You never forget the first time a brick-cheeked niñito (little one) calls you tía, the Spanish word for Aunt. My first time was while in a full sprint, playing soccer on the large expanse of black pavement at El Rosario Orphanage in Huancayo, Peru. As I looked back and forth for a small human to pass the ball to, Victor, one of the 9-year-olds yelled, “Tía! Tía! Acá! Acá! (Auntie! Auntie! Here! Here!)” Despite the fact that the high altitude had me breathing like a 90 year old smoker, a huge grin broke across my face as I kicked him the ball and watched as he sprinted with ease towards the net-less net.
That day, I learned that tía is not only a term for “aunt” in Spanish, but at El Rosario it is a term of endearment that the children use the same way they call their care-takers: madres (mothers.) We had been coming to the orphanage almost every day for two weeks to teach public health lessons and do related activities with the kids. After another day of stuttering through our public health lessons in Spanish, supported only by the hideous posters we tried desperately to make beautiful, as usual we had almost two hours to play with the kids and goof around. This afternoon, like most others, the kids felt like playing futbol (soccer.)
Futbol was special because it was how we got close to the most difficult children, the boys ages 9 to 12. It allowed them to beat us, to show us their incredible skill and agility on their own turf, and to our advantage it tired them out. Scott, a 22-year-old volunteer in our group from Kansas, was the first to break into their circle. As Scott struggled to keep up with their quick footwork and simultaneously avoid falling on top of them, the boys began to call him joven, Spanish term for young man, mocking him with the cocky confidence only a nine year old can have, as they beckoned for the spotted ball down-field. As the days went on, the futbol matches after lessons became a ritual, and the boys were ecstatic when Scott ran out onto the asphalt with the ball, ready to play.
Over on the cement bleachers that lined the pavement field, myself and a few other volunteers would color and draw with the younger kids. We showed them how to make little balloons out of construction paper, made cards for one another, and sometimes surprised them with stickers or balloons. One day by the end of the afternoon the kids were running around with glittery stickers on their backs, arms, legs, and cheeks, shrieking as they smacked them on each other. The Director of the orphanage, who resembles a Peruvian Santa Claus, came out of his office and burst out into a “Ho Ho Ho” laugh when he saw his sticker-covered niñitos.
Though teaching the public health lessons was why we came to the orphanage each day, the reality of how we influenced the children and the “madres” was different, but I think it was just as important. The “madres” that work at the orphanage each have a different story to tell. Some are aunts or grandmothers of the children, some are volunteers, some have been there for years. They teach the children their schoolwork every day, wash them, feed them, and put them to bed. The three hours we visited El Rosario every day gave the madres time to sit down, to chat with one another, or take a walk. It gave the children someone new to play with, to talk to, and to learn from. And it gave us some of the best moments of our trip. Watching our youngest Mary Louise make coloring look like deciphering the Davinci Code the way she squints in concentration, or Goby push Scott after he scored a point…It was these little moments, watching the kids and feeling a part of their lives that made volunteering feel meaningful.