For me, the question really boiled down to this: "Why would you do this to yourself?"
A couple of my friends and I have a saying: In the highest and lowest places exists the light of truth.
When you're five, that means bring a flashlight and explore every cave you can and climb every tree you find. But when you're an adult and have a stable career and friends and family, it's a bit harder to understand. So we seek it out—consciously or not. Some of us party to the wee hours whenever we can, finding our light in the camaraderie of merriment. Some of us embark on demanding careers that take us up the employment ladder to the highs of success and the light it shines in the form of expanded opportunity. Others delve into outdoor adventures that take us to literal peaks and valleys that show us the light in the highs of pushing oneself to physical and mental extremes.
For me, I try to answer it with philanthropy and the light it shines on how I can best live my own life. I was born in a small village in a third world country rife with poverty; through the incredible fortitude of the smartest and hardest working parents on the planet, I arrived—perfectly spoiled—at the top: upper-middle class America. Mom and Dad made sure I never forgot this and made sure I knew to always give back. "Remember those who have so little. You could have been one of them. It is your duty to help those less fortunate." So I seek out people in the lowest of places and contribute what I can. Our time in Peru was not my first experience at an orphanage. I've contributed to volunteer missions at government schools for orphans in India, refugee camps in Jordan, convents in Mexico, and rehabilitation schools in Liberia.
The Shama Center was...different.
In the highest and lowest places exists the light of truth.
Upon arriving at the Shama Center, we were introduced to the Matron who was in charge of the children and organization/operation of the center. We learned she had started the center for younger children in dire situations. She felt she would have the most impact on their future if she could influence their most formative years. All of her children, between two months and eight years old, were brought in from the streets or rescued from unfit and unsafe households. Upon integration to the Shama Center, the children were free to stay as long as they wanted; a point she demonstrated by introducing us to two of the adult employees, who themselves were beneficiaries of her life’s work. All around us, we saw the fruits of her work in the eyes of dozens of happy, exuberant children.
After introductions and speeches, we were released to interact with the kids. Just like that. No hauling supplies first, or fixing a door, or even cautionary warnings of do's and don'ts. As though it were the starting gun of the Amazing Race, everyone in our group dashed off in every which way and emerged triumphantly with children, laughing and smiling. Myself, not so much. I had no idea what to do. Why is everyone so happy? This is a freaking orphanage, show some respect! I took a deep breath. I reminded myself to stay cool and smile. I immediately hid behind my fiancée. Sara zigged through the crowd, down some stairs, and zagged into a nursery. There, she had the delight of waking up a baby from her nap and we took turns holding her for some time. Plenty of pictures and coo's and aww's. I stayed cool, I smiled. I even laughed at the four million, "you guys practicing for when you're parents?"
After about an hour, we regrouped for lunch. It was then I met Clara.
While most of the kids were blitzing around in a soda-fueled ecstasy, barely tethered by gravity, Clara was quiet...almost motionless. As we waited for our food, I decided to ham it up with her. I put my way-too-big sunglasses on her three-year-old head and posed for a selfie with her in the hopes she'd liven up and break through her shyness. Nothing. She might as well have been a statue.
We got our food: chicken, fries, and a drink. It smelled incredible. Clara wasn't eating. She stared at her food blankly and eyed me suspiciously. The Matron came by to check on everyone. "You might have to help her eat. Clara's like that." Wait, what? Why? No answer.
I shredded some chicken and handed her a piece. Nothing. Maybe she's not hungry? I ate some of my food. She stared. I tore open a ketchup packet and her eyes went wide. Oh, maybe she needs ketchup. So I gave her the rest of mine, stole some more from Sara, and made a pyramid of tomatoey goodness on Clara's plate. Quizzical stare, but no movement. I dipped a fry into the ketchup and stopped near her mouth. She devoured it. Okay, that's fine, I'll feed you. I fed her ketchupy chicken and fries, and attempted to ask if she liked her food. Dead stare. No response. I scratched her head and rubbed her back a few times. She seemed to like that.
At the end of lunch, the group gathered their respective children and headed back outside to play and exchange gifts. I started to follow Sara assuming Clara would be following. Nope.
I turned around and Clara was staring at me with an unmistakable look. "You're abandoning me, aren't you? Of course you are." Every bit of composure and stoicism I've ever possessed vanished. I walked back and picked her up.
Slowly, it began to dawn on me: She wasn't shy; she was untrusting. Whatever had happened to her that led to her fostering at the Shama Center, she was acutely aware of; her silence and stares were her attempt to never let it happen again. I have never felt a pain in my heart so deep and wounding. I marched over to her and picked her up. "You're coming with me. I'm not going anywhere." She latched on around my shoulders in full understanding despite the language barrier.
For the next hour and a half, we sat down in the courtyard away from the others. Just sat. I didn't say anything to her, and she said nothing to me. I showed her the new shoes our group had donated. She tried them on while clutching to her old pair. When someone handed her a small pony as a gift, she eyed them suspiciously and then—when in the clear—tightly ensnared it with her tiny arms; no one was going to ply her with trinkets.
I did everything I could to fight back tears, anger, pain, and the overwhelming need to whisk her away to a better life. My mind raced with questions: Who did this?What happened?What's being done about it?Who hurt you?Show me their face, Clara, and I'll make sure I'm the last thing they ever see. I was not cool. I did not smile. I enveloped myself around her and put on my bravest face. I was a fortress dedicated to making sure this one child was the safest person in the world. I plotted filling out adoption paperwork, paying fees, bribing officials, purchasing plane tickets, building a playroom, raiding the toy aisle at Target, calling in every favor to get on waitlists for private kindergartens in Boston (I hear you've gotta start early).
It wasn't until I emerged from the rabbit hole of thoughts that I noticed Clara had fallen asleep. Seated on the ground in the middle of a warm sunny day, she burrowed herself into my chest and curled up within the shadow I cast. I attempted to get up to move her to a better spot, but she immediately protested. Roger that ma’am, we’re staying right here. I sat motionless for almost an hour as she slept. I hoped her dreams were pleasant ones of Legos and Unicorns and making friends. Not that I could change them anyhow.
When it was finally time to go, I roused Clara awake and got her on her feet. As I picked her up one last time, I barely mustered a shaky whisper: "You be good. I promise I'll come back. I'll see you soon." As I walked away, she smiled. She knew what I meant, and that I meant it. I don't know if I uttered a single word the entire bus ride back.
So why do it? "In the highest and lowest places exists the light of truth."
I always thought the light was gratitude: gratitude for my privilege, for my things, for my successes and ability to give back. But I missed a fundamental truth about these experiences. I had been caught up in trying to improve a situation, make progress, give back, and fix what was broken. But here, in an orphanage a continent away from home, I met a quiet little girl who wanted no thing and trusted no one. But for a few hours, she trusted me. She let me feed her, she let me hold her, and she trusted me to keep her safe while she napped. To me, that's the point of these trips. A meal you share. A nap where you feel safe. A shoulder to lean on. The kind of life that makes it all possible. Nothing else really matters.