What I learned in 90 minutes at Las Obras

Or: My “failure” at serving severely disabled kids

Las Obras home in Antigua Guatemala

Las Obras home in Antigua Guatemala

Following a week of service in a rural Mayan village, our team headed to Antigua, Guatemala, for sight-seeing.  It wasn’t all fun and games, shopping and eating, though.  Our leaders wanted us to experience Las Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro — a hospital/home for the most severely disabled and deformed.

I thought to myself, “I used to take care of people with major disabilities.  I can do this.”  And it wasn’t so hard anyway, seeing how well cared for the patients are: impeccably clean and tended to with such compassion.

Then we entered a children’s unit, and things became a little tougher.  There were kids who wanted to be playful and others who were disfigured beyond belief.  Each one who reached out, Pedro touched compassionately and talked to them gently.  We followed his cue and begin interacting with the children as best as we could.  Next came the infant ward, where we were greeted by a tiny girl who was crying and holding out her hands to be picked up.  We wandered through the room, stopping at every crib.  Two with cleft palates.  One with cleft palate and additional disfiguration of his face.  One little boy lying contentedly, swinging his legs around in the air while lying on his back; he had Down syndrome, and nothing else “wrong” was apparent.

“Why,” I asked the Father,” would a child with something as simple as Down syndrome be in a place like this?  Where is his family?”

“He was abandoned,” said Padre.  “Like most of them.”

As we left that unit, most of us in tears, we turned a corner and there was a large piece of art depicting a person with severe deformities clinging to the feet of Jesus.  I could barely breathe.  Yes, that is the way they must feel – please Jesus, don’t leave me!  These are absolutely “the least of these” of whom Jesus spoke.

On Sunday, after my team departed for LA, I returned to San Pedro Iglesia where the residents of Las Obras join together for Mass.  There were more people in wheelchairs than in pews: people without legs; others with hands and feet turned to unnatural positions; some drooling.  Clapping, rocking, some with flies gathering at their mouths.  Some of them didn’t understand the homily any better than I, but we were together, sharing communion.

Three times, I returned to Las Obras, hoping to talk with the British doctor who volunteers there and to offer some time myself.  With limited Spanish, I asked the receptionist for Leslie, and she replied, “En la manana,” and so, I returned in the morning and went through the same routine.  Finally, on my last day in Antigua, I skipped breakfast and headed straight for Las Obras so I couldn’t possibly miss my connection with the English-speaking doctor.  This time, I didn’t even have to ask the receptionist — she asked, “Leslie?” and immediately got on the phone.  Leslie wasn’t available, but a Volunteer coordinator spoke English, and that was just what I needed!

(a photo from Google) Children in wheelchairs, under nets, to keep flies out of their mouths

(a photo from Google)
Children in wheelchairs, under nets, to keep flies out of their mouths

Soon, I had a volunteer badge and was escorted to the children’s ward.  There were several other Americans present who felt about as awkward and inadequate as I did, not speaking Spanish but trying desperately to do something good.  The children were all in their wheelchairs, lined up in rows around three sides of the courtyard.  Some appeared to be completely unaware of all reality, others were distressed.  I sat next to a teenaged boy, reclined in his chair, who was nonverbal but very alert.  I began singing, and without thinking about it, I was singing “Love in any language, straight from the heart, pulls us all together, never apart…”  He recognized the “I love you” in Spanish and smiled widely, looking at me as if to beg for more.

Then I went to Jessica, a beautiful girl with braids.  I touched her hair and I said “muy bonita,” (Very pretty!) and she gleamed with delight.  Perhaps they don’t often hear people tell them they’re beautiful, because by all means, some of them are difficult for many of us to look at.  I read part of a Dr. Seuss book to one boy and tried clapping hands with another, then one of the workers asked if I would take a crying boy for a little stroll in his chair.  He was so upset and she said the only thing that calms him down is being pushed around in his chair.  So we wandered through the garden and I rocked him slowly back and forth like you would a baby in a stroller and he became restful.

Confrontation with comfort

(photo from Google) This is a girl I visited who was very aware and delighted by attention

(photo from Google) This is a girl I visited who was very aware and delighted by attention

Eventually, some of the men from the American group came into the courtyard, and I made some quick labels in my head about them being straight off a corn field in Iowa.  It was somewhat comforting, in a twisted kind of way, to see others who surely were more out of place than me.  I had secretly named one “Cowboy Nascar” (yes, he was wearing a cowboy hat and a Nascar shirt) and soon was ashamed of my labeling and judgment, because he was WONDERFUL and so natural with these kids.  He made them laugh and soon had a gathering around him.

As much as I tried to feel that comfortable and relaxed myself, it never happened.  I continued to sing to different kids and take them for strolls, but at just an hour and a half into it, I had to leave.  And I felt guilty for that.  A whopping 90 minutes.  What’s wrong with me that I can’t do this longer?  Am I just selfish, unable or unwilling to face such difficult situations?

I was hungry, so that was my ticket out the door.  I turned in my badge, got my purse and left Las Obras with a heavy heart.

What did I learn—about myself—in 90 minutes with “the least of these”? 

Many things, but here are a few vivid lessons.

  1. In case I haven’t heard the old cliché enough: you can’t judge a book by its cover.  Cowboy Nascar was gifted, and he was willing, and he made a difference.  Guaranteed.  And I should do away with hasty generalizations.
  2. In truth, I went to Las Obras to volunteer because I thought doing something “noble” would make me feel better about myself.  Really?  There are so many things I can say about that foolishness!  It was clear that I forced myself to go.  The day before, I so desperately wanted to avoid it that I walked as far as possible and went into a resort where I had myself a spa treatment!  As it turned out, letting someone care for me felt pretty good, and I need to learn to accept that without shame or guilt.
  3. Everybody knows:  we don’t all have the same gifts, and we don’t have to.  The cool thing about Dr. Leslie, the British woman I never got to meet?  I’d heard that she had stopped by Las Obras for a quick tour like my group had, she loved the opportunity she saw, and she never left.  When my friend Mark said “Thanks for your service here,” she replied to him with all sincerity, “Brother, it’s no burden.”

Obviously, serving these vulnerable children and adults is her gift, her calling.  But that doesn’t mean it’s mine.  I don’t have to beat myself up for having only lasted 90 minutes in a place where she’s remained more than a year.

Let’s chat.

I think we could have some good dialogue about this experience, so I’m inviting you to chime in.  What about my vulnerability in this story did you connect with?  Did it remind you of similar experiences where you faced some tough truths?  Let’s talk.

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4 thoughts on “What I learned in 90 minutes at Las Obras

  1. Kate: Thanks for sharing your experiences helping others. If we all reach down deep into our souls, a lot of us have thoughts of visiting a mission or helping, but when reality sets in we, for some reason, ignore the challenge, either because of a job or personal responsibilities at home. You didn’t make any of those excuses even though you could have used any number of reasons not to go. You met your personal challenge, when most of us don’t.

    Directly viewing the enormous needs of so many and knowing the help that is required is hard to ignore. The picture of the needy is no longer on an envelope asking for donations or brochures, it is right in your face, and the guilt of having the love and comfort of family and medical help at home makes us more culpable. That is probably a good thing!

    I agree, there are special people in this world who are called on to make a difference, and they meet that challenge with love and devotion. These are the people who we should envy, because they are doing what they were called to do without complaining.

    Since you told me about your trip, I actually envied you for your mission. I can only imagine how hard it was for you to leave. You left part of yourself there along with your smiles, love and kind words, which meant the world to the disabled. Sometimes we feel that more is needed because we, ourselves, have become so demanding. Filtering what you saw, while at the same time dealing with your own emotions surrounding the circumstances is something that will be with you for a long time, but I would say that is a privilege most of us will never experience.

    You may view many things and experiences as luxuries that you don’t deserve, but knowing the person you are, you will continue doing good works whether here or far away. Your good works are certainly deserving of a few good times. You have valuable memories of helping…something most of us will never be able to share, so cherish them. Your mission gave you great memories which will act as your barometer. You will remain unselfish!

    Our voids in life are filled in different ways depending on which part of the world we reside. We can only try to emulate people like you and those who have so little and want even less to fill our void.

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  2. I had a similar experience at an orphanage in Ukraine several years ago. I had to leave, just couldn’t take it. I am still haunted by the memory of a little one–probably under two years old– who was isolated because of his positive HIV status. All he wanted was to be held. Still breaks my heart. It’s not easy to reach out with the hands of Jesus, but for those of us who are less comfortable with it, I believe God can teach us to do better.

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  3. I understand the discomfort. When I find myself in this type of situation I feel guilty and ashamed. “Why am I so blessed?” I know I don’t deserve the life of blessings and grace that I’ve been given.

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