This is the seventh post in a series that started here.
I wrote in the first post in this series, “Wrestling with Restless,” that I would eventually make a point about my question: “Why would I want to leave Minnesota, one of the cleanest, healthiest, most progressive states in the U.S.—a state with great microbreweries—to go study/work/volunteer in a developing country?”
I’m finally at the point of making the point.
I was on a bus in central Mexico with 50 other mostly American Spanish-immersion students, and we had just been directed to gaze upon a garbage dump a big as a mountain. It was beautiful—from afar. Trash is colorful. Flocks of seagulls soared and reeled above it and the sun glinted off the metal and glass it contained. Our guide had called it a garbage dump city. Why would anyone live in a garbage dump? The stench would be overpowering! Think of the filth and the disgusting things you would see!
To my relief, we didn’t stop but kept going until we arrived at Nuetros Pequeños Hermanos, or Our Little Brothers and Sisters. As I mentioned previously, the Spanish school we attended specialized in Spanish for social workers, health care professionals, and teachers. I wasn’t any of those; I just had just liked the school so much the first time that I wanted to return for more. Now here I was, about to tour an orphanage.
We piled out of the bus and someone walked us around. This is how I know I was having a Yerkes-Dodson moment, because I cannot remember whether it was a man or a woman or a priest or one of the older kids or a volunteer.
“We have 550 children here, from toddlers to teenagers,” the guide informed us. “Most of them aren’t orphans; their parents are just too poor to feed them. Or they’re alcoholics, or unwed mothers, or mentally ill, or in prison.” The guide talked as we walked. We passed a half dozen teenage boys shaving the heads of little boys. We stood and listened in a dorm with rows of bunk beds and cartoon murals on the walls.
“Then there are the children from the garbage dump city,” the guide said. I was transfixed. “Hundreds of families make their living by picking through the rubbish and salvaging anything that can be sold. Mostly it’s metals like copper but also appliances, furniture, shoes …. We send buses every morning to pick up about 250 children. We bring them here, give them showers, delouse them and put them in clean clothes, and they spend the day in school here. Then we bring them home at the end of the day.”
Home. To the garbage dump city.
We kept walking; we saw the dark little volunteer quarters and the kitchen garden tended by the older children. A teenage girl and boy were flirting over a fence. Since it was a Catholic home, I assumed there was no sex education or birth control. How many babies were born here, to children like them?
The census of children is lower now than when I was there, but at that time, as I did the math, they were in charge of feeding, educating, housing, clothing, and providing health care to about 800 children.
“We have a dozen homes in nine countries,” the guide stated. This is the moment when I had my “international awakening,” for lack of a better term. I don’t know if there are homes like this any more in the U.S. There are thousands of children are in the foster care system.
But the scale of this … for every adorable, doe-eyed two year old there were a dozen or a hundred more who needed someone to care for them.
I felt like I was in one of those videos where the camera pulls back from the earth so you feel lifted off the ground. You look down on the tree tops, then you can see rivers and highways, then shorelines of countries. You zoom out farther until you are looking down on the blue marble we called Earth, and then out, out, out until you can see the Milky Way.