We have recently returned from Guatemala, where we visited the orphanage in which Alex, my son, has been volunteering. It was an experience full of contrasts and revelation. Contrasted against the beauty of Lake Atitlan, I saw the orphanage for the first time. It was an overwhelming experience. I was shocked, thrilled, excited, saddened, appalled, and—overwhelmed. I laughed and I cried, and I lost my heart to the wonderful man, Pablo, who gives his everything to these 50 children.
Firstly though, I’ve been telling people the wrong thing. I understood that the government in Guatemala helps with the upkeep of these children. That is not the case. The government doesn’t give them a single cent! All the money for the orphanage comes from whatever Pablo can scrape together from donations and from the sale of the traditional Maya drums that he makes. The government would probably close the place down and put the children out on the street if they could, because Pablo hasn’t been able to afford the $1400 to pay the lawyers to get the documents to register it as an official child care facility. Don’t get me wrong—those children have nowhere else to go, and Pablo would never abandon them, but his struggle to help them is devastating to see.
I met some of the children and saw the conditions they have to survive in. Alex told them that they would have a party on Saturday, and they all came up and hugged me. I couldn’t speak because I was afraid I’d cry. After they went to play in the dirty laneway outside, or went off to work to sell whatever bits they could to whoever would buy, or went to help with whatever jobs they could do, Bob and I sat down with Pablo.
We decided we would give them their party with a day off from their work, a trip down to the lake, swimming, and then back for their Christmas presents and some special food. We also felt we should pay the last two month’s food bills, which Pablo still owed to the local shops. The shops help when they can, but San Pablo (the place where the orphanage is) is heartbreakingly poor, and the shopkeepers have to make a living, too.
We are also paying for the certificate, so Pablo can be properly registered, and people can feel more secure about making donations. We talked about registering a name and setting up a website (I can do that, so it won’t cost anything, but if anyone would like to volunteer to help, please let me know). Pablo understands that it’s something he needs to have, as well as a social media presence, but he has no access to the internet except at the library. In fact they only have electricity because their neighbour allows them to access theirs! The orphanage will be called, in English, “Light on the Water.”
Pablo had tears in his eyes when he saw all the donations that we had brought for his precious children, and I could see he was overwhelmed. From a situation where he didn’t know how he was going to feed the kids the next day, and pay the bills, they now have awesome school and medical supplies, bills paid and something to look forward to. We arrived at just the right time, I believe. Thank you, everyone, who gave donations. Together we have helped 50 children have some hope for the future.
Of course, I won’t let it stop there.
The next day we packed all the Christmas presents for the children into the car and drove to San Pablo. The children were already gathered, as excited as we were. I had the impression that they were a little wary, and couldn’t quite believe in what the day promised. I imagine (and Pablo confirmed) that they had been let down before.
After Alex and Pablo organised the day, the children piled into four tuk-tuks (which are the main form of transport between the villages.) They don’t live far from the lake, but foreign investors have bought up all the land between the village and the lake, so the locals are not allowed to access the lake below their village. We had to travel to a spot outside of the village to a place where the children could swim.
Watching the happy children enjoy themselves was an amazing experience, and I spent quite some time talking with Pablo, whose English is much better than he imagines. We have plans!
We returned to the orphanage, and by this time Pablo’s wife, Anna, had organised a wonderful treat for the children—chicken and rice with tortillas. Pablo said that the children would be lucky if, when times are good, they ate like that once a month. They’ve had nothing like that for the last few months because tourists don’t come in the rainy season, and Pablo can’t sell drums to people who aren’t there. The children ate all the food with their fingers—like all children do, in fact.
After lunch came the presents, and as the names of the children were called, they came up and hugged me. They are so, so precious. I can’t believe that many of these children have been completely abandoned. Some of them do sleep at the houses of relatives or other adults since there is simply not enough room at Pablo’s. A fair number of these children—some as young as six—were not allowed to attend the party because they had to work cutting the coffee at the coffee plantation.
The children loved their toys and lollies. I wanted to laugh and love, but I struggled to hold back tears. There was happiness, affection and fun.
None of that really reflects the reality of the conditions in the orphanage. Pablo is happy to share the conditions in which they live. The children’s room is built above Pablo’s house. There are three rooms downstairs—two tiny bedrooms and a living room/kitchen/laundry room. At the back are the toilet, shower and Pablo’s workroom. At the front of the house is a very small shop front where Pablo or Anna can sell wares to make some money for the orphanage. The rooms are joined by an uncovered walkway. Pablo is very proud of the fact that they have a house which is paid for and is solidly built. It represents a safe, stable building that is as suitable as they can make it to house the children.
Because of lack of room, and the fact that Pablo is not legally registered as a child care facility (although that will change now), in the afternoons, many of the children go to sleep at the houses of extended family, or other adults who will take them. This is not always “safe” for the children. Also, many of the children must work in return. This work might be carrying loads, cutting coffee, selling items in the street, cleaning, or other (often less savoury) tasks.
Government schooling is “compulsory” until year six, but it also costs money to attend, and the children must provide their own exercise books and other supplies (which is now covered for next year). It is not easy for Pablo to pay those school fees, though, and he always hopes that he will make enough during the start of the tourist season to pay the fees in January and keep the children attending their education. The situation is heartbreaking.
I’ll be setting up a website after Christmas, and if anyone feels moved to help with skills or expertise or donations for the children (and any donations will go directly to the orphanage), please don’t hold back.
This year my children decided that they would donate to the orphans instead of Christmas presents, and that is going to make this year very special.
I sincerely wish everyone a wonderful Christmas with their families—however those families are created. May you all feel loved and truly cherished.
May you be truly grateful for the good things that you have—the good memories of the past, the everyday abundance of the present, and the hopes and plans you can make for the future. Our lives are overflowing with amazing things. We should take time to appreciate them all and be thankful.