Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Women of the Favela Part 4: Ann and the Orphanage
After a few weeks in Perus, my companion and I decided to volunteer at a local orphanage. Ann, a member of our congregation, worked part time as an orphanage administrator. The first time we visited we schemed up a surprise party. Without telling Ann we went door to door on the east hill gathering used toys. We wrapped them and bought the ingredients to make a huge birthday cake. As we opened the door to the orphanage, I realized our mistake. The large house overflowed with toys. Toys lined the tiled halls and clumped in corners. The metal cupboards were bursting with bags of beans, rice, and sweets.
“Everyone sends toys,” Ann explained, “Everyone gives food and candy to orphans. We’re funded by three separate American charities. You can bake your cake, but do it with the kids. That’s what they need. Someone to be with them, to talk to them, to ask them their names.”
She was right. The kids didn’t look twice at the toys we’d brought. Instead they grabbed our ties and made us chase them around the house. My companion stood on his head. I did a cartwheel and banged my foot on a windowsill. The children were hard to understand, they talked so quickly, but I tried to listen and catch their names. The tall girl with short hair is Marilyn. Tiago and his brother Rico are the oldest. The three little boys are all named José so they go by Ninja, Cotóco, and Pequeno. The little girls giggled too much to tell me their names. The serious one, in the red tank top, the one who only laughed when I banged my foot and only smiled for the picture is João. (Photo 5 Orphanage)
As the cake baked, Ann leaned against the old sink and told us about the problems facing the orphanage.
“We have enough funding,” she explained, “what we don’t have is someone who can do the work, who can actually care for the children. There are six of us working here, I come almost every day, but no one lives here full-time. I try to be a Mom to the kids as much as I can, but I have four children at home that need mothering.
“The children come to us at different times, for different reasons, mostly without any documentation. We think João was five when he came, but were not sure how old he really is. He came alone, with nothing but the clothes on his back, he wouldn’t tell us where he came from, or who his parents were. He just showed up. Seven years later all we really know about him is that his name is João and his favorite color is red.”
The administrators have a hard time finding openings for the orphans at school. A child from a wealthier family, or with connections like Luã, could enter school at five. But the orphanage lacked organization and connections. Of the twenty-seven children, twelve were school age but only seven attended. The others waited.
As she spoke, Cotóco came crying into the kitchen. Ann picked him up and explained; “Each year we put the kids on a waiting list. If there are no openings then they move up in priority for the next year, but some of them are set to enter first grade at age eight or even nine. They won’t graduate until they are nineteen or twenty.”
But graduation is an unlikely dream. Since the orphans have to leave the orphanage at eighteen, they will inevitably have to quit school and seek work.
“But these kids are lucky,” Ann almost laughed, “there are a lot worse places a kid could end up. There are…”
I held up my hand to stop her. I wasn’t ready to hear details about inner-city child trafficking. The orphanage was disturbing enough.
We ate the cake, João smiled for the picture, and then we left. We went back almost every week trying to give each child as much attention as we could. I was always expected to do cartwheels.