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Fall Forward

My good friend Briana Murphy introduced my talk. She gave me a photo and a jar of photo and story prompts. She was the rector on the retreat.

In February, I went on a retreat designed for my seniors. I was on the team having been on other retreats at my school. I gave a talk about growing in your faith. A few friends afterward requested I share the talk. While some of it might be repetitive if you have read the other posts about Ecuador, it is the story about how I have gotten to where I am in my faith today and how much it means to me. The picture with the talk is of my good friend Briana Murphy. She introduced me and my talk before I gave it. Afterward I chose the song “Indian Moon” by State Radio to play for reflection.

Enjoy.

Last semester I was in class and in the midst of doing an assignment I came across Denzel Washington’s 2010 commencement speech to the graduating class of Penn State. And he said one of the most inspirational things I have ever heard in regards to starting your life. He said,

There is no passion in playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living. I’m sure in your experiences in school and applying to college and picking your major and deciding what you want to do in life, I’m sure people have told you, make sure you have something to fall back on, make sure you have something to fall back on honey, but I never understood that concept, having something to fall back on. If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything except my faith. I want to fall forward, so that way I know what I’m falling into.

This talk is about growing in your faith. I did not want to give this talk. I wanted to give a talk, but when looking at the options, this was not my number one. I circled it saying I would be interested. The reason I didn’t want to give it was because let’s face it, as a senior in college; it is hard to be questioned about faith. It is sort of like being asked what your plans are after graduation. Not many of us know yet. While some of us are fortunate to have a plan for what happens after May 12, the day we graduate if you weren’t sure, some of us just don’t know. And I think the same can be said for faith. Some of us are fortunate to know what it means to be a person of deep faith. Some of us have had the defining moments in our lives that dictate who we are or how we act when it comes to faith. One of the questions I was asked to think about was how I have taken leap of faith. So I had to think back, back to August of 2008, where along this four year journey have I taken my leaps of faith.

I feel confident saying that I am a person of deep faith. I was raised in a very strict Roman Catholic family. It just happened to be my path. When you grow up one way and are introduced to others, you perceive them differently. When we come to college, for the majority of us, it is our first time living away from home, with new people, with new lifestyles. Our parent’s spent 18 years molding us and teaching us and now we are in a place where we are constantly bombarded by different living styles and tendencies. But one of the biggest differences I noticed in tendencies was when it came to faith. I remember the last week of August in 2008 when we all were freshmen, moving to school and I had this awesome realization. No one was going to wake me up on a Sunday and say time to go to mass.

I look back and chuckle at stupid Nicholas, but at the time I thought it was awesome that no one was forcing me to go to church. But something that dawned at me at this young age was that none of my friends really had any perception of being excited about not going to mass. We had all been raised in our faith lives differently. The strangest was when I became very good friends with a girl who was an atheist. But despite not believing in any kind of God, she taught me a lot about my faith. Her and I were very close and occasionally faith would come up in conversation. I would ask her how she could be an atheist and she said the same thing I would say if someone asked me why I was catholic; it’s how I was raised.

When coming into college, how much do we do that is really of our own accord? How much do our lives just relive the tendencies that our parents taught us? There were a lot of different things that sparked my interest in reconnecting to my faith. But to reconnect, I had to start taking leaps of faith, doing something with blind belief that in the end it would be for the best. My first leap was going on Start 1 retreat. Chris Cirilli, my roommate of today four years convinced me to go the spring of our sophomore year. I agreed since he and my other roommate Joe Grivers were on the team. Part of the structure includes confession and I remember spending most of my time talking to Father, at the time brother, Dinh who was supervising the retreat. I shared with him how forced I felt in my faith. He said it was good I didn’t involve myself right away, had it been to appease my mother that I was going to mass on Sundays, I couldn’t say I was a strong person of faith. I was doing it for the wrong reason. He did not push me, he just said, take your time and don’t be a stranger.

The next leap was going on Start 2. This retreat is about focusing on your own relationship with God, focusing on the things that hold you back and how to let them go. I had a long talk with the head of Campus Ministry James Rizza about things that I held onto, bad things, and he said don’t worry about it, believe it or not you have a lot to learn about life experiences and soon enough, you’ll learn to let them go. After that I finally felt like someone had flipped a switch. I finally felt my own connection. And I decided to not let go.

I knew I needed to take that next leap of faith. I filled out an application and quickly found myself as a part of the Camp Min Core Team. In choosing my focus area, it was pretty easy. I wanted Start 2. It had given me a second chance and I wanted to give that chance to someone else.

It is human nature to want recognition. When I was on start team a year before I gave a talk and was told by multiple individuals that it was inspiring and I loved that feeling. I wanted to inspire again. But this time it was much different. By the end of the Start 2 retreat I felt like I hadn’t inspired or taught anyone anything. I felt like I had failed at my job. After three months of preparing and hard work, it seemed to end so abruptly. But at the end of the retreat we had a passing prayer. My good friend, our junior helper Ashley was on the retreat. She had just been rector for Start 1 and had some experience with what I was feeling. She said thank you to my wonderful partner Colleen Harrigan and I because she knew how much behind the scenes work went on and how very few people see it. Her comment got me thinking. I spent three months with my partner working to put this whole retreat together and only we knew it. And that made me finally get it. I was serving God selflessly.

Now I have to admit something. At this point I had taken many leaps of faith, but it took a lot for me to wake up and realize the differences that I needed to make in my life. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve been stupid. I’ve had horrible judgment. I’ve been an ass. I’ve been inconsiderate. I’ve been drunk. I’ve been careless. I’ve been selfish. I’ve been angry. And I’ve been a drunk a few more times. How many of us can say we haven’t experienced any of these instances while in college? And for a long time I held such a grudge against myself. I judged myself. I hated myself.

In reflecting on what to say in this talk, I read, “Some of the saints share the fact that often times before they came to a leap of faith, they experience a dark night of the soul, a time when they seemed to be going nowhere in their faith. Sometimes it is the crises of life that serves as the springboard for faith,” I found this statement very relevant to my life. About a month ago, I visited a therapist. I had been having a really difficult time dealing with something and felt like I needed to talk to someone, a professional. After talking to him for a little bit he said what I was hoping he wouldn’t. He told me I was suffering from depression. My first reaction was naw, that’s ok. Let me explain why he was saying this.

The first week of January this year, I found myself taking the biggest leap of faith I have ever taken. I found myself in Duran, Ecuador on my second SEND mission trip. Similar to my mindset before Start 2, I was not prepared to learn so much. My first SEND trip was in South Dakota living on a Native American reservation. Some of you who have been on these trips with me might be able to attest, when you immerse yourself in these different worlds, you see a lot of poverty and start to become desensitized to it. You begin to have a certain expectation. But Ecuador was different. I went down thinking I couldn’t do much in a place like that, because of the invisible barriers, the language barrier, the racial barrier and social class barrier. I went down thinking I couldn’t learn something. I went down thinking I would be desensitized. I went thinking I couldn’t be touched. I was wrong on all three accounts.

I could go into the details of the trip, talk about all the beautiful people we and the extraordinary places we visited. But I’m not going to. I’m going to tell you three stories from the trip that slapped me in the face with a few realizations.

Remember how I said I thought I couldn’t do much because of the invisible barriers? Well on the third day, this thought was proven wrong. I visited a leprosy house and after 45 minutes of talking to the most caring and sweet people I have ever met, I found myself dancing with this sweet little blind leper woman named Mercedes. She was a little bit of a player because after I stopped, she moved right on to Zack. After that we visited a school called Nuevo Mundo where we met a woman named Patricia who built this gorgeous school on swamp land and after asking her questions about her work she wanted to ask us about ours. She asked if any of us had intention of being a teacher. Just a few hands went up and she gave us a look. She said that we were all to be teachers. If we had the privilege of traveling to Duran and experience life amongst the people residing there, we had no right to not teach about what we saw. She told us if we were American, had an American passport, had an American college education, there was no reason for us to fail and no reason for us to not do anything about the problems that we were seeing. The last stop of that day was to a school called Chicos de Calles. This was a school for boys living on the street, either homeless or abandoned by their families and they were brought to the school told that if they did well, they would be trained to play soccer. After a tour we were asked if we wanted to join in a soccer game with the boys. We jumped in. It happened to be raining that day so if you can picture a huge field consisting of nothing but mud and about 30 Ecuadorian boys and us running back and forth, just trying to score, just sharing in the fight to defeat the other team.

Dancing with a blind leper woman, being bluntly told that I have no right to let social injustice pass me by, fighting through blood, sweat and tears to work with people who couldn’t understand me and who I couldn’t understand to achieve a common goal, my belief that the invisible barriers would prevent me from being able to do anything, was immediately proven wrong.

My next belief was that I wouldn’t learn something I didn’t already know. On the second day, we went to an afterschool program called Manos in a town called Antonio Jose Sucre. This community known as ASJ was built on trash. After 30 minutes of driving by tattered homes and monstrous piles of trash, we came to a stop. Our guide named Julia told us we had arrived.

We all stood in front of a massive concrete wall with a tiny gate door. I walked in first and looked around and what caught my attention was raised concrete in the ground over to my left. I walked over to see a pool. It was empty. At first I was surprised to see a pool at all. Then I let out a depressing laugh to myself because it was just one more sad sight. In the midst of all this heat, a swim sounded amazing, cold water or not. But even though it was built for such a use, it sat there empty. Until Julia walked up and proclaimed, “Oh God, the kids are going to want to go swimming today.” I quickly became confused. She said it in such a tone that can be related to by any camp counselor. When they know their kids are going to love a new activity, but the second they see it’s available to them, they go crazy making the counselor’s job harder. But I didn’t understand; the pool was empty. What were they going to go swimming in? I did a double take and starred into the empty pool. It wasn’t exactly empty. There was about an inch of collected rain water resting at the bottom.

Everyone knows that phrase, optimists see a glass half full, pessimists see it half empty. These kids saw an inch of water in a large concrete hole as a swimming pool. I saw it completely empty. What does that say? That moment quickly would be one that would change me forever. Because while I still was hesitant to believe Julia that these kids were going swimming, the second they got there it felt like I was defending a celebrity from screaming fans. Except these screaming fans were a bunch of tiny children who just wanted to go swimming in an inch of water. They were sneaky too. When we said no they took their shoes off and threw them in the pool. Then their excuse was they needed to get them. It was not hard at all to say go ahead, because the second their bare feet hit the water, they were filled with happiness. Thinking I couldn’t learn something new in Ecuador was just proven wrong. How could I ever be unsatisfied or take something for granted again?

The last thing I thought was that I wouldn’t see something I hadn’t seen before. Again, I have done service trips before, I have seen poverty. There comes a time where you become desensitized to it. You don’t think you can see something and be as shocked as you were the first time you had a service experience. I was so terribly wrong. The very first day we were there our guide Billy told us we were going to an after school program called Semillas. The Rostro volunteer named Molly came over to explain what was happening and told us that she would split us into groups to help facilitate the kids in each area.

My group had about 10 little ones in it. We were given a book to read to the kids and then gave out paper and crayons. Molly came back over to check on us. She asked how we were doing and we told her that despite the language barrier, we were surviving and doing well. She explained how all the kids wanted was attention. This was the only place they really got it. I looked over to see a little girl sitting on a bleacher alone. She was in a pretty little dress and was just sitting with her elbows on her knees and her chin resting on her hands starring at a little boy who was running in circles in front of her. The little boy was tiny, neither had shoes. I asked if I should get them to come over and join the group. Molly said, “It’s ok, we kind of let them do their own thing”. I asked why. She told me it was a difficult story.

She explained that there were three of them. The tiny boy was 2, the little girl was 7 and they had an older brother in the homework room who was 9. The older sister and brother took care of the 2 year old because they had no family. I asked her to explain and she said that was it. They have no family. They have a mother that stops in once maybe twice a week and drops off a little bit of food. But the three of them are alone the rest of them time. When they would come to Semillas, the 7 and 9 year old would take turns doing homework and watching their little brother. Then afterward, they would walk home, in the mud, without shoes, make dinner for the little one, sometimes they got to eat and go to sleep. Then do the same thing the next day.

I fought back tears hearing this. But Molly continued on. They usually do not let kids under the age of 5 to come to the program because they keep it as constructive as possible but these three little ones they made an exception. Especially what had happened a few weeks before. I asked what had happened. She told us that a 7 year old and 4 year old were in the exact same situation. About 3 weeks before our arrival, the older brother was making the younger brother dinner and a fire started and burnt down their house and the two neighbor houses. The 7 year old got out.

The 4 year old did not.

The gut wrenching, heart breaking, tear jerking scene I found myself in can’t really be put into words. It is something that I can’t fully relate to you or explain. But it certainly proved me wrong when I thought I wasn’t going to be emotionally touched on this trip.

In the few weeks since I’ve been back to America, I’ve been stuck in this funk. I remember getting back to school and just feeling alone. I felt disconnected from everything and everyone around me because it seemed like no one could understand what I had just seen. I just didn’t know how to handle it. It became most apparent to me when I was at a party one of the first weekends back at school and my close friend Jeremy that had been with me in South Dakota and Ecuador and who will be co-leading a SEND trip with me to Washington DC sat next to me. We were reminiscing about our trips and he asked, “Do you ever just feel depressed, that we are sitting here, in a warm apartment, drinking beer, laughing with friends and then you think about all the people we just lived with and became close with, and they are still there. They are still suffering. We left the suffering, but they are still in it.” It sounds depressing because it is. But it was the happiest I had felt since I had been back to school. The concept of feeling alone finally seemed to drift away. The therapist I spoke with asked if I wanted anything to help me through it and I said confidently, I’m not that kind of guy that needs something to get me through depression. And he told me that was fine, but this was not something that was going to go away by just ignoring it. So I told him I was giving this talk and he said use that. Let that be your drug. Let that be your vehicle.

All of my experiences have come from taking a leap of faith. It all comes back to serving God in one way or another. And while I can’t literally make you feel the heartbreak that I felt while in Ecuador, I can say to you the things that I realized upon coming back and the things that seem to just make so much more sense.

We are going to graduate soon. We are going to be out of college. We are going to lose touch with people, people we probably refer to as close friends. We will find that we can’t just skip work like we skip class from time to time. We can’t drink excessively because it’s the weekend. We can’t say “next semester” anymore. There is no more “3 strikes and you’re out”. We are not going to be able to be young and reckless and make up excuses because its college. We are going to lose that bubble. And that is ok. Because if there is one thing every leap of faith has taught me, it is putting things in perspective. The problems we thought were problems in college are going to become meaningless. The things we get angry about now are going to seem petty when we are trying to buy a house or raise a family. Why do you get angry? What do you define as a problem? I’ve learned to put things in perspective. And I think that is what God would want. Because while he sees the things we see as suffering in our lives, he sees the suffering of the whole world. And like I was told in Ecuador, we have no right to be angry, we have no right to do nothing about the injustices of the world, we have no right to fail. I’ve grown to learn that in the end, it truly is what we do with our lives from the day Prez Chez hands us our diploma that matters. We have the power to change the world, why linger on what has already passed.

My song is about having that one rock for you to fall back on in life. I chose, like Denzel, to fall back on my faith, you might choose differently. Whatever it is, let that be the only thing you look back on, because in 3 months it should be the only thing we ever look back on, everything else is waiting for us to fall forward.

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Ecuador: This is Wrong

I woke up the next morning to a rooster on my window sill screaming at me. Shock doesn’t convey my emotion. It was more just perplexity to the point of speechlessness. I turned over in my net. I felt the accumulated sweat against my sheets rub against my dry skin. I pulled my net up and crawled out, doing my best to maneuver my way down the metal bed frame. I put my sandals on and went to the bathroom. Billy our leader was walking in as I went to the bathroom with a bag and a group member followed him with a bag of equal size. When I walked out of the bathroom Billy had everyone gathered around the kitchen counter. He opened the bags and we looked in to see what looked like hundreds of rolls of bread. The sizeable amount of bread definitely awakened our appetites. We hadn’t really eaten since the meal on the plane. Everything they say about plane food being subpar is true. Billy told us we each got 3 rolls. That sounded sufficient for breakfast.

We had been preparing for simple living for a few months. 3 rolls was a simple breakfast right? Well…not exactly simple enough for where we were. It turned out that it was 3 rolls for breakfast and lunch. So we could split it up accordingly. We asked if there would be other food at lunch besides the rolls and he said yes. So a lot of us chose 2 rolls for breakfast. The woman who is the director of the entire program stationed in Ecuador came in to talk with us about some more orientation type details for the week. When she strolled in Billy asked if he could get the bananas. She allowed it. A few moments later, Billy came back in with a large crate, overfilling with bananas. He told us that we had this crate for the week and could eat them whenever we wanted but once it was empty, that was it. So now we realized that we would be getting a max of 2 rolls for breakfast, a handful of bananas and all the warm water we could imagine…splendid.

Megan, the director, had us all sit down.

Side note. I am hoping to send this portion of my blog out to the members of Rostro de Christo when I am done. I know that I have group members from my trip reading this as I post it. I hope that it will be a resource for the Campus Ministry department and the SEND program at school. After saying all that, I fully apologize if I butcher names of people, locations and/or other things I may talk about in this blog. I have a feeling when I start describing Spanish titled things, the spelling may be a bit off. So I apologize but encourage looking past the minor spelling errors and seeing the bigger picture.

We were sat around the table preparing for our day. Megan sat us down to briefly discuss some orientation things. But as we would quickly learn, she, nor any other volunteer, was going to tell us much about our week. They liked the surprise aspect. But more importantly, they wanted us going in without judgments or expectations. After about a half hour of chatting about respect, we headed out to meet Aide. Aide was one of our main Ecuadorian contacts. She was such a sweet, beautiful Ecuadorian woman. We met her in front of the local church. She introduced us to the area. It was a town called Arbolito. We would come to learn about how it was an invasion community. But we’ll get to that later.

Aide gave us a little background of the town and told us that we were going to meet our first neighbor. Before coming to Ecuador, we heard that we were going to have neighborhood time. This confused me, but after our first stop, we quickly understood the importance. Our first neighbor was about a 5 minute walk from our house. We kept in a close group and watched as the members of the community starred at us. It is very unsettling to be the minority, but also very awakening. We reflected a bit that night about how significant an experience it was to be placed in a situation where being the minority felt awkward and uncomfortable.

Nonetheless we kept moving forward and approached a wooden fenced in home. This home belonged to a woman named Lupe. Aide poked her head over the door saying, “hola”. A curvy woman with a huge smile appeared in the door way of what seemed to be a house made of clay like material. She ran right out and unlocked the fence door. As we proceeded in she opened her arms to all of us saying, “hola”, and offering a hug. As she hugged each of us with such a warm smile she gave us each a kiss on the cheek. You would never find that in America with a stranger, probably not even with most families.

As I approached her home there was a metal roof set up over the ground to create a porch type area. There were some wooden benches, a hammock and some plastic chairs. Another side note that we picked up on very quickly on in Ecuador. There is not one comfortable chair in Ecuador. Everything is hard. There are no cushions and no supports when we would sit in different homes including ours. At first glance, a bench does not seem too bad. But after a few hours, few days, a week, my ass hurt. Regardless we took our seats. Aide looked at me searching for a seat and suggested I take the hammock. I asked if it would be rude but she insisted. Another lesson I learned early on in the trip was after a night of very poor sleep, don’t take a hammock for a seat. Like I said, there are no comfortable seats. Well hammocks are the comfiest you are going to get, so if you take that as your seat after very little sleep, you are going to find yourself dozing.

But back to Lupe. She proceeded to start talking to us. It was confusing at first. Billy sat with her and translated the majority of what she was saying with Aide occasionally filling in. Her first questions to us were what our names were, what we were studying in college and if we had a boyfriend/girlfriend. At first this seemed a bit personal, but in Ecuador, they are very open. Again we would come to learn how personable the people there were. I can only really speak for myself when I told her I studied writing and art and that I indeed have a girlfriend, she responded that I had one because I was so handsome and that I looked like someone who she could have an interesting conversation with. It is an interesting fun fact that the people we met are much more in tune with individuals. They make it a habit to read the people they meet and have a pure genuine interest in anyone they meet.

Lupe proceeded to tell us a bit about her story. She had a difficult story about how her children had left her to pursue careers and better lives. But despite how alone she felt she was more than happy that they had grown and bettered themselves from the poverty stricken life she was stuck in. She continued to talk about how she has an abusive husband. We learned that in Ecuador men have a lot of hang-ups and act with a lot of machismo. The negative aspect of this lifestyle came with heavy drinking which led him to come home and verbally and physically abuse her.

We had not known this woman for more than 10 minutes and she was in tears confessing and explaining these things to us. She proceeded to talk about how she was soon leaving Arbolito because her husband, despite his poor lifestyle choices, owned the house and wanted her out. But despite all of this, she was so happy to see us. She saw that we were young, smart students with a lot of drive. She enjoyed us feeling welcomed by her and talked about some more history of Arbolito. After a lovely conversation we bid her ciao. We quickly learned that we do not say adios. It comes off more as a good bye forever. Ciao was more “see you later”.

As we walked back to the house, we passed by a school. But it was not a school like the ones that we are used to in America. It was a huge stadium type roof. There were rooms that stood along the sides with no actual walls. Billy told us that this was the school program that we would be working at later. While we walked along all of a sudden we heard a little scream. We turned around to see a little boy had run out of his home and jumped on a girl in our group. She was a bit startled but in a good way. We turned to see 3 or 4 other little ones run out. They all jumped on us wanting to be held. It was so cute. The smallest little girl walked over to me and smiled at me. Her beautiful smile and smooth skin shined in the sunlight. I bent down and picked her up and she giggled. She was adorable. Billy was laughing at us and told us we had to keep moving but we would be back later and said the same to the kids in Spanish. I put her down and we kept walking. We all thought that was the funniest thing. Little did we know we would soon become human jungle gyms.

We got back to the house and Billy prepared us for lunch. While a group of us prepared lunch, one of the group members made a schedule for the entire group as to who would go on bread runs, who would go to the market when necessary, who would cook and who would clean. Lunch got old really quickly. We asked Billy if he had to suffer eating this same thing every day like we had to, but he snickered and said no. He had his own diet which was minimal but varied so he didn’t get sick of it. Lunch consisted of however much bread you had left, a spoonful of tuna straight from the can and a few spoonfuls of a veggie base which we made every day consisting of diced tomatoes, onions and peppers. After a week of this I am surprised I can eat tuna so easily. Alas we forced it down, still hungry, but satisfied for now.

Billy then told us we would begin to get ready to go to Semillas. This was the school area that we had passed earlier. Again, we did not receive much information before going so that we could go in without perception. We got used to this pretty quickly. Had we gone into Lupe’s with some sort of perception it would have ruined our whole time with her because it is human nature to establish a bias. All we were told was the set up of the program. When we got there, the kids would be lined up. They would all be in lines based on sex and age. The first half was a constructive activity. The second half was recreo or recess. The last part was a bit difficult for us to understand. It was a talk to the kids about different values. The value of that week was spirituality. They would then pray and then receive a vitamin, a piece of bread and a banana. For a lot of them, this would be their first and only food of the day. Haunting.

We all filled our water bottles, put on some shorts, lathered ourselves in sun screen and bug spray and shipped out. Along with another group member, I grabbed the large crate of bananas which was identical to the one we had for the week but for the kids at Semilllas. As we started down the street to the school which was not a 3 minute walk, kids started just appearing out of nowhere. And they all wanted to be picked up. You might think I exaggerate. ALL OF THEM WANT TO BE PICKED UP.

It was a sad realization when it dawned on us that these little kids don’t receive this kind of love or attention at home, so we agreed to pick every single one up. BIG MISTAKE. When you lift them up once they want it again. And again…and again. Nonetheless when we got inside the gate of the school a little boy named Leontel ran over to me and jumped. Luckily I had put the crate of bananas down because it was so unexpected that I was glad I caught him.

He was small but a tough kid. He had a revolver belt buckle which made him awesome in my book. He pointed and shouted something I didn’t understand but I just decided to follow in the direction he pointed and it seemed to please him. When we walked into the stadium area, there were kids, EVERYWHERE. They all just starred at us. Pointing and whispering as if they had little secrets about the aliens that just walked into the room. We were asked to line up so they would follow our example and they did. Then we had to introduce ourselves, our favorite color and our favorite food. When it got to me I said,

“Me llamo Nicholas, yo favorita colore es rojo y yo favorito food es burrito.”

I immediately realized that again, I sounded like an idiot, and it was really stereotypical of me to think that since I am in South America saying burrito would make me sound cool…it didn’t it made me look like an ass. Regardless, we finished and the man running the program whose name was Ricardo, who would end up being awesome, released everyone to the big kid’s activity, the little kid’s activity or the homework room. The Rostro volunteer named Molly came over to explain what was happening and told us that she would split us into groups to help facilitate the kids in each area. She had us all sit on the bleacher where the little kids were assigned to go to and the second I sat down I had Leontel on my shoulders and two other little ones in my lap. The kids were beyond the cutest little beings I had every seen.

What we didn’t know when we would walk in was that each of the kids would watch us walk in and immediately choose a favorite without knowing anything about us. So when we all started getting split up into groups, the little kids would chase after their favorites or cry out in desire to be with them. When the other Rostro volunteer began splitting the kids up to get into groups with each of us, the little kids clutched on to the arms of the Gringos that they wanted to stay with. When she got to Leontel he literally attempted to tackle my upper body. I guess this was body language for wanting to stay with me because when she allowed him to stay next to me he put out his fist for a bump. This kid was awesome.

Our group had about 10 little ones in it. It was the leader of our trip and me. We were given a book to read to the kids and have them pick out little fun facts in it. Finally my 3 years of Spanish started to kick in when I was able to read to them. After which we gave out paper and crayons. They begged for more crayons but we had to restrict them to 4 each. Do you know how hard it is to say no to a small child that you know has nothing in their life and all they want in that moment is one extra crayon? It is impossible. Sorry Rostro volunteers if I left the kids wanting extra crayons, but I gave them the entire bag and watched their smiles burst and their little hands fight for the ones they wanted.

What happened next was one of I think 3 major moments during the whole trip which will forever be imprinted in my mind. The volunteer Molly came over to check on us. She asked how we were doing and we told her that despite the language barrier, we were surviving and seemingly doing well. She smiled and said “good”. All the kids wanted was attention. This was the only place they really got it. I looked over to see a little girl sitting on a bleacher alone. She was in a pretty little dress and was just sitting with her elbows on her knees and her chin resting on her hands starring at a little boy who was running in circles in front of her. The little boy was tiny. He had an adorable little striped shirt, a tiny had and tiny little shorts. Neither had shoes. I asked if I should get them to come over and join the group. Molly said, “It’s ok, we kind of let them do their own thing”. I asked why. She told me it was a difficult story.

My first thought, “shit, here it comes”. She explained that there were three of them. The tiny boy was 2, the little girl was 7 and they had an older brother in the homework room who was 9. The older sister and brother took care of the 2 year old because they had no family. I asked her to explain and she said that was it. They have no family. They have a mother that stops in once maybe twice a week and drops off a little bit of food. But the three of them are alone the rest of them time. When they would come to Semillas, the 7 and 9 year old would take turns doing homework and watching their little brother. Then afterward, they would walk home, in the mud, without shoes, make dinner for the little one, sometimes they got to eat and go to sleep. Then do the same thing the next day.

I fought back tears hearing this. But Molly continued on. They usually do not let kids under the age of 5 to come to the program because they keep it as constructive as possible but these three little ones they made an exception. Especially what had happened a few weeks before. We asked what had happened. She told us that a 7 year old and 4 year old were in the exact same situation. About 3 weeks before our arrival, the older brother was making the younger brother dinner and a fire started and burnt down their house and the two adjacent houses. The 7 year old got out.

The 4 year old did not.

Three weeks before I was at a Christmas party eating cookies and opening presents. Puts quite a few things in perspective. This 7 year old was now homeless and without a brother. I never got the chance to meet him. But I wish I could have. I don’t know what I would have said, but maybe just to give him a hug would have made some kind of difference.

A few moments later we started hearing screams. RECREO!!! This meant all hell broke loose and again, I was a human jungle gym. I ran around with little kids slung over my shoulders. All I could hear were their tiny laughs and giggles. If I picked them up once, they wanted one more. If I tossed them in the air and caught them their eyes would grow large and their smiles even bigger and say higher. If I held onto their arms and spun them around, they would scream over their own laughs and say faster. I never could have been trained or explained to the extreme and deep significance of ministry of presence. These kids did not want us to build them a house, give them food or provide better clothes. They were better than material processions. They just wanted love.

After eventually growing tired of tossing kids in the air and spinning them around, I needed a break. I drank some water and tried my hand at soccer. I had no clue that this would lead to a week of constant soccer. Really is huge down there. Something I noticed was the endurance of the kids. I’m 6 feet high and weigh just over 200 pounds with a decent amount of muscle. When I would run towards these little kids and snag the ball, they chased me until they caught the ball. If they fell, they got back up. Hell we were playing on concrete and they didn’t have any shoes and they were better and tougher than us. American kids are so whiney.

After what seemed like an eternity of small children craziness, they called for what I believe is called Shakra. Again I apologize for misspellings or names. But it was the prayer and talk of the afternoon about spirituality. The kids all prayed and as they were silent, we noticed something. There were little pieces of material drifting into the stadium. We couldn’t tell what they were but off in the distance we saw black smoke. Fire. Some of us grew nervous feeling the need to alert someone but figured wait till the kids are gone. When the kids got their food and left we pointed it out and asked what it was. The volunteers explained that it was the locals burning trash. We would start to see fire a lot more often.

But I had a quick realization. These little kids play in an area where the ashes of trash being burned drifts in and they breathe it in. I studied the atmosphere around me. I turned to see the 2, 7 and 9 year old leaving with no shoes but with ashes raining upon them which began to cloud my vision and the stadium around us. The locals and volunteers didn’t react, they were used to it.

This was pretty much the end of our day. We had dinner and a quick reflection. But overall, it was done. All I could think as I laid in my metal bed that night with the screams outside and occasional gunshots, this was wrong.

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