I grew up in the comfortable suburbs of upper-middle class Long Island. I never wanted anything, and there was never a doubt that my parents loved and cared for me unconditionally.
My only experience with orphanages was seeing how they're depicted in movies. To say I went into this trip with a bit of a bubble surrounding me is the understatement of the year. To be honest, I didn’t have any idea what to expect at the Shama Center. My thoughts were mostly wrapped up in all the travel it took to get to Lima, being out of the country for only the second time in my life, and whether I’d get food poisoning in the jungle with 40 of my colleagues.
As we drove further outside of the city—through traffic jams, by street vendors, and witnessing buses whip around hairpin turns; passing tiny wooden and metal shacks precariously built into the sides of mountains—I realized the experience we were about to have was going to be a life-changing one.
When we arrived at the Shama Center, we were greeted by the director, Mrs. Frances. She spent some time explaining their program and what our visit would be like. We learned many of the children had been abandoned by their parents: either handed over to the orphanage directly, or were left homeless on the streets of San Juan de Lurigancho. She told us the goal of the Shama Center is to foster the children at an early age, and to give them the education and life skills they need to prepare them for the world.
We were encouraged to go into the nursery and introduce ourselves to the children. The nursery was a clean, bright, happy place; all of the kiddos looked well taken care of and were fascinated by the big group of strangers crowding their space. There were little kids everywhere: babies, some as young as a few months old, were asleep in cribs; toddlers roamed around on the floor, looking up at us with slightly confused, mostly curious faces. We each gravitated to a child; they allowed us to pick them up and hold them as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
I don’t really consider myself a "kid person." It’s not that I don’t like children; I’m just never the one who's immediately able to make a baby smile, or convince a 3 year old to give me a high five.
But I had never come across Jamil.
Jamil stood at the top of a small slide on the playground and looked at me with big, brown eyes and a stoic expression on his face: not quite sure if he trusted me while simultaneously daring me to reach out and give him a hug. For a second, I panicked that the language barrier would be a challenge—even after two semesters of Spanish in college, I barely had a working knowledge of the language and wasn’t sure how he'd respond to my pathetic rendition of “hola” and “¿como estas?” Thankfully, he didn’t seem to care. We spent some time sitting on the ground inspecting my phone, camera, and sunglasses. Within minutes, he was comfortably asleep in my arms, seemingly content. We walked around the playground and I shifted him from side to side to make sure he was comfortable. As I watched his face soften with sleep, my heart hurt to imagine how anyone wouldn’t love this sweet boy.
We later all sat down at two long tables to a lunch of rotisserie chicken and french fries served in Styrofoam containers. The kids were happy to have special guests but still seemed a bit overwhelmed by our presence. I spent most of the meal coercing Jamil to eat his food one little bite at a time, each bite with heaping helpings of ketchup. He was only excused to go play once he’d made enough of a dent in his meal.
After lunch, we presented the children with our donations of toys, clothing, and other necessities. They ripped open the sidewalk chalk, filled the bubble guns with soap, and tried on some of their new outfits. They had smiles from ear to ear and happily ran around the playground while we watched. We all marveled at how the smallest of gestures could make such a great impact on these kids.
While the kids were playing, I was tapped for an interview with our film crew and Jamil followed in close pursuit. He reached for my phone as I was getting mic’d up and was elated when I handed it to him. He quickly toddled off, phone in hand. My first instinct was to run after him, but I realized how the phone was just a replaceable thing. If it made him happy, I was happy he had it. (Thankfully, he did return the phone unscathed...with only some ketchup-smudged finger prints.)
As we neared the end of our visit, I found it incredibly difficult to leave. I kept finding one more thing I needed to do or help with to delay departure. A few more pictures with Jamil, one more chalk drawing.
Here’s the rest of that soda. Do you want to go down the slide one more time?
I couldn’t fathom leaving him or the rest of them behind. I couldn’t imagine a life without parents to tuck me in at night while I so young, assuring me that I was loved and they’d see me in the morning.
The women who run the Shama Center are incredible. They are selfless angels who have been put on this earth to be guardians of these children, and we're lucky and grateful to have crossed paths and built a relationship with them. This experience was a humbling one, and I’m so grateful that MaidPro Cares will continue our affiliation with the Shama Center.
While the trip feels like a lifetime ago, I think of Jamil and his friends often, and hope to someday visit with them again.