Friday, January 20, 2017


We are scheduled for an hour and 15 minute play time with the kids at HML orphanage. We leave at 6:00 p.m. after a rush and flurry of feeding children and trying to feed ourselves, and once in the heart of the city, we hit a traffic jam. We creep along the streets past bodegas, beauty shops, and shops that sell intimate apparel and display it in provocative ways.

We finally arrive at 6:52, which means we only have until 7:15 to spend quality time with a ton of children. We have been warned, even threatened that we must meet the nun at the front gate at exactly 7:15 or she will be furious! But how can we stay for only 20 minutes?

The two locked and guarded gates lead into a courtyard and then into another. The inner is a full size soccer court and small arena with all the orphanage buildings surrounding. Who could have imagined a compound so large could exist behind a tiny gate in the middle of a busy city, but it does, and we are swarmed by children who have been waiting for us to arrive.

6:57 They get right down to business. When we pull out jump ropes, the jumpers start jumping; the soccer game begins, the older girls ask to do hair on our teenage girls. It’s an explosion of bienvenidos and action.

I hold one end of the jump rope and spin it for the little guy in pajamas and tennis shoes who has embraced our company. “Uno, dos, tres,”- he misses. We start over and over. He never tires and finally reaches his goal of ochos.

It’s 7:12.


I check in with Mrs. C, and she knows we need to go, but she is torn. A fifteen year old has timidly approached her. They recognized each other, having known each other ten years ago when she was the playmate of Mrs. C’s adopted children. Mrs. C is heartbroken. The little girl was never adopted. And now she wonders, and now she is haunted. Is this why she returned? How was this little girl after all these years left behind?

The lights on the court go out. We see an old, square faced nun hobble towards us. She is stern looking and clearly it’s the children’s bedtime, and we will not be allowed to infringe on the task and schedule of children’s bedtimes.

But sometimes, it is worth igniting the wrath of an old dear nun.

Mrs. C apologizes and explains the traffic jam and how we barely arrived with enough time to play. She is convinced the nun softened when she heard the story, but we are still ushered away.

Bless those nuns who are willing to do the work others have shirked, who keep order when others fall short.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Wheelchair Highway

One of the never ending and enjoyable tasks is taking the children for walks. The large OSSO compound is encircled by a pathway that serves as a wheelchair highway. Most of the children seem to love the walks. For some the enjoyment is obvious. When one of my students runs up the path with her child, my child points and softly grunts. She wants to go fast too. When I do, she laughs. Those laughs are what we live for.

On one particular afternoon, I am pushing Lucy, a child who is most content when taken for walks.  She is in her late teens and is the largest child with the heaviest chair.  The wheelchair highway starts at the bottom of a significant mini-hill. Chug chug, I can do it, I can do it. After three short loops around the compound, I find myself again, at the bottom of the sloping path, and ....I feel like Sisyphus.

Sisyphus, after angering the Gods is doomed to push a large large boulder up a hill. When he reaches the top, it rolls downward, where he once again pushes the boulder to the top of the hill. His life is in a perpetual state of struggle.

It sounds incredibly miserable, unless one examines the perspective of Albert Camus the French philosopher, who believes in that moment before Sisyphus begins again, he has a moment of hope. A hope so strong that it allows him to continue his drudgery. That moment of hope is a critical key to all mankind.

As I stand at the bottom of the hill with Lucy, my hope, and more especially my gratitude, includes that I have the strength to do this again, and again...that I have working arms and legs, and I've had this privilege my entire life. My hope is that this is a growing experience not only for me, but for the students I am responsible for. In that moment when I gather the strength to go up that hill, I call upon a strength I'm not always aware of, to complete the task. I am strengthening my compassionate muscles.

The myth of Sisyphus isn't only a story about a trickster king who angered the finicky Greek Gods who then condemned him to futile and hopeless labor. It's about the continual cycle of pushing wheelchairs up hills or putting in another load of laundry, or filling the car with gas. Camus' interpretation encourages us to pause in those moments of routine and recognize the kernel of hope hidden within every mundane task, and that life itself, in its endless routine, is about hope.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Roosters in Kauai

"How did you sleep?" My roommate asks.

"I slept well until the first rooster crowed." Which was probably 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.

"But it's okay, because it's South America," I add.

Yet, I remember one Christmas in Kauai when the roosters started crowing way before the sun came up.  I also tell my roommate about the Kauai roosters.

Uh oh.

She'll be going to Hawaii in the summer --first time.

"What islands?" I ask.

Oahu and Kauai.

I try to backtrack. "I'm sure they're not everywhere, but if they are, you'll be fine because that's what we do, right? We adapt, make do, suck it up, and choose happiness in the  in difficult circumstances."

She heartily agrees because no one knows better. She's a four year cancer survivor.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Al Fresco

Two shifts back to back. On Tuesday there will be three. The few hours can seem longer especially when there are not enough children per volunteer. Or at the orphans' bedtime-- especially difficult at T Orphanage. The children throw shoes, hide under beds, refuse to brush teeth. Roles reverse at bedtime--we are the vulnerable and preyed upon.

Bedtime was always the worst at my house too. The rituals, the delays, the "Just one more book," please. Little children sneaking down the stairs once we'd started the movie. Yes, I should have enjoyed it more, but as a parent, I was just as vulnerable as I am now. Children are tricky little beasts.

So while we are traveling to El Maiz restaurant, past our dinner time, while I wait cramped on the last bench in the back of a van to make sure they can feed a group of ten, I feel overwhelmed, pooped out, done. Finit.

I distract myself from the pity party by texting Deb, and bless my soul, I am a whiner. No more humanitarian trips!  Too hard.

Deb returns the lament. She just spent a day with seventh graders in credit recovery.

The conversation continues in the same tone until I climb out of the van and walk a short distance on a misty, warm night, in Ecuador.

The restaurant is lovely, especially when we are seated on the covered patio. The tables are for four, but we ask to push them together. Finally, we are seated as one big happy family at the end of a day in which we have given our all.

The stories and laughs, begin to flow. The discussions that follow fill my heart with gratitude. The ambiance, the company, the country...the tasks. Outside, al fresco, the day is rescued.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Face of God

Today I read in one of the quiet rooms. Quiet, because the children are non responsive. Sinad's body is so twisted he can't sit in a chair, so he lays on a mat and scoots around with great exertion. He has a feeding tube. Brian is limited to his chair; he is covered by a blanket and only his gnarly hands and arms are exposed.

Jorge groans and scoots on bent and shriveled legs, but the past few mornings he's been in a kind of slumber. Lewis walks around in his own world, but at least he can walk around. He doesn't communicate unless I count the time when he took my hand and kissed it.

Reading to the children requires faith. Faith and hope that in spite of not understanding the language, they will hear the cadence, the rhythm, and beauty. Least of all, that they may comprehend I am trying to bring variety and a slice of attention to their day. Faith requires action usually without consequence. We serve God with hope that God exists. We pray with faith he is listening, and how often we pray with faith that we will be answered.

One of Jesus' eight beatitudes is: Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. I've always thought this was about me and about a quest to see the literal face of God--whether in this life or death, I am unsure, and there is no promise. It depended on me becoming as pure hearted as possible; but to see the face of God would require a pure heartedness I feel incapable of becoming. But I now have a different take on seeing the face of God~~as we strive to become more pure hearted, we see the face of God in the children of God. In the faces of the quiet.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Marvel

Seven young adults and children, who can’t walk, use their hands, or even language. Their bodies are twisted, stiff, and must be strapped or tied into wheelchairs. Two of the seven have limited language skills that can only be understood by the familiar and the schooled. In addition, we have five little ones. An autistic boy who, the previous day, spent three hours looking through the water of a glass bottle; a boy without speech who is prone to wander; a partly deaf child who must use a walker; a ten year old whose birthday we are celebrating, and a sweet little three year old.

We are their caretakers for this adventure: Six adults and eight students.

The bus arrives and each person in his wheelchair, one by one, is pulled up to the bus. We unstrap each child. Kiersten bear hugs a torso and a volunteer carries legs. We lift him or her into a place on the bus—five seats across and five rows deep. In between, a little child, a volunteer is sent to sit on the bus. There are no working seatbelts in this country, and children are lapped when small enough. Our destination is the special needs park, a half hour away. I'm excited, though apprehensive  for this experience.

A truck will transport the wheelchairs. The older gentlemen watch as I do, as we unload and load, in absolute awe and amusement. First, that we would even dare try. Second, that we would execute such a plan. Third, that we actually do. That the men are able to stack all the wheelchairs into a small truck bed is a marvel too. Yet another South American marvel.

When we are almost there…the rain begins.  Besides the obvious risks already, getting caught in a rainstorm is one we cannot  take. There is no possible way to fulfill the task of fast in the special needs traveling team. A diversion is planned: the Mall Del Rio.

Oh…instant disappointment, but we carry on.  No other choice exists.  The whole process of moving special needs people starts over again.

When we roll into the mall, Lucy is my charge. At the orphanage, she frequently breaks into wails and spasms when she wants to be pushed around the compound. Her sport is pushing against anything solid, including the volunteers who are willing to hold her legs and help her move back and forth, back and forth. Today, She is content in her new surroundings.

How strange it is to be on the other side. All my life, I have been the observer when special needs groups have moved about--at the bus stop, in the grocery store, in the mall. It has always been an oddity, as they navigate the tasks I take for granted. But now, I am the one who is conscious of the stares, at the looks of kindness and even pity. How I wonder if our children are aware, and hope they don't recognize what I can. 

When our visit is over, we again wait beside the bus, wait for our turn. Each child is loaded. It is still a marvel.

The rain is coming down hard when we reach the orphanage, and the process takes on a greater sense of urgency. These children could be soaked in seconds without he capability to run for shelter, pull of wet clothes and grab a towel. They will be at the mercy of a volunteer who will struggle to make them comfortable. I stand with an umbrella hoping to protect Kiersten, the volunteer, and the wheelchair bound child. I still marvel at the process, but as we execute the same plan for the fourth time, I am more confident. After all, this is the last time and we are home. 

We walk away with few words to describe what happened, but we have learned what we can accomplish with focus, team work, and a goal to bring variety and fun to a group of kids who can't bring it to themselves. We walk away with joy.

Saturday, January 14, 2017


We returned last night from our adventures in Banos. Banos was a Park City-esque Ecuadorian tourist village that caters to thrill seekers.

We zip lined super-man style across a giant gorge. As we crossed over a waterfall, I got a slight glimpse of what life is like for a bird. We hopped into a cable car for the same ride, just a different view. A favorite was a hike to Devil's Cauldron where we witnessed and indulged in the incredible power of water.

At points in the hike, we had to crouch into an almost fetal position to fit under the low hanging cave; once at the top, many of the students completely indulged in the waterfall by sticking their heads in the rush...collectively, we were soaked.

The next day included a tour of an animal rescue, but these weren't the usual animals in a zoo. I haven't put my finger on it, but it was something extraordinary. Maybe it was the rain, sloshing through puddles in our galoshes, or looking face to face into the eyes of a cougar...or flipping the turtle upright after we witnessed it falling off a bush and onto its back.

Unlike ordinary zoo animals who seem aloof to the public's presence, these exotic creatures rushed to interact with us, to get as close as they could.  Maybe it was that these animals had been trafficked illegally and this was their refuge. The least among us were now incapable of surviving in the wild; perhaps these animals were like the children who have been gathered into the refuges we have been serving. Having lost the environment into which they were born, the children are completely dependent upon the compassionate, loving service of others.

Refuge: a shelter or protection from danger or trouble.

Refuge. In each other. In our beliefs. In giving.


Friday, January 13, 2017

The Swing At the Top of the World

It's called the swing at the top of the world, and indeed it feels so. For just $1.00 per person, we climb a steep trail, land on a mountaintop with a flat space, where we find a simple zip line, a tree house, and four giant swings that swing out over the mountain in what becomes a calm, beautiful return to a childhood staple.  The scene changes by the minute, even seconds. Misty clouds curtain the view; seconds later they begin to part and like a voyeur into the street or the courtyard, we get a glimpse of the incredible surroundings: jutting mountains, farms, cows, forests.

I am struck by its beauty. It reminds me of the Swiss Alps and am reminded of my father's love for yet another beautiful spot on this earth. Why is it that one mountain reminds us of another? Why does a boy named Josh on my school trip remind me of my son-in-law Tanner? Why do we try to familiarize the new, gather previous memories like a hen gathers her chicks, bringing them into one grand experience?

We are always in search of the familiar. People we are comfortable with, places that bring calm, voices that soothe. Grounding ourselves to this strange place, a short sojourn away from home.

All Things Gross

Today Anar earned the respect of all when our tribal guides asked for a volunteer to eat a live jungle grub (supposedly helps with asthma). When the first student asked, said "No way" someone suggested Anar who stepped up to the plate. We watched Anar in amazement, in disbelief, a brave young man who didn't flinch. In Anar's own words, once he bit off the head, it was instantly dead. It was harder than granola and more crunchy. Like Cocoa Puffs-once you move in to the body. Skin is rubbery but inside like a paste. As he kept biting, it become more like mystery meat. "Like balcony?" Carter asks. Anar continues, "If you really want to eat it you have to chew a long time. It tastes like a really good almond but nauseating. At the end, it tasted chalky."

On our jungle hike, our guide again asks for a volunteer. After the grub, I thought there would be few. But several hands shoot up. He opens the stem of a leaf and asks the student to taste. She does and reports that it tastes like a green apple. Another volunteer also licks the leaf. Our guide then asks the students to look closer. Real close. Tiny ants. Undaunted, several more students want the ant-eating experience.

It gets worse.

As guests of an Ecuador tribe, we sit on benches in a large oval hut with a thatched roof. We are in the midst of native-dressed members of the tribe, parakeets perched on the fence and the quintessential South American variety of dogs. The women hold bowls with a white liquid they keep mixing. I know what's coming.

It is their custom that we drink from the communal cups. After we pass the cups around--some barely tasting, our host explains how the drink was made--by tribal women who mash the yuca plant and take the large chunks, chew them to mix with their saliva to aid in the breakdown of the plant. The softer yuca is then thrown back in.

I am probably more squeamish than any of our students and was extremely impressed by an encounter in the bathroom at the jungle animal rescue zoo.

Student A comes out of the toilet stall and asks "Is there no toilet paper?"
Student B bursts out of the stall next to her and jubilantly replies, "It's all  part of the experience!" To which student C chimes in, "Embrace it!"

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Cheap Thrills, Deep Thrills

It was a rather exciting day in Ecuador! Our first activity was zip lining superman style across a gorge  with a 500 foot drop. We flew over a pounding waterfall, then zip lined back to the other side. As if that wasn't enough, we also took a cable car across and back. The thrill of the cable car was that it topped nd jerked forward. Just enough uncertainty to make an experience delightfully frightful.

Just up the road, a short bus ride and a short strenuous hike, Devil's Cauldron awaited. Oh the power of water and my imagination that put me at the bottom of the hundreds of feet high waterfall. I did not survive. The water was a constant explosion shooting out water shrapnel. We had to crouch in the cave walkway that winded along the mountainside and brought us to the very top drop of the waterfall. The brave thing to do was to stick one's head into the spray. Daring, bold, and yes, a little silly. Impossible to stay dry.

We returned to the hotel for dry clothes and a walk to dinner through the charming Park City like town of Banos. It is surrounded by green mountains that shoot straight up giving an impression that we are surrounded by giants. Waterfalls shoot from the  mountainsides.

As the day winded down, one of the students said, "I can't wait to get back to the children."

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


I spend a small but significant portion of my days on the verge of tears. It comes from the little interactions with these children. Today I pulled Brian, a six year old boy who can only walk with help, around in a red wagon. I took him on the outer perimeter of the compound and I wondered if it was his first time. We passed by a shiny black car and when he saw his reflection, he broke into joy. He doesn't speak or I would have loved to ask him what he was thinking.

When I sing to the children, when there is no other language, I cry.

Or when the 16 year old boy who is the size of a four year old, becomes agitated and writhes across his mat, and when I stroke his forehead and he relaxes.

After coloring over leaves, after painting with magic markers, after making chocolitos and tortillas with play doh for two hours, our bus comes to pick us up. I walk to the gate knowing I will never see these kids again. They say goodby, knowing another group of volunteers will never come back.

It breaks my heart and I can't talk on the ride back to our dorm.

When I give the love of our Heavenly Father, I am reconciled that those tender feelings and tears bring me closer to that divine nature found within.  When I feel this divine nature, I also recognize it in all.

Dieter F Uchtdorf said, "God sent you here to prepare for a future greater than you could imagine. The future, a day at a time, comes alive when you do more than just exist; it comes alive when you live your life to fill the measure of your creation.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Painting, The Purpose

This painting by Del Parsons hangs in the OSSO orphanage. Copies hang in several other rooms, and it is a continual, visual reminder of the value of life.

Over and again, the question has come up, What is the purpose of a child's life who is handicapped and incapable of communication, movement, and mental cognition?

As I watch a student run into the main house to get a Spanish/English dictionary and as he explains to me that he is reading to Diana, and she continually asks him in Spanish, "What is this?" he wants to answer her questions. He is moved beyond himself to learn in order to help.

I pass another student who is pushing a child in his wheelchair. It is not clear whether or not the child understands language, but the student is telling him a story about his own grandfather and how he used to give him chocolate.

From these examples, I see one purpose of the special-needs children's lives.

And then there are the stories... a little girl named Sessy who is only capable of laying in her bed and making simple sounds.  She came to OSSO because she was special needs and when OSSO takes in a child, they search to find out if the child has siblings. The search for Sessy turned up three siblings--who were also abandoned, and the orphanage then petitioned to have the three join her. A short while later, the three children were adopted by a family in Sweden. Kiersten, the director, knows that Sessy's purpose was to bring her three siblings together.

The painting has special meaning to all of us now, but especially to Mrs. C~~two of her children are in the painting--and we will all remember, we were here~~trying to serve, trying to fulfill our own purpose.

Monday, January 9, 2017

We Met Our Children Today

It's hard to quantify a feeling.

Unlike temperature, when you walk into a room, you can say, "Hey it's cold in here and you can turn on the heat."

The feeling at this orphanage is not so easily identified. When we met the children at OSSO, a special needs home, I was on the verge of tears the entire time. So was Mrs. Cannon. When I asked the students this morning, Luke said, "I felt a happiness like I've never felt before--a different kind...not the kind of happiness I feel at Disneyland; it's as if happiness isn't the right word."

Ali simply said, "I felt good."

Lindsay said, "I felt inspired, but I didn't know why."

"I felt like I was melting, but melting with a kind of eagerness," Tashara's face takes on this look of kindness as she describes her feelings.

Carter explained "I felt overwhelmed, at first--like there was so much to do, and how was I going to do it. But when they smiled, that feeling went away."

When I asked her if she was ever on the verge of tears, she affirmed, "Yes, at points."

Braedon felt sadness--at first, but then he was super excited to get in there and play, and interact with the children...and he did. 

Mrs. Wright was impressed that even though students had several options (one of them was to take a nap), they chose to play with the kids: Jenga with Martine, playdoh with Diana, and reading books with the other young children.

There is one scene from yesterday's first encounter, a feeling that is etched on my heart forever. At first, a little boy named Jonathon was agitated. He is deaf and the director suspects he is also blind. He's basically strapped to a wheelchair and seizures are a threat to his life...but Brook and Nikki didn't give up. I had to leave and when I returned, they were simply sitting with the boy, holding his hand, and he was perfectly content. So were they.

The feeling that is hard to quantify. This is it~~~We are a secular school and I appreciate the separation of state and school; I support it. But it will not keep me from stating what "that" feeling is. 
It's charity, the pure love of Christ, and what a privilege it is to identify, to quantify, and even name that feeling.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

To Ecuador With 16 Students

"It's only an adventure when something goes wrong," said a wise traveler who learned to adapt and ultimately find joy in the diverse, exhilarating moments inherent to international travel.

...and...especially when we throw in a mixture of student who may have never left the country.

We are having a blast--with some close adventures.

We've had one student leave his/her passport and money bag in a different terminal...another student who left his/her passport on the table in the hotel...yes, just ask Mrs. C (my teacher partner) about her emergency taxi ride back to the hotel with just one illegal u-turn.

After we got the student checked in, the agent said, "Now, you better run!" Did we ever. And we were smiling the whole way.

However, we weren't smiling the previous day when the gate agent in Miami announced our flight from Miami to Quito had been canceled. It was a Pamplona running of the bulls for Mrs. C and me as we tried to beat the rush of a hundred plus most-fit-ever Miami-ans who were trying to reach the re-booking desk a quarter of a mile down the terminal--before us.

Fortunately, it was a false alarm as the gate agent had announced the cancellation, and it wasn't ours--but only after the death run to rebook 22 people. Thank goodness one of our chaperones was paying attention when the gate agent corrected herself five minutes later. The flight canceled was to Veil Colorado and we were thankful we didn't belong with all the Floridians who weren't headed for their luxury ski vacations, but instead in the company of amazing teenagers on our way to the land of volcanoes, monkey fruit, and precious children living in orphanages.

What a pleasure it's been seeing our students handle new situations: watching some take the long, lonely walk to the intimidating immigration agent knowing it's either the first time or previously in the company of their parents; or watching the most guileless of all get patted down at security.

So far the trip has been an investment to just get here. A late night flight to Miami, a day in the Miami airport, a flight to Quito requiring a night in a hotel, and finally, our last, short 6:00 a.m flight to Cuenca--our destination. 
Which is why, in retrospect and in my current thoughts, I believe that foreign travel is so important to a child's development; I even see in part why I am the person I am today~~I traveled extensively as a teenager, and travel adventure (because something always goes wrong), requires patience. Canceled flights, babbled languages not understood, connections with people who are so different from ourselves; the humility from not holding the foreign world in the palm of one's hand when a teenager most often thinks he or she does.
I see the students' dependence on others; they must listen or get lost; they are vulnerable; they don't know it all. 
All teenagers should be raised in a foreign country.
Chuckle, chuckle.

But perhaps, that's what growing up is: a foreign country and precisely the reason why we are here to guide them.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Murky Water


The plane hits the runway and jostles its weary passengers.

"Welcome to Miami. On behalf of our flight crew..."

The words hardly have meaning as I contemplate the three hours of pseudo sleep I've haven't had while sitting in a cramped seat.

Why do I do these things? The answer is always like an unseen rock beneath murky water. At first glance, or at the moment of extreme tiredness,  it's unclear. Very shortly, the dirt settles and the water clears, and I know--we know. That murkiness comes (at some point), with every worthy endeavor (raising children, getting an education, volunteering at a shelter, etc. etc.).

I am here for experience. More especially for the growth that will come to a group of students from this experience. We are on our way to Cuenca Ecuador where we will work in five different orphanages over a period of two weeks.

Years ago, a doctor and his family volunteered their vacation time to help in an understaffed orphanage. Much to their dismay, they were asked not to hold nor love the children. The reason, they were told, was that the children wouldn't get the same attention and love once the volunteers left-- not enough time nor manpower.

 The doctor and his family had an answer: provide a steady stream of volunteers to love and care for Ecuadorian children--hence, our purpose over the next two weeks.

Besides playing soccer, besides hand-feeding handicapped children, besides putting on puppet shows and painting nails, cooking our own meals, we'll also explore the Amazon. The Orphanage Support group understands the importance of mixing play with, well...a little discomfort, at least until the dirt settles and we see the rock under the once murky water~~ was always a diamond.