A Slí Eile volunteer, Karen Mooney, recalls her intense emotional responses as she worked this summer in an orphanage in Bogotá, Colombia. She reflects in awe on the character, playfulness, love and humanness of the children she met there.
With a need to do something different and more meaningful in my life, I headed off with ten volunteers to Colombia during the summer to work in ‘Hogares Luz y Vida’ Orphanage in Bogota. Our group had a number of meetings the previous six months to organise the trip, and we had got to know one another reasonably well before getting on the flight to Colombia. We arrived safely (albeit a bit haggard after an 18-hour delay with our flight!), but looking forward to what the next few weeks would bring.
Our first introduction to the orphanage was very special as the kids were having an Olympics day. They were all dressed up, the atmosphere was great, laughing, smiles… and when some of the kids saw our volunteers Edel, Ger and Pauline who had been there last year, they screamed in delight and ran up to them, smothering them with hugs and kisses!
I remember standing back overawed. It was a totally different introduction to the orphanage than I had been expecting… kids happy, laughing, smiles, hugs, and kisses. However, as I looked closer I could see the disabilities, the wheelchairs, the scars of the ‘street’ kids, and I remember a hard pang of sadness as well.
My initial impression was right. The kids are extremely well looked after. I will never forget meeting Sister Valeriana who runs the orphanage. Her love for the kids shines through immediately. Her eyes are bright when she talks about them. She reminded us gently that God is always looking after them and she inspired me with her talk of love. I knew in my heart that unconditional love for another human being is one of the most important things you can give to someone, and she does this every day in her unending work with the orphaned children in Hogares Luz y Vida.
Each afternoon during the week we went to the orphanage. The first few days I had to become accustomed to the severe disability of some of the kids. I got very sad holding the beautiful babies knowing they had no parents to look after them, I experienced an inside grief when I heard the kids stories of how they came to the orphanage. There is a heartbreaking ‘knowingness’ that they will never know a normal life as I do. However, within a few days as I got to know the kids, talked and played with them, I began to see what Sister Valeriana loved … the kid’s personalities, their character, playfulness love, their absolute humanness…
I connected mostly with the younger ones as I could have a laugh and play with them, though I also got such a sense of peace when I held the babies in my arms. Different volunteers connected with different kids. It was amazing to watch how certain children were attracted to certain volunteers.
Some striking memories I recall especially are Tom and Brendan connecting with Nicolas, a young, scarred boy who would not go near anyone. Tom started to connect with him, and soon Tom and Brendan were actually holding hands and dancing around with him. Another was Edel’s interaction and love for two sisters who adored her. Ger was a hit with the teenage girls! And I learned from his ability to have great fun and be open with kids not matter what state of disability they were in.
For myself, I learned to open myself that little bit more as a person. I had looked after children before but never in such a place as the orphanage where my heart was touched to its core. I instinctively felt God at work here, I could see him working through Sister Valleriana and the kids taught me so much about myself.
We stayed in a Jesuit theologate where the priests made us very welcome. Part of our stay there was also to teach English in the mornings to some of the teenagers in the surrounding parish. I had never taught English before and we had a laugh every morning, scrambling for interesting things to teach each day. I thoroughly enjoyed the new experience (hope the teenagers did too!).
As the week’s work was so intense, we had weekends off and went to some fantastic places in Colombia. I had been shocked at the poverty around us in Bogotá, but we went to hot lakes in the Andes mountains at Pipia, an amazing Jesuit retreat place in the country, the orphanage’s farm La Finca where we saw the kids in a completely different environment from the orphanage. It was here I realised that they could enjoy life as well, as I watched them playing and laughing on the farm, almost like a big family.
Part of our group process was prayer and sharing. I looked forward to the prayer in the morning where I could ask God to help me through my day. The group sharings were a space which allowed the group to let one another know how they were coping with the experience, and I believe a vital outlet for emotions that the whole experience was stirring within us.
Overall I learnt so much. I will take away with me the kids’ humanness and laughter, how they taught me to open up and see the child past the disability. Sister Valeriana’s inspiring faith and unconditional love along with the beautiful countryside of Colombia will always stay in my heart. Thank you to Slí Eile for allowing me this experience.