High in the Andes Mountains, three flights and a four-hour bus ride away, is my second home, Cuenca, Ecuador, where a piece of my heart will always be.
QUARTER-FINALIST 2015 FTF TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
On August 5th I set out with Humanitarian Experience for Youth (HEFY) for Ecuador. There were twenty-three of us altogether, nineteen teenagers and four adults. For two weeks, we’d be together in Cuenca where we’d be working eight hours a day building a house, as well as volunteering at two orphanages near the worksite.
I didn’t know much about the orphanages. One was for children with disabilities and special needs, and one was run by Catholic nuns. I knew we’d be providing them service and support, but I had no idea the immense emotional impact each child would have on my heart.
I fell in love with them.
My first time at OSSO, the disabilities orphanage, was truly a special experience. There were over twenty-five kids, from infants to teenagers. Nearly every child over ten was in a wheelchair. Maybe one or two of the kids could communicate normally, but most of them could not form complete sentences because of mental handicaps. But all of these mortal limitations could not affect their ability to love.
These children opened my eyes. Not once did they question whether or not someone deserved their love. They gave it selflessly, innocently, freely, without any kind of judgment at all. It was a talent, really. A talent, I realized, that I needed help developing.
The more time I spent with them– drawing, playing wheelchair soccer, going on walks, singing songs– the more I recognized I needed them just as much as they needed me.
At the Catholic orphanage, all the children were normally developing kids ages four to six, and from what I’d heard, they were completely impossible to control. We were required pull our hair back in hats because almost all of the orphans had lice. I was nervous, honestly, but all of my anxiety evaporated when I walked inside the gates and saw the orphans.
I will never, ever forget the moment. All of these beautiful little children came up to our legs saying, “Caballito, caballito!” (“Piggyback ride!”). They looked up at us with runny noses and enormous brown eyes, and it struck me all at once how much they needed affection.
I met an adorable little four-year-old girl who shared my name, Nicole, who showed me around and introduced me to all the other children. They were precious, but they were crazy kids with energy. There had to be over thirty of them. They would climb on the walls, throw fruit at us, eat flowers– all I could think was, These kids need mothers! One boy shot spitballs at me and laughed in my face. But when I chased him around and turned it into a game, he eventually dropped his straw. He giggled as I spun him in a circle.
I stopped, and looked into his eyes. I can’t describe the tenderness of that moment. This was a child starved of compassion who just needed someone to give him attention. I wanted to be his mother. I wanted to take them all home with me. They each stole a piece of my heart, and they each taught me something incredibly significant.
How to give it. How to receive it. How to recognize someone who needs it. That’s what the children at these orphanages taught me. That is what Cuenca, Ecuador taught me.
Because of that city in the mountains 4,262 miles away, I am changed.
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