I have to say, these trips are getting harder, not easier. These kids have carved a place in my soul. Every time I go back, they carve a little deeper, and it gets harder to leave.
They have a pretty consistent flow of volunteers going through Liberty, from different organizations in the U.S. and U.K. They come, and usually stay much longer than we do. Then they go back to their lives, hopefully better for the experience.
But we're the only ones to ever come back. This was my third trip to Belize, and my third visit to Liberty.
I'm looking through the photos – both from this trip and previous – and realized while there's lots of me working, there's hardly any of me with the kids. I can tell you now, it's because I'm not strong enough. They're so pure, and good, and alive, I just feel unworthy. The shell of strength and toughness and stability that I've had to craft around me to be a leader to my staff and peers… it just evaporates around them, in the face of the real strength and toughness these kids eminate. They make me feel so vulnerable, I just have to put my head down and work. Build something. Work to make things better for them, in whatever little way I can.
I scavenge materials whenever possible, because I want to help teach them you can create something new and useful out of stuff that's old and worn out. The tools are bent, rusty and broken, but we make do. I clean them, wrap them up carefully at the end of the day, and tidy the worksite. It's behavior ingrained in me, and I want to pass it on. The workmanship would be considered shoddy at best back home, but here I'm pretty proud of what we build.
The sun is merciless, the humidity worse. I'm continuously covered in a pungent blend of sweat, slightly useful suntan lotion, and completely useless bug spray. As I work, fine layers of concrete, brick, and saw-dust joins this mixture to form a new shell of sorts. I'll leave this gluey film on till just before bed, as it's more effective than the bug spray. And because I'm simply worn out by the time the sun goes down – physically, mentally and spiritually.
When the sun does start to set, I lead the charge down the street to the corner store for a beer. I'm sure everyone else thinks I'm a closet alcoholic, but it's really two things. Beer has never tasted so good as after a day of working in 90° heat and 95% humidity. Like unbelievably good. But it's also self-defense. I need to numb my emotions a little before I can face the kids. Now that it's too dark to work, and there's still a few hours before bedtime, I have to man up and help build something a lot more important and insubstantial than cabinets and doors.
The others are way better at it than me. They're parents, and coaches, and philosophers. I'm a carpenter, and hope by doing, I might teach a little too.
We're sitting on a little bridge, over a bug-infested open gutter. The older boys are playing basketball in the dark nearby. A lovely young girl – K.C. – is telling us a little about herself: about her 5 younger siblings that all live at the orphanage as well; about her singing, which one of the others prompts her into demonstrating, and it is beautiful – powerful yet frail, imperfect in execution but somehow perfect in its imperfection; and about her dreams. She wants to be a geologist, and wants to go to Boston University some day. But then she hangs her head, hiding her face from the weak yard lights. "But my mom said that will never happen, and I should be more realistic…"
I think I died a tiny bit right then. Thank God for the others, who went straight to work telling her it can happen, and it will if she works at it. Making plans for how to make it happen. I couldn't talk, because my heart was in my throat. I have no tools to fix that, no materials to rebuild her dreams, no skills in working with broken hope. I had to go for a walk, tears thankfully hidden in the darkness.
The next morning, it's back to work, head down, shields weak and flickering, but back in place for now. The sun's cooking away the melancholy remnants of last night's emotions, and my somewhat crazy and indefinite idea for turning a-half-dozen old wooden chests into a giant wardrobe cabinet is actually starting to look like it's going to work. My hands and brain are busy again, pushing my heart and emotions into the background.
And then one of the kids comes up while I'm working, hugs me from behind, and says "Thank you Mr. David, you always build something better when you come."
I love them. As purely and completely as I've ever loved anything in my life.
When the sign-up sheet comes around for the trip back next year, my name will be on it again. And it'll rip me to shreds again.