Although the Children’s Center can be seen from a long way off as it is perched precariously on top of a hillside, it is the sound of children playing that first gives an inkling as to the purpose of the building. Walking up the steep, dusty hillside, passing houses made of wood and reed matting, or others, half-finished, of brick and concrete, the sound of musical instruments and the happy tones of laughter increase. On reaching the top of the hill the children scurry past, all headed towards the Center, where a warm welcome greets everyone that enters. Here the children experience the freedom to be children, and as a result, can joyfully participate in the many activities on offer. It’s their space.
From time to time though, we come across a young boy or girl who is very obviously alone and sad, who keep to themselves and look as if they are carrying the worries of the world on their little shoulders. And to all intents and purposes they are. It is in this way that we have detected many cases of children being mistreated, at school and at home, and with nobody to talk to about their problems they feel all the more isolated and hopeless. But through our psychology department we are able to help them open up and share the difficulties that they’re experiencing. At times though, this is not enough, and often we have felt frustrated ourselves as there is very little help available from the local authorities for these children, who to a large extent have to suffer in silence.
We have found over the years in trying to help children who are living in abusive situations, especially through our “Child Protection Desk”, that everything is tipped in favor of the offender. Whether it is in relation to the police, judicial or medical authorities, the system takes so long in processing cases that often the child has to remain in the same abusive situation for up to a year or more. Only now, the situation is worse as very often the child is blamed for bringing this trouble on the family, and hence, suffering further deterioration in physical, mental and social health. Motivated by this plight, St. Bernadette’s Children’s Home was created, where temporary residential care is offered, and an opportunity to heal their wounds through psychological intervention and lots of affection.
A DREAM REALIZED
The need for this type of project became apparent several years ago, but because of insurmountable difficulties at that time, it was decided to put the idea on hold, perhaps, for good. Personally I adopted the attitude that if it were for us, to open a temporary residential home, then the conditions would arrive allowing us to proceed without our having to push for it. Leave it in the hands of God as it were. Time passed until one day I realized, completely out of the blue, that the circumstances had arrived which would enable us to realize our dream.
First of all we needed land on which to build and thankfully a suitable plot of 600m2 was found very close by to the Children’s Center, thanks to Elsa, a local lady and now the coordinator of the Center, who went about by night looking for an adequate site. An architect was called in to draw up our ideas and afterward the plans, which were ready only a few weeks after deciding to start the building, and start we did in January 2004. As I hoped to invite some people from Ireland to the opening of the Home, and wanting to give them time to make arrangements for travel, a date had to be set.
I reckoned that the building could be finished within six months, if there were on slacking, and therefore, opted for a date in July. The builder we employ brought his usual team in, but once the foundations were laid I asked him to employ others so it could advance quicker. On average there were 25 workers on the job, and when filling the roofs with concrete, up to 40. The people couldn’t believe how fast the construction was going up and would often come around to look.
It was a bit of a nightmare at times making sure that the materials arrived on time, as we used a special brick not easily attainable, and making sure that the different tradesmen were working in conjunction with the rest. Generally there attitude is much more led back, “ah, we’ll do it tomorrow when there is more time”, is a usual refrain. If they didn’t know me then, they soon did, as I look back with a little embarrassment. One day I arrived on the job at about 10 o clock in the morning only to catch everybody having an unscheduled tea-break. When they saw me they scattered like bats out of hell. It was humorous at the time, but on reflection it made me aware of how much I was “urging” them on. When I have the responsibility of putting to good use the donations of other people, then I surely don’t want to waste anything. July was approaching, as was the end of the job, but still there was no let up as often the finishing touches take quite awhile.
But by the end of June everything was complete. Our visitors from Ireland arrived at the start of July, Mary McKnight from St. Bernadette’s Parish and Maire Fitzpatrick from St. Anne’s, who would be acting as Madrinas, (sponsors/spiritual friends) an important role in the inauguration of any new building here in Peru. The actual opening was on the 11th of July. So, you back in Ireland weren’t the only ones “celebrating”. It was really a very festive day for all, and an emotional one for me, as I knew that we were only the instruments in realizing this dream. The possibility for it all to happen came from another source, and that belief gives me the hope that it will all continue, even if we aren’t sure how.
We try to ensure that the children have as normal a time as possible, through continuing to go to the same school as before, doing their homework, having family visits and time for play. Given that all the children with us will eventually go home, we don’t want their separation from us to be too traumatic, hence, the reluctance to spoil them. They have small chores to do, whether it be cleaning or helping to look after the animals, but all take turns with no preference shown to either boys or girls. We also provide moments in the week for therapy, both individual and in the larger group.
“Will somebody listen to me?” (Ruth 9 years)
Milly and Violeta are the two psychologists who meet individually with the children on a weekly basis for therapy, through which we hope the children can enter into a process of recuperation and be healed of their pain. While our approach is integral, using all the opportunities and activities of the day, to be with the child in a loving way, we find that listening to them through therapy, helps the children overcome their feelings of loneliness and distrust which can impede, from the beginning, any process of recuperation.
We try to help the children recognize the wounds left by the violence suffered so as to be free of this suffering, rather than allowing it to incubate, only to reveal itself with negative consequences at a later date. The second concern we deal with is the feeling of guilt. Even though it may seem incredible, the children are convinced that they are guilty of everything that has happened, along with all of the difficulties which the family is now experiencing. So, we try to encourage them to assume a critical attitude concerning their problems, to recognize their emotions and speak of them without fear, and to strengthen their self-esteem.
“Now I fell That I’m not alone.” (yessenia 10 years)
Willy, the husband of Milly, who are the married couple living in the Home with their two children, is the psychologist who works with the children in the weekly group therapy sessions, which helps the children to identify with each other and realize that they are not the only ones suffering in this way. In the words of Yessenia,”….we are able to learn how to look after ourselves. We talk about ourselves and notice that we are not so different. Before I used to think that I was the only one to whom these terrible things had happened, but that is not so, and in the group I am able to help by giving advice to others who feel bad, as at one stage I did myself.
The nice thing is that we do all this in a pleasant way with games and dynamics, learning to value ourselves and to value the others.” The group meeting, held on Sunday evenings, is also an opportunity to share a reflection with the others on his/her conduct during the week, which then can be complemented, refuted or reinforced by the opinions of the others. What we are looking for is that each child become conscientious and responsible for their acts, and able to question others behavior, and hence, recovering the desire to live and participate as a healthy member of the society.
A Healing Oasis:
“When I entered the Home for the first time, I thought that it was a prison, whereas now that I am leaving to return to my family, I think just the opposite. It is a place where they gave me much love and I learnt good things.” (Leticia 8 years) On entering the Home the feeling is of arriving at an oasis, a place of rest, as the color of the gardens, the sounds of the animals and the water cascading down the rocks of the the Lourdes Grotto, all help in achieving our aim to provide a sanctuary, which is in stark contrast to the local environment and the reality of the children who stay with us. Because of this welcoming and tranquil atmosphere, everyone who comes to stay, adapt very quickly to their new surroundings.
All the children help with the animals especially during school holidays when there is more time, which helps them learn to show and receive affection. It has been amazing to watch the effect this involvement has had on the children. Because of their experience some of the children are very aggressive and mistrusting of others, but through their chores of feeding the animals, cleaning their pens, and collecting eggs, etc. they learn to leave aside their aggression and become friendlier with each other.
Samuel is a child who entered with very little tolerance of failure, very irritable, nearly always grumbling, but he has achieved something which nobody previously had done in the Home. He made a friend of “Aurora”, our talking parrot who pecks very hard when anybody comes too close. Samuel, however, managed to approach him and give him food in his hands without “Aurora” hurting him, and has now offered to teach other children how to do the same. As cleanliness and hygiene are also very important there is a cleaning roster drawn up by the children themselves, which they carry out, while also encouraging their companions to observe with responsibility. Even the smallest children help to do the cleaning, even though it may not be done very well, it is the effort we value in their desire to look after the surroundings, and to do something for the others. We adults join with them in this work, given that, example, is the guide to form their habits. They also wash their own clothes, with the smallest ones taking care of their underwear only, while the older ones wash all their clothes. Our wish is that they learn to be independent, because at home, many come from families where no father is present and the mother has to go out to work.
“I feel a child again” (Maruja 8 years)
To be able to play is such an important part of childhood which helps the child learn and be creative, and particularly so for these children who have been mistreated. In a way they have lost something of their childhood, and to be able to recuperate this in some way through play, is an important reason to have this time for recreation. Thankfully the Children’s Center is only a couple of minutes walk up the hill which our little residents visit a couple of times a week, and more frequently during the summer.
During the school holidays there are more opportunities for outings to the beech or the local parks, usually a couple of times a week, while during the school year it is more sporadic. But there is football and volleyball in the afternoons when the homework has been complete, or in the dark colder evenings, play in the house with different games. Birthday parties are a common occurrence in the Home with so many children in residence. Those interested help make the birthday cake, while others decorate the dining room where the activities take place. In true Peruvian fashion the dancing and music start immediately with everyone, especially the girls, eager to show the latest dance they have learned.
From the very start we realized the importance of also working with the parents of the children, or those who were going to be the guardians, when they leave us. For what was the point in working with the child, if afterward, s/he had to go back into the same situation, and lose everything gained through their stay with us.
So, it is a prerequisite for any child coming to us that the parent or parents must also make a commitment to enter therapy with the psychologists, individually and in group, while also ensuring that the aggressor is removed from the family home.
In this way they too will be able to prepare themselves better for the return of their children, and being able to avoid a repeat of what happened before. Willy and Milly both work with the parents, Wily in the group therapy and Milly on the individual level. “Together we seek to combat the feeling of guilt, hatred and revenge, which can do much damage to the relationship with the child. We put a lot of emphasis on self-esteem, recovery of self love, and recognizing our weaknesses and strengths. This means relearning to love ourselves, as many come from broken families and tragic backgrounds, and only by learning to love and value ourselves will we be able to love and value our children.
While the children who are in the Home learn to communicate their thoughts and feelings with confidence, avoiding falling merely into passive communication, and being capable of even criticizing an adult, we try to encourage this communication with the parents, so as they are able to hear what the child has to say. These are the principal lines along which we work, so that the children, on returning to their homes, may be able to continue developing as in “a fertile soil which will yield good fruits”.
PICTURES THAT SPEAK
“Good day, good day…” and a hand would reach out towards ours with a gesture of friendship. That was the very effusive form of greeting from our little friend. He always had a smile drawn on his dirty little face, wearing threadbare clothes, without color, without life and without grace, in total contrast with his attitude. At 10 years of age it was difficult for Ivan to confront his difficulties alone, while hampered also by a language problem which impedes him from learning to read and write, and speaking clearly, and makes him an object of fun in front of his companions.
One afternoon he arrived in the Children’s Center without the smile with which he usually defies his hostile reality, but rather with a look of immense distress. On the previous afternoon he had not been able to come to our meeting because on the way he met three gang members who knew him. Taking advantage of his vulnerability, they offered him clothing and something to eat in a nearby shack, but where they attacked him instead. Through his tears he shared what happened, and in this embrace he began to discover something magical, which intuitively had drawn him towards us. Ivan no longer stood alone.
“Thank you to all in the Home. I will remember all my friends. I spent many happy times with them all.” (Ivan, 10 years)
A little shack of reed matting, barely held up by some wooden stakes and covered with old rags, was battling against the sun and wind at the foot of a hill in Ventanilla. Inside, though, a much more unjust and abusive struggle was being waged.
Maruja (8 years) was witnessing how her sister Kelly was being mistreated by her stepfather; a man whom the mother had brought into the family home in order to fill the emotional and material void after the father had abandoned them. It was their mother who arrived at that precise moment to put an end to her children’s torment.
Maruja had become very aggressive with tantrums and shouting, while looking to be embraced by adult men. She felt she was worthless, rejected by everybody, and tried continually to draw attention to herself. Her sister Kelly, no longer the same little girl with the mischievous smile, became distrustful, tight lipped and passive to her surroundings. She had lost the motivation for any activity in the home, in school and in the playground, and said that, “she wanted to renounce life, to give up being a child”. Kelly and Maruja spent almost a year and a half with us, over which time they were able to deal with their difficulties, Kelly being a little slower than her younger sister Maruja in opening up in trust. Nevertheless, Kelly was able to write on leaving the Home,
“On this day I am leaving the Home and going to my own home. I will never forget you because you have been a family for me and have shared my emotions, joyful and sad. How I wish that you will never forget me. (Kelly 10 years)
St. Bernadette’s Children’s Home is the only institution of its kind in Peru, and as a result it also receives cases from the judicial system from all parts of Lima. We are only treating the tip of the ice-berg, but that which we are doing is so important to many children and families who had once lost all hope of help and recovery. Now there is hope, just as I have hope that this work will continue through God using good people like you as channels of his grace. The gratitude we all feel can be best expressed in the words of Dolores, mother of Lisbeth.
“I was feeling so alone in the middle of this problem; justice was so slow and distant. I did not know what to do with my little daughter to protect her and cure her of her depression, her nightmares, of her resistance to eating, of all the damage which had been inflicted on her. It was the Home which appeared like a divine blessing; I am so grateful.”