appeared. Government officials had been invited.
I finally realized that this wasn’t necessarily about the kids, who honestly had no idea what a diploma was or who the government officials were who presented them. Instead, it was about showing Beni that Familia Feliz is a real school that can throw a real, fancy event. I learned being able to host a fancy party with delicate food, cute decorations, and innumerable formalities and speeches is a sure sign of professionalism and respectability. Despite my exhaustion and frustration with our entire team being stretched so thin for something I wouldn't have considered this important at first thought, I had to admit the graduates were adorable and the government officials were impressed with our effort and capability.
But still, afterward, we were totally drained. So naturally we rested for a couple hours, then cooked food and wrapped presents for another Christmas party at the Leones. Sierra also took it upon herself to cook a special birthday cake for Benja so he wouldn’t have to eat leftover cake for his birthday the next day. All of us, including Benja, showed up bleery-eyed to his birthday that morning for his celebratory breakfast, especially me who had just added pink eye to my list of ailments.
After his birthday, I spent the afternoon making hundreds of mini donuts for Veronica’s quinceañera. Veronica is one of Melissa’s older daughters and one of my most dramatic high school students. No event is more important than a Bolivian girl’s fifteenth birthday. The whole campus again participated in making the church immaculate. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time or resources to make it as nice as most quinceañeras, which are events as important as weddings. Nevertheless, she was able to be appreciated and feel special. The only thing more tragic than the fact that we totally forgot to serve the donuts I spent all day making (with help throughout from Zoro, Carlo, and Maddy) was the fact that they were honestly the worst donuts I've ever made and it was probably a win for everyone we forgot about them.
The next party we had was fortunately much more relaxed. The volunteers had a White Elephant Christmas party, since it was our last chance to all be together at the same time at Familia Feliz before Christmas. Elizabeth put together a hilarious game to make the normal White Elephant rules a little more spicy. All of us forced ourselves awake long into the night to take advantage of our well deserved and highly limited time together.
I had the least amount of time to prepare for our most , and that’s because I was told we would be having a movie night. The other volunteers very thoroughly convinced me of this, but instead I was sent on a scavenger hunt to retrieve a birthday present! Since we won’t be together on my birthday, they all bought little presents and they threw a surprise celebration. I got some super kind birthday cards and felt very appreciated. So grateful for such a thoughtful and intentional friend group so far away from home!
So Long and Goodbye
Some of the sad parts of this month was saying goodbye to our students, especially when we found out many of them won’t be returning next year. Two of the Guerreros who were really close to Zoro left for good, along with four of their siblings who Melissa has raised for years. My little photographer friend Salvador from the Guerreros, the older brother of Daniel who stayed at our house, also won’t be returning.
This is a part of life here: kids come and then they leave. It feels like I barely had time to meet them and now they’re gone forever. They go back to situations they shouldn’t be in. They get too old to live here. Their parents get better jobs that they can now support their families with. You get a single moment and then you have the rest of your life to hope it made a difference.
Another New Roommate
And sometimes kids don’t leave. Ricardo is the only Guerrero who won’t be going home to live with his family for Christmas break. Since his house mom is gone, he came to live with us. It’s been a blast having his chistes and smiles around, not to mention his inadvertent help taking care of the Leones by entertaining them by being a cool older kid. However, the melancholy undertone from our day in the jungle followed me back to our house. Because sometimes kids don’t leave. Sometimes they don’t go home for Christmas break, not because their families are unknown, or because the government took away custody, or because they will get physically abused. Instead, sometimes they don’t go home to their families because their families just don’t want them.
It was heartbreaking to see Ricardo break his normally capo and macho demeanor to sprint with a grin to greet his mother and stepdad at the gate, who couldn’t have even been bothered to show up on his birthday. It was heartbreaking to see the afterglow of happiness from seeing them and then hear from Melissa that the only reason he’s staying over break and not going back home to be with his older siblings and parents is that they don’t want to take him. It’s heartbreaking to know that despite the fact he undoubtedly feels a little trapped and forgotten here at Familia Feliz, he doesn’t act out, he doesn’t egregiously disobey, he doesn’t fight with the others. Despite his desire to appear strong and tough and in need of nothing, he’s just trying his best to be loved and remembered.
So we don’t feel bad at all trying to make him feel special by including him in the White Elephant party, or taking him into town to eat out, or letting him go to Rurre alone with Charlie for haircuts and clothes shopping, or letting him sleep in, or cooking him a special breakfast. Sure, he knows we’re spoiling him and he’s definitely willing to take advantage of that to some degree. And sure, it’s nothing like a real family, but whatever it takes to try and show him he's important.
One way I’m trying to intentionally change my mindset is how I view helping at Familia Feliz. I had a terrible epiphany that I’ve spent this year trying to help by taking the burden of childcare off of the other volunteers or by doing small chores like dishes and cleaning. Obviously these things are important, but I don’t want to keep subconsciously viewing these kids as a burden. Yes, taking care of kids can be exhausting and draining, especially when they come prepackaged with unsolvable issues. And yes, sometimes their caretakers – whether they’re SMs or full time staff – need a break that I can provide either by watching the kids or by doing chores they don’t have time for.
I am happy to help however I can, even when it means doing chores so others have time to connect with the kids, but I’ve realized that I’ve spent my time here trying to be helpful by trying to take the burden of entertaining the kids off of others. But the kids shouldn’t be burdens, and I’m not here just to do chores. I don’t want to go back and say that I washed dishes all year, I want to go home with meaningful relationships. I want to remember these kids as friends and people and not just as weighty responsibilities. To be fair, these kids are important responsibilities that should be taken seriously, and I have taken time to get to know them and make memories with them. It’s just that I’ve spent my time thinking that simply hanging out with them is a privilege that comes after every other responsibility is taken care of, when in fact it’s the whole reason I’m here.
The sudden end to my time with some of the older kids who aren’t coming back next year was a big part of my epiphany. My time here with these kids is so short and limited; I don’t want to spend it all on doing dishes.