“Children hold our hands a while and our hearts forever”
Captain’s Log: July 12th 2016
It was the last day at the educational foundation where other LMU graduate students and I had worked for 3 days. In the middle of a basketball court, about mid-afternoon I struggled to understand the meaning of a message a 9 year old girl, by the name of Lady, was trying to tell me. As I lean into her, with my hand on her shoulder, I say one of the few phases I did know in Spanish: “Uno momento.”
This angelic 9 year old had a serious look on her face as she spoke to me in Spanish. Knowing enough tonality and body language, I knew it was of some seriousness, so I quickly got the attention of a peer friend of mine to translate.
Before I continue, let me give you some background information on this young girl! This child was one of the first children I met about a week prior, while sanding everything inside and outside of the school building. We played peek-a-boo through the school building windows with 3 other friends of hers; I later played on a makeshift jungle gym (wooden pillars and just old flat tires) with her and those same friends; I taught them some patty-cake hand slapping games I played when I was a young school girl – that yes I could remember as a 30 year old women. In another instance, other peers and I played classic tag games paired nicely with red light/green light (or rather luz rojo/luz verde) on a strip of concrete adjacent to the basketball court. And in the midst of this entire interval running, there were more moments I’d like to admit that I had to catch my adult breath in the high altitude. Meanwhile, these girls never seemed to run outta breath! Here I am (avid runner) bent over with my hands on my knees taking in deep breaths saying “uno momento,” in the middle of heavy heaving; as I had to catch my breath in between each game that required any level of running. I am an active person – I promise!
As that first afternoon progressed and the other days spent at the foundation proceeded, it became clear to me that this girl was showing a sweet kind of disposition to me! I don’t know if it was all the snapchat selfie filters I introduced her to and the obsession she had with the dog filter; I don’t know if it was how she would stroke my redhead hair and say under her breath “que bonita” or show fascination with my blue/green eyes or maybe just the fact that I would happily play with her; whatever the reason, she became attached to me quickly! Anytime we played as a large group with the other LMU students, foundation staff and students of the foundation there, Lady was right beside me holding my arm. This angelic and sweet girl even asked for me by name on other occasions: “donde esta Barbara.” Sweet and endearing indeed! Maybe it is my disposition and skill to interact with kids and youth, or maybe it was something else; either way this girl’s disposition to me began to melt my heart.
Honestly speaking as much as this child showed attachment to me, I was just as curious about her. For all intents purposes, we could not communicate. My Spanish is limited and her English is none. The best we could do was gesture, and type simple sentences in my Google translator app – got to love technology these days! Jokes aside though, something transcended verbal communication and magnetized us together.
Furthermore, as a white woman who comes from a certain level of white privilege, from a developed country, I was intrigued and inspired by this child’s level of joy; it radiated! By any other standards, she has nothing (or very little) but showed a kind of genuine happiness that seemed boundless. Then, noticing burn marks on her hands and face, I had suspected this 9 year old had experienced some accident, or worse - abuse. I hoped it was the prior. It wasn’t until exchanging emails back and forth between the directors that I learned Lady was rescued from a fire at the age of 4 years old. With all the economic and physical adversities she’s experienced in her 9 years, I was moved by the joy that trumped her adversities and radiated from her!
Now a mere moments before this child tried to convey something serious to me (on the last day spent at the foundation) I sat with many others in a circle on their soccer field, legs crosses – crisscross applesauce style – and listened to the director of the foundation talk about her gratitude to us as students and to LMU as the university and the contribution we made by the work we did. She proceeded to bring up 5 young children (4 or 5 years old) and mention how these boys and girls were in need of sponsorship for the year to fund their education there at the foundation. The annual cost to educate a child at this foundation is $350. Relatively speaking, it's about the monthly payment of a car. After a group pow-wow the other grad students and I agreed to pitch in money as a class of 20 to sponsor the 5 children.
Now as I lean in to this girl (hand on her shoulder) saying “uno momento,” I simultaneously turn my head up and around to find a classmate of mine. “Hey, Anabel; can you translate for me?” “Yea, sure.” Now as the three of us stood close together, I waited and listened to the fluid Spanish, and time began to slow down. I watched the expression of kindness paint itself across both my peer and this child as they conversed with ease; the late afternoon glow from the sun peeked through the nearby tree branches and the afternoon breeze kissed our faces. I stood listening and waiting for Anabel to convey to me what this child was trying to express to me. With a surprised looked on her face my classmate utters: “Oh, okay,” and turns to me and says: “She’s asking you to sponsor her.”
It took me about half a second to think about my answer before I responded with a heartfelt: “YES!” There’s only been a handful of times in my life that I had said yes so quickly; this instance being one of them. With a touched heart, I bend down and hugged Lady. For the amount of work I did and what I know about the foundation (first hand) and spending time with this child, and for about the cost of a monthly car payment, I simply could not say no! The amount of money, honestly, seemed so trivial in comparison to what I know it is going towards!
After the initial yes, and hug I walked with Lady to the director to speak of my desire to sponsor Lady, give her my contact information, and hear some instructions with how to send the sponsorship amount. As I stood in between the director and this child, I gaze down at this 9 year old with sweet admiration; I felt such an overwhelming feeling of love and humility from her. The kind of courage to ask a stranger (and a foreign one for that matter) for sponsorship was beyond me! When I was her age, I didn’t dare ask my parents for anything in that price range – much less a new face like myself!
In the mild weather of this same afternoon a woman approaches me with tears in her eyes as she reaches out in gratitude to hug me. It was Lady’s mother. Through joyful tears I make out the words: “Muchas gracias senorita!” And I reply with a phrase I knew in return: “Claro que si!” We exchange more half English and half Spanish words in the brief moment I had with the woman and Lady’s aunt. In a comical exchange, Lady’s mother then asks: “Tienes Facebook?” I chuckle, and say: “Si, yo tango Facebook.” After exchanging Facebook contacts the mother quickly weaves a bracelet in front of me and hands it to Lady to tie on my wrist.
In that moment I felt like I received more than I was pledging to give. I cannot explain it. Maybe it was the labor of love in the work I put in with the other LMU graduate students as we worked in solidarity with the fellow staff and students; or perhaps learning about the deep and profound happiness and gratitude these people with so little have that I struggle to keep; or quite possibly the universal human connection I had with this child, her mother and aunt in the short and few moments, had something to do with how my heart was profoundly moved. In the words of a famous quote: "life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” And I would venture to say, the moments, we cannot quite explain with reason or portray with justice. I cannot explain this experience with justice!
And in the short time I had left with Lady, we could not stop hugging each other! While I know her and her family is grateful for my pledge, I truly felt like they gave me more as my heart was so full and even overflowing with love for this child in my arms; and a child not my own! Despite the language barrier; despite the cultural differences; and despite the generational divide, walls were broken and a profound human connection was shared between this 9 year old girl from Ecuador, and this 30 year old woman from the United States! In that moment, I didn’t want the moment to end; I wanted to freeze that moment in time. So when our bus came to pick our group up and drive us back to the Hacienda on the other end of Otavalo, I never wanted to leave less than I did in that moment. Believe me, I wasn’t the only one either. My peers and me groaned and sighed in unison when we saw the bus, because we all knew our last time with these kids – kids who totally and completely captured our hearts with their joy, gratitude and innocence – was coming to an end. With full but heavy hearts we dragged our feet towards the bus. Every single one of us from LMU delayed boarding that bus! Goodbyes, on top of one more picture, with just one more hug; and I was no different! As I made my final steps to the bus door, Lady walked with me (hand and hand) and we hugged each other with the kind of love just shy of mother and daughter.
As I sat in the small and stuffy, old and rickety bus jammed in with the other grown adults from Los Angeles, California I couldn’t take my eyes off this child who had positioned herself on my window side. With the start of the engine, we began playing - air version - the same patty-cake game I had taught her and her friends just days before. Proceeding down the dirt road, as the dirt picked up and clouded my vision through the bus window I watch Lady run alongside, and we did not break eye contact till she disappeared into the dust and distance, and we physically couldn’t see each other anymore. I left part of my heart in Otavalo that day with a 9 year old girl by the name of Lady!
"When I saw you, I fell in love, and you smiled because you knew."
~ William Shakespeare