“What’s wrong, hijo?” Juan, usually cartwheeling from one prank to another, has stopped his wanderings to sit on the ground with his head between his hands, a lost look in his eyes.
“Tell me. What’s the matter?” The only answer is a sudden rush of tears and loud sniffs from a runny nose.
I sit down beside him.
Luckily from here I can see the rest of my charges, the seven oldest children of the fifteen currently living in our home, La Casita de Belén (The Little House of Bethlehem). The home is run by a Catholic foundation in Asuncion, Paraguay, the Fundacion San Rafael, which also includes a church, a clinic providing hospice care to the poor, a school and high school, a university for indigenous young people, and two other children’s homes. One houses boys aged nine through eighteen, the other girls aged nine through eighteen, and teen mothers. La Casita de Belén, where I have been living and volunteering for the past eleven months, houses the youngest children, from infants through eight-year-olds.
The two girls on the swings don’t understand why Juan is getting all the attention.
“Tia, come push me. Please.”
“Not now, Camila, later.” Camila needs attention too; born with HIV/AIDS and orphaned soon after, she doesn’t know what family means. No one is willing to take her in because of the stigma about “The Sickness” here.
Wham! A surprise hug from behind almost topples me over. I don’t have to guess who this is. “Jazmin. Asi no!” I pry her off my back and she flings herself into my lap.
“Jazmin, go play. Now is not the time to sit on my lap.”
“Tonight can I?”
I nod and she trots away, contented. At four years, she is the youngest of my seven children. At eight, Juan is the oldest. He’s still silently crying at my side.
“Juan, what’s up?” I ask again.
“I miss my mom. I want to see my mom.” His words break down into loud sobbing. He hasn’t seen his mother for nine months, since she set fire to their house with Juan locked inside. He went straight to the hospital; she went to the psychiatric ward. What can I say?
But, once expressed, the pain diminishes. The tears slowly stop and, when Juan returns from washing his face, he’s ready to climb the tree to drop green guavas on unsuspecting passersby.
Lizy, one of his targets, topples off her bike and pauses to scold him in Guarani, her native language, before asking me in broken Spanish to help her back on. The bike is as new to her as Spanish, and she is equally proud of her accomplishments with both.
I look around…one, two, three, four, five. Abigail is visiting her mother, a paraplegic in the nearby clinic; that makes six. So where is Juan now? I find him snitching Miguel’s toy cars. If Miguel or his sister Jessica find out, a squabble will start. The only siblings in our home, Jessica and Miguel stick together, especially in the daily tiffs with the other children. While Juan and I quietly put the cars back, I hope no one will notice our doings.
La Casita de Belén is an apt name, for here our days are composed of small things: small joys and grievances, small rebellions and small generosities. A skinned knee, a squabble over a swing, a picture painted just for you. I hope that together these small things make up something big: a change in the children’s lives. Someone having time to listen to Juan is enough for now. I cannot heal their scars, visible or invisible, but I can make their day a little brighter, and by so doing, hopefully make their futures brighter, too.