Wednesday morning we drove out to IHNFA, which is the Honduran government run orphanage system. The particular orphanage we went to was located just outside of San Pedro Sula, and shared a wall with a boy’s juvenile detention center. As we drove through the neighborhoods, Shin Fujiyama–founder of Students Helping Honduras– explained to us how there were very expensive housing developments on one side, with slums on the other side. We quickly began to see this, for on the right side of the bus were gated communities with their own electricity poles and streets, with big, two story houses. On the other side were the houses we had seen on a day to day basis; stick and mud dwellings with scrap tin roofs and curtained doors. We backed our bus all the way down the road alongside the orphanage—a towering cinderblock wall topped with barbed wire.
I had an aching nervous feeling inside the whole way there, and while backing in, I couldn’t help but think that we were parking that way in order to make a quick exit—after all, the area was highly populated with MS 13.
As we stood in front of the giant iron gate of the “orphanage,” Shin explained to us that at age 13, the children who weren’t adopted were thrown back into the streets. There was a girl’s home for this age, but it was over capacity.
The boys home, established for the same purpose, was shut down because some of the boys had been found murdered by staff there.
Shin turned to us and said that we couldn’t change the system overnight. Today, if we went in and made one kid smile, we were doing our job.
With that in mind, we entered the cinderblock pen.
Later someone in the group would recall not feeling like they had stepped unto the grounds of an orphanage, and that it looked more like an abandoned building. Since taking pictures is prohibited at IHNFA, I will do my best to paint the scene—and I won’t hold back.
Before we entered the building, we could hear the children inside. The reality is that these children are locked in their rooms all day due to lack of supervision and resources. As we stepped inside my heart tightened in my chest.
Over the clamor of the children was this hollow metal clanging.
I’m not sure if anyone else heard it, it is a noise that will haunt me forever. I’m guessing what I heard was the sound of children still in their rooms, pounding to be let out.
For the brief 3 minutes that I stood inside that orphanage, I was terrified. I stood stiff and in shock, surrounded by the hot, dirty air, and the clang, clang, clang of the metal.
I was awakened from this pathetic stupor when someone began to take a group outside.
I have never felt so guilty or ashamed that I couldn’t stay in there for 3 minutes because I was scared.
3 minutes versus the 13 years some of those children were in there, feeling so scared and alone. Next year I swear I will stay and even go upstairs, where I know things are worse.
I had heard of what the upstairs is like, and for purposes of educating and raising awareness, I will relay the stories told to me.
There is a room with babies in cribs, followed by a room next door with physically sick children and children with developmental disabilities like Downs Syndrome. In that room, children sit on the floor, hiding in corners, some completely unresponsive to their surroundings, others acting out—biting or hitting. A girl from our trip was actually bitten, while another saw a child with sandwich bags tied to his hands, to keep him from scratching himself or others.
One particular story that really touches my heart is one told to me by University of Maryland student Sam Tiburzi, who on his first trip to IHNFA a year ago yielded an amazing encounter in this very room.
He had begun to speak with one of the non-responsive children for a while, and had been unsuccessful. Upon leaving, before standing up, he leaned over and kissed the child on the forehead and said, “Te Amo,” I love you.
At that moment, Sam said it was like a light bulb went off in the child, and he grabbed Sam’s hands.
This story to me was the epitome of what our trip to IHNFA was about. Giving children some well needed attention, giving hope in a seemingly hopeless scenario, and showing them something they haven’t seen in years if not ever—love.
Outside was a different story, the kids ran around chaotically on the playground like kids anywhere would. I made immediate friends with José, a small, diaper wearing boy who seemed to have a leg deformity that made him walk with difficulty. One look at his contagious smile and I was reminded of what I was there to do. I was going to atuto!
“Atuto” is what the kids say when they want to ride on your shoulders. Forget piggyback rides, Honduran children want the real deal. And let me tell you, once you are seen atuto-ing one child, you are marked.
I think I was a particularly good carrier because once the children were on my shoulders, they were pretty much the highest point around—buildings and trees excluded. When on my shoulders, José would yell “¡corre!” and I would run around with him giggling insanely. After a while, I met other children who laughed at how I pronounced their names and made faces. Most of the children seemed like everyday kids, but many who walked around were dirty, with skin issues, crossed eyes or other physical ailments that were not being treated.
Many children who were too old wore diapers, all full because 2 diapers a day was the limit—even for babies.
The last child I met was already famous amongst the volunteers that day—he was a very affectionate 11 year old who had been giving kisses. While I was worried about keeping my distance—many children were sick—after a while I just gave up.
As I sat there with him in my lap he had his head in my neck. I began to notice that every time I brought my head up to speak to those around me, he would push my head back.
It was then that I realized he wanted to be as close as possible to me as he could.
The idea of a boy of his age still needing to be held like a baby was so heartbreaking that I just snuggled up to him and rubbed his back up until we had to leave.
These children needed so much, but most of them were so content with receiving the simplest necessity of life: the comfort of human touch.
There are things I wish I didn’t see or know from that day, but if I didn’t experience them, if they didn’t haunt me, catching me off guard throughout my day, I would never be able to inspire the mindset required to change them.
I was so many things that day: angry and sad, terrified and confused, joyous at a child’s laughter.
I know that I want to change these kids lives, because they have changed mine in ways they can’t even imagine.
Later that day. back at Villa Soleada, the village built by Students Helping Honduras, a friend had been atuto-ing a very small, drowsy looking boy, and after a while, she switched him to my shoulders.
The boy seemed exhausted, so I began to walk about, stroking his little feet and singing to him in Spanish.
Slowly, I began to feel his head bob, and sure enough, he fell dead asleep, snoring in my ear.
I have never had a child fall asleep in my arms, let alone one who never met me before.
The combination of the trust shown and the beauty of the moment was the perfect cure for an emotionally taxing day.
That night, after holding it together all day, I cried in the shower.
I was so angry for my lack of knowledge, I was angry at the system and I was scared.
Later that night, I arranged for a few of us to meet to discuss the day. People cried and opened up in a reallyamazing way. One girl even said that it had taken her 4 years in high school to act the way she does around us—people she had known for less than a week. I think my student leader Kelly said it best; we come on these kinds of trips to do service, but we also get service in return.