I don't think anything or anyone could fully prepare me for what I experienced at the Liberty Children's Home. My anxiety was grasping at my neck as we flew into the Belize airport. Stepping off the airplane, I could feel the merciless sun beating down on the dirt. In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, the humidity was so thick it was hard to breathe.
As we waited at baggage claim to retrieve the donations we brought for the children, I couldn't help but think, Will they like me? Will they even care that we're here? After our bags were obtained, we pushed through customs and into the parking lot where friendly faces were waiting for us. Mr. Wafi (second in command at the orphanage) and Dave—a volunteer with MaidPro cares who arrived early—were in the van MPC fixed up last year to take us to the orphanage. The dirt roads were loaded with large potholes, the kind every driver in America reports to the police the minute they see it. In Belize, no one seemed to mind or care—they're a part of every day life.
Somewhere between the fourth or fifth turn my stomach dropped as I realized how deep in poverty the village was in. Stray dogs wandered the streets, stopping only to look at the neighbors picking trash out of thigh high ditches filled with water. Every sliver of shade was crammed with two or three people trying to escape the heat, their bodies raw with sunburns and bug bites. Despite the conditions of the village, every person always smiled and waved as we drove by.
As we arrived at Liberty Children's Home gates, we drove through more muddy roads riddled with potholes. Sitting next to the main building was an old playground in what looked like the middle of the jungle. I hopped out of the van and realized how hungry I was.With no snacks in tow, I found out that lunch wasn't for another two hours.
That was my first taste of what these kids go through. And it was nothing.
Slowly, one by one, the children started popping out from their dorms and other shaded hiding spots. They slowly walked over, greeting us with a hug as they called each of us "Mister" and "Miss." There were thirty-eight children in total, many being the same age, wearing the same colored clothes. There is no chance I remember any of their names!
It only took an hour for me to not only learn and remember their names, but also understand who they were as kids. Within two hours, most of us were playing basketball together, and I realized they were children just like any other—but also so, so different. They laughed and played, fought and cried, were protective over their siblings. And they were happy. Despite everything a child should never have to go through, they were thriving. I could never have imagined the amount of smiling and laughter that came out of that home. And it hit me—all at once—just how little you need to be happy. To survive.
And after all, that's all these children are trying to do.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were very much the same: a small piece of tortilla, a small dollop of beans, and a chicken wing. Everyone got the same. No fruits, no vegetables. This wasn't for lack of thought or care but for lack of resources. Fresh fruits and vegetables cost money, time, and most of all a car. And with no extra money in their donation-based budget and only one van to drive, any "extras" were out of the question. They all sat together in one room to eat and said a prayer before every meal. At the end of meals, dishes were stacked in the kitchen and the children took turns washing, drying, and cleaning up.
The kitchen. Imagine your kitchen. Now cut it in half. And do cut it in half again. Remove the stainless steal, the white and black appliances, leaving only one rusty stove. Take away all the glass and porcelain plates and replace them with beaten-up plastic ones. Now leave only one dish rag and a small sink. This is all they have, use day in and day out to feed all 40+ people (children, caregivers and volunteers) three meals a day. With barely enough money to feed all the mouths, any new kitchen equipment is certainly a no-go but that does not stop them from finding a way to feed everyone, every day, every single meal.
After dinner the children would play for an hour or so. They must get bored with the same swing set, basketball court and jungle-gym...no computers and only a few tablets with less than speedy wi-fi. It's hard to imagine what they do with themselves all day. Then around 7:30pm everyone is in their bunks. Once they are settled in, I walked into the girls dorm to say goodnight. On my way over, I could hear the sweet, sweet voices of the children singing a song together. No mommies or daddies to tuck them in, the corners of their beds stuffed with whatever little belongings they had...pencils, stuffed animals and maybe a book. There were no night-lights or special music to soothe them to sleep, no fun footie pajamas or glow-in the dark stars. Just 25 girls all stuffed into one dorm. About 11 girls on the bottom floor all in bunk beds and the rest on the top floor spread out between three rooms. I stopped for a few moments outside the door to hear the song..."Fill my cup, let it overflow. Let it overflow with love."
That is all they want. Love.
I hugged them all goodnight, multiple times. Maybe it was because they were asking for hugs or maybe it was because I was trying to make up for all the times they never got a hug goodnight. That was the first time I cried.
Once I left, myself and the other volunteers walked down the street, past muddy potholes, piles of dog feces, and clogged ditches down to the little bar at the end of the road. It took an act of balancing to walk over a few old, pieces of wood that were thrown down to help customers tip-toe over the car sized pothole filled with water. There we ordered some local beers from the store. This store, might I add, was just just a window of an old broken down shack, the front was gated off with rusty wires and poles and the beers were handed through an open slot. To the left of the window, next to a rather large pile of dog feces was a old, white bucket and a bottle opener on top. And there we sat, on the three wooden planks below the shack window just smelling, watching and listening to the sounds of the village.
The next three days went by the same, we worked on some projects with the kids that included painting, building and art. They were happy to have us there, they bonded with us and shared many stories from their past. They wanted to know about us too. They would ask to see the photos on our phones...ask to see our families, our homes, our pets. That was the second time I cried. Knowing that I had what they didn't.
On the second to last day, one of the girls whom I had bonded with was very stand-offish. She later came up to me and apologized for not spending time with me that morning. She told me that she was supposed to see her birth mother that day but her social worker told her that it wasn't going to happen. She said she was sad but understood it was for the better. That was the third time I cried.
As the week came to a close, the volunteers sat outside the bar stoop and tried to gather our thoughts on the trip. How do we describe this experience to others? How do we convey how important we are to these children? I'm still not sure.
How can you tell someone, that as you were sipping on a beer, trying to ignore the stench of the soiled wood and sewage filled ditches you watched as a garbage truck with a rusted off hood leak a gallon of oil into a three foot puddle while the workers drug bins of trash into the back while smoking their cigarettes? How do you tell them that it was only yards away from a children's home? I don't know.
I think that is what we are doing here. Growing our love, one person, one child, one place a time to help the world.
I think the biggest thing I learned from this trip, wasn't that I needed to adopt all 38 children or that I needed to give them my life savings. It was that one person, even someone as small as me, can make a huge difference. It doesn't take a huge amount of money...all it takes is will. The will to make someone smile, to give a hug, to help pick up a piece of trash, to help someone with their homework or just the will to tell someone that it is going to be alright.
Fortunately for MaidPro Cares and the Liberty Children's Home, we have that will and the resources to help with the bigger things too. I know this trip is not for everyone. The emotional and physical toll it takes on a human is more than enough to break someone but it is important to know that we need to help these children. We need to be there because their are very few who are. Even though we are countries away they are counting on us to help them and I don't want to let them down.
I think it is hard for people to wrap their head around how to help the world, how to make a difference. I struggled with it too - knowing that there are so many all over the world, even near our homes that need help. I think though, if you realize that you are one person who has the opportunity to help another, that is enough. With that will, with that love, help will grow. I think that is what we are doing here. Growing our love, one person, one child, one place a time to help the world. Big or small, we will get there. We are there.
Saying goodbye was hard but harder than that was the look on the children's faces. You could read it all in their expressions, "they are leaving again. Another volunteer is leaving and we are still stuck here." That was the fourth time I cried.
"Goodbye Miss." That is what I heard as we sent them off to school. I was screaming through the windows, "we'll be back, we'll be back." I don't think that mattered though, what matters is that we follow through.
Most of the volunteers left that day. Myself and a couple others stayed in town and explored the city for the weekend.
Before we flew back we stopped by the orphanage for one last hug. As we pulled into the gates, weaving around those same potholes, excitement filled in my stomach as I saw the familiar faces. That was when I realized I loved them. I had returned to the orphanage and there was no place I would have rather been.
"SHE'S BACK. MISS MADDI IS BACK!" One of the children screamed. The others came running out and I was greeted with hugs and love that I will never be able to describe. For the next few hours they sat with me, played with my hair and just enjoyed knowing that I had come back for them, even if it was only for the day.
Then it was time to leave again. Each child, hugged me more than I have ever been hugged in my life, "just one more Miss Maddi, please just one more hug!" They wouldn't let go and I didn't want them to. They kept asking me when I would come back and it took all I had in me to say, "in just a short while." The older boys were shooting the basketball and yelling to me, "if I make this, you have to stay!" It broke me when that ball went in the hoop and they looked at me for a split second with sheer joy, only to return to dismay when they realized I would have to leave anyways.
Finally, as I made my way to the car still being clung onto by four of the children, the youngest girl came over to us. She pulled the other children off of me, hugged me then looked up and said...
"Go home Miss Maddi."
That was the last time I cried.
Madeleine Park Franchise Marketing Coordinator Boston, MA