Thursday, August 28, 2014

I gained a family through community living



By Ashley Cole Siferd
Former Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos volunteer
A day in the life

One of the first things I tell people about Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) is that it is not just an organization that cares for orphaned, abandoned and at-risk children. It is a family. For me, this unique quality makes the volunteer experience more cherished. The people I came to know are not just children and employees in an organization but instead are family members with a permanent place in my heart.

Though we encompass nine Latin American and Caribbean countries, I have happily called NPH El Salvador as my family since 2008, when I made my first trip to the home. Ever since then, I knew that I belonged here. I felt that God was pulling me back.

One of my first pictures taken as a
volunteer and it couldn't have been any
more representative of real life: three
toddlers on my lap on a hot, sunny day.
When I began my volunteer position in the summer of 2013, I arrived to the home with a fair idea of what things were probably going to be like based on prior experiences. The only concrete unknown to me was how life would be like living in this community. I had only ever been a visitor, not a resident. There are no volunteer quarters, so I stay in the volunteer/visitor room in the girls’ home. In the morning, I wake up to the cacophony of life that is a house full of more than 100 girls ranging in age from eight years old to early twenties. In the late afternoon as I leave work, I often run into the high school youth who are returning or the babies and toddlers scurrying about on the playground. In the evenings after dinner, I occasionally go to the clinic to spend time with my friend who is a nurse, and then afterward I am sometimes asked to help the older girls with their English homework when I get back to our house.

Because of safety concerns, my weekends and free time are spent at the home. Weekends are simultaneously full of routine elements but also surprises. There’s washing clothes by hand, choir and dance practice, time to do big chores but also to lounge around. We may take a short walk down the road to cut mangos, climb the large hill nearby, or swim in the river that cuts through the property. There is never a dull moment. Life thrives here in this special community.

There is essentially no established volunteer program here, and for 11 months I was the only one. I became the first volunteer in years. There are other NPH homes with thriving volunteer programs. In those situations, the volunteer community can often be its own microcosm within the NPH home, and there is an established support system, a place to go when you have questions and others who are experiencing the same newness as you are. In my case, instead of relying on veteran volunteers or having a coordinator to help, I relied on the children and the staff members for guidance when I arrived. My community was solely composed of the children and the staff of NPH, and I absolutely loved that. My identity has been shaped by living there in this unique way because I was a part of the family, not just someone who works there.

We called each other gallina, which means "hen" in Spanish.
One evening these two girls were teaching me words and I
misunderstood the word for flip-flop (gina) and thought they
said hen. Somewhere, that became our nickname for one another.

Within weeks of my arrival, the girls had taught me how to wash clothes by hand. There were times when I struggled, and they would nonchalantly shoo me away and grab my clothes and wash them while I watched and learned. I once pushed the same two toddlers on the swings for almost two hours. For the first few months, the youngest girls and I would play soccer every Sunday afternoon. They tried in vain to teach me, but months later everyone amusingly accepted (myself included) that I will never be a soccer player. Before three of the older boys left for our university house in the city, every day like clockwork when I got off work we would sit under the big tree and treat ourselves to chips and soda. We call ourselves the “4 Musketeers.” 

The 4 Musketeers' favored pastime was enjoying chips and soda
under the big tree on the property. Though I was sad to see them
go, I couldn't have been happier or prouder when they all moved
to our university house in the city to start their studies.

What will never cease to surprise and amaze me is the depth and reach of unconditional love that I witnessed on a daily basis. It is a community where the individuals aren’t just awesome neighbors who lend you a cup of sugar. It is a family full of pasts filled with hurt, anger, abuse, and sadness, but it is also a family that heals and mends itself with time and unconditional love. It is a family where in their vulnerable state, big tough teenage boys let you hug them and walk off the field arm in arm with you after losing an important soccer match. It is a family full of adolescent and teenage girls who grab your hands while you walk to dinner each night and tell you about their day. It is a family full of babies and toddlers who smother you with hugs and kisses when you walk into their house at playtime.

My volunteer experience was been enhanced to an infinite level because the “community” I lived in is a humongous family in which I was able to laugh, cry, be embarrassed by and equally embarrass, be annoyed by and also annoy, and ultimately be loved by and love my more than 300 brothers and sisters. Living with and amongst these children, I was witness to a tangible piece of the Kingdom here on earth.