There are at present 29 children living at Hogar Para Todos. The house belonged to the director’s parents, who from what I understand left it to her when they died. Nancy is 76 years old and usually is woken by a staff member or a young person whose problem can only be resolved by her at around 6:30 in the morning. From there she starts her day, never seeming to rush, but always making progress. By 8:00 or thereabouts she is fully dressed and has had her breakfast and is getting to the day’s to-dos. She has no office, and her only device is a Blackberry from which she occasionally checks her Facebook page. Throughout the day she floats between the accounting office (which has become my temporary home, as there is a computer I can generally use if no one else needs it), the “Director’s office,” which is a funny misnomer because of course Nancy is the director, but there are 3 desks in there and none of them are hers, and the various other parts of the house where care and support are the order of the day: the kitchen, the babies’ room, the playground, the dining room.
The house is labyrinth-like, owing to the fact that add-ons and additions have been taking place since long before it was a children’s home. Nancy’s mother had wings and terraces built while she was still alive, but these all feel very much half-finished, and in fact some of them are: there is a very precarious wooden staircase leading to a terrace that extends from one of the three bodegas, warehouses where cleaning supplies and extra shoes and mattresses and dry goods and fruits and so forth are kept. The terrace serves as one of a few spots from which to dry the never-ending loads of laundry; Nancy’s mother had the staircase built 20 years ago as a temporary fix until proper stairs could be installed.
On the ground floor there is a large kitchen with some pretty fancy industrial equipment donated a couple years ago, and which I’m sure eased the cooks’ burden considerably. There are two dining rooms, one of which is very large, and with three tables lined up end-to-end, all the older children can eat together. The younger children eat first in the smaller dining area, and the staff eat when they can, often together, at yet another table in the larger room as well. The food isn’t bad and the children eat well. The older kids are responsible for washing their own dishes and take turns helping to clean the kitchen every night.
The other day a new little boy came in. No one is exactly certain of Baby J’s age, though they guess he’s probably about 18 months. The police have been called out to his folks’ place several times on domestic violence claims…alcohol is a pretty common factor in many of the kids’ journeys to the foundation’s doors, and apparently his parents have been deemed unfit to look after him because of this, at least for the time being. However, life around here is not easy, particularly for indigenous people. The country is improving in lots of ways, but non-mestizos can’t work their way out of debilitating poverty when faced with a system that keeps them out of favor. And with poverty comes the need for crutches, because absolute poverty is unimaginably exhausting and complex, every day, all the time.
That isn’t to say that all the children come from the same socio-economic background. D is the newest arrival, and will likely be the next one to move on. Her mother’s ongoing untreated mental health problems have led to significant violence in her home, and as there are only two members of her household, she is exclusively on the receiving end of course. She seems to be very “together,” which is worth a lot in real life, as we all know, but never as much as a healthy beginning, and at 14, it’s too late for that now.
29 kids with 29 heartbreaking stories, some of which are so terrible I can’t figure out how to go into them here, and of course that number increases exponentially when you consider that their broken parents came into parenthood with heartbreaking stories of their own.
But the day-to-day reality is not doom and gloom. Tomorrow morning they will wake up at 6:00 and, unable to find those shoes, or certain that so-and-so took their hair-tie, they’ll come shouting to the tias in the house as they wash down their breakfast with warm chocolate milk and rush off to school. They will spend the day like all other kids, playing, learning, fighting, and growing, and will find their way back here in time for another healthy and filling meal around those three tables they personally push together and set, and then clear when they’ve finished. They will do their homework with the Educational Psychologist and some will have sessions with the Clinical Psychology Interns or the onsite Social Worker. They will play in the afternoon and help feed the babies and get into arguments and then have their dinner and get ready for bed, and do it all over again on Tuesday.
Somehow in spite of life’s overwhelming cruelties, the bottom line is it must go on, and Nancy is one of those extraordinary people whose every waking moment is dedicated to seeing that it does. As I write, at nearly 11:00 on a Sunday that began for her at about 7:00 am, she is still up and around, dealing with the myriad issues that always need to be dealt with here. Because of her, and several others like her we’ve already had the chance to meet in the short time we’ve been here, life does indeed go on, and there is quite often surprising room for joy in it as well.