For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying really hard to look at the bright side of things down here in Arequipa. It’s not hard to do that considering it is sunny and clear skies every single day here. I knew working in an orphanage in South America would be a challenging task. Unfortunately, I am quite sad to admit that my time spent volunteering at the orphanage has culminated in one big FAIL.
The operator of the orphanage is a woman named Karina. I discovered that she is paid by the government and has been in the position for 4 months. She takes care of the day-to-day operations and is the person ultimately responsible for the current sanitary conditions.
On my first day, I was warned by other volunteers to “watch out for Karina” and was told stories of her scolding and even asking previous volunteers to leave for trivial reasons. To be honest, when I first heard this I thought it sounded pretty silly and didn’t really believe it. Who would turn away help?
From the first day I walked in with my cleaning supplies, Karina did not take a liking to me. To her defense, she saw me as an outsider who busted in and tried telling her what to do. Although she agreed to let me clean, each time I did she’d find something to scold me for or ask me to stop for one reason or another.
Even when I did the deep clean, she entered the bedroom I was in and she changed a baby’s diaper. She threw the unsealed diaper in the middle of the floor I just mopped and said, “You are too slow with this cleaning.” Things can get lost in translation, so I interpreted that as, “It looks really clean in here, this will be good for the children.”
Luckily, I did not come to Peru on a quest for a new best friend. I came here to help these kids and see cool stuff in between. So I bit my tongue and put my cleaning supplies away when she asked. I created a cleaning rotation, bought more supplies and talked endlessly with my volunteer organization about how better hygiene standards can be put in place for these kids. Mainly simple stuff, like using a garbage can or opening a window for some fresh air.
I’ve mostly been met with resistance. The simple cleaning rotation I made was never “approved.” Over the past two weeks, the orphanage has slowly slid back to the state it was in when I first got here. No matter how hard I try, I am told that Karina has the final say and if she doesn’t like it, it’s not going to happen, even if it’s in the best interest of the children.
One morning I arrived at 7am for the early shift. I was in the little babies’ room with the twins, Mariana & Maria Pia, who are 4 months old, and Gustavo who is 9 months old. I could tell Karina had been watching them prior because her laptop & purse were on the chair.
The room was noticeably stinkier so I opened the windows and went hunting for the culprit(s). All three babies had dried diarrhea in their diapers, which means they’d been sitting in them for hours. I changed them and then noticed a dirty diaper on the ground. I then found a few more, one of which had leaked a pile of diarrhea onto the floor. I threw them out, sweeped around them and mopped it up because it’s so gross!!!
Enter Karina. She slammed the windows shut and started moving the babies into the back room. She told me she’s asked me numerous times not to clean and I’m just not listening and this is the final straw. I tried to explain the situation, but as I was talking, she screamed at me to leave and slammed the back bedroom door. And never spoke to me again.
Karina let the volunteer coordinator know that she won’t allow me back in the orphanage. I’ve done many stupid and rebellious things in my life, but I never thought that getting kicked out of an orphanage would be one of them. It’s pretty embarrassing, even though I know I’ve just been trying to do the right thing.
I came here with the best intentions and gave it my all to try and do what little I could while I was here. I saw what an awful environment these kids are being raised in and wanted so badly just to fix it. Admittedly, I became a bit neurotic with the cleaning supplies. I wanted to be the hero volunteer who magically eliminated all germs. I couldn’t fathom that anyone would resist cleanliness, no matter what country you’re from or language you speak.
But I was wrong. The people who work in and run the orphanage are immune to the conditions and don’t see the need for change or the benefit it could have for the kids. They become defensive when you question their ways and take it personally. A lack of education leads them to believe that germs come from open windows and kids need to live in a sauna to be healthy.
You could chalk this up to cultural differences, but when it comes down to it, it’s not just that. The place is being run in survival mode. And the volunteer organization I went through simply supplies volunteers and has no power to affect change inside the orphanage. What it really boils down to is a complacency with the way things are, regardless of how bad the current state actually is.
The most and only heartbreaking element of this situation is how these kids have to live. They are so helpless and are just stuck there. It seems so overwhelming. And this is not the only place in the world where this is happening. It is not right.
My biggest take-aways from the orphanage are:
1: People can survive and adapt to almost anything. It’s pretty amazing. I saw toddlers eating out of dustpans and some of the grossest living conditions I’ve ever witnessed. But everyone there has just adapted to it and accepts it. Light and love rise above the darkness.
2: Happiness really does come from within. Of course, these kids need better resources to live a healthier life. But they still laugh and smile.
3: Children are always a blessing. I had so many special moments with the babies and kids. They’d smile and stare at me. They would cling to me for dear life or do something adorable or new for the first time. Every moment I spent with them was a gift for both of us.
I’m leaving Arequipa with an eyewitness experience of what it’s like to be an orphan in South America, as well as a mutant stomach virus which has really gotten me the closest I will ever come to having abs.
Although this experience has had its ups and downs, I am feeling good about the next volunteer project. What I won’t forget is that these kids don’t have the same freedom and luxury of options that I have been so unbelievably blessed with.
That is the most important lesson I’ve learned:
There is no magic wand.
For as frustrating as it is, there’s no magical way to fix this situation. All I could do was my best. The problems of the world may seem overwhelming at times, but step by step, and little by little, positive change can happen. Even if it seems nearly impossible.
Leaving Arequipa, I’ve made a personal vow to myself. It’s the first vow I’ve ever made in my life. I vow to return and rebuild this orphanage one day. I vow to do my absolute best to find resources to help as many kids like this as I can around the world. They are so deserving, and I only hope I can follow up on this promise, one day.