Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Your heart will be the fuller and your life the richer for it...

Below is a testimonial by son and mother, Carson and Anna Stevens, who recently visited four NPH homes! Caron, a volunteer who has worked at NPH Honduras from 2014-2015 went with his mother back to Rancho Santa Fe (Honduras) as well as the homes in Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala! Read about their journey below!
My mother and I recently visited four NPH homes in North & Central America (October 11-24, 2016) as a follow-up to my volunteer year at NPH Honduras (June 2014-July 2015) and as part of our mutual dream to see any and as many of the NPH homes as possible.  On our trip we saw, in order:  NPH Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.  We had earmarked two weeks to make the trip but the main pitfall was obvious as soon as we were leaving the first home (NPH Mexico): the visits were too short (2-4 days at each home)!  Nonetheless, we got a flavor of each home and felt welcomed and befriended by countless pequeños (the resident children), staff and volunteers within minutes of arriving in each location.
Casa San Salvador, NPH Mexico (in Miacatlán), the genesis of NPH and most populated home of the four, felt like a safe, secure and peaceful fortress or campus despite its original use as a sugar plantation (which, we were told, extends all the way back to descendants of the Conquistador Cortez).  We met lovely toddlers, kids, youth and staff and learned a lot about the home´s past, its present projects and the future direction of the home.  Many people made the trip amazing, but particularly the kind and gracious Volunteer/Visitor Coordinator, Daniel, and Farm Director, Doctor Julio.  Dr. Julio explained to us how he manages the crops being grown, the philosophy behind it, and how the children are a huge part of the harvest, not merely because of the labor they provide (after school hours), but because of the education they receive in learning responsibility and how to respectfully live and grow alongside nature.  We were able to spend time with Marion, the pioneer and face of the Taller de Arte art therapy program, and her students as they carefully prepared papier-maché skeletons and skulls for El Día de Los Muertos (the November 1 Day of the Dead holiday).  We also sampled the wares of the Taller de Arte giftshop, where students donate mosaic creations (e.g. picture frames, vases and crosses) to support the art program, in keeping with the founder of NPH, Padre(Father) Guillermo (William) Wasson's principle of giving pequeños a sense of responsibility and contribution to their NPH family, or community.  Additional highlights of the trip included visiting a third grade class during a health lesson, dining and conversing with the pre-Kinder group, and attending the despedida (goodbye party) in honor of Maestra (Teacher) Eva, a teacher who taught at the home for 40 years AFTER having grown up in it.
Casa San Andrés, NPH Guatemala (in Parramos), immediately had a different feel because the home is located high in a cool mountain region.  Apart from some midday heat, it was much cooler in the morning, afternoon, and evenings than at the other homes.  The setting was stunning- on a high hill encircled by close mountains all around with a volcano (Volcán de Acatenango) nearby.  When we arrived, the school year had just ended and vacation had just started.  Things were quiet and calm, with a relaxed schedule of chores in the morning then recreational activities and free time in the afternoon.  So many people in NPH Guatemala were friendly, welcoming and eager to get acquainted with us.  Casa San Andrés had a higher ratio of volunteers (19 volunteers: 300 children) than Mexico (8:500), Honduras (19:450) or El Salvador (0:300; currently no volunteers).  We received incredible help and orientation from the Visitor Coordinator, Michael.  Among the many inspiring people we encountered at Casa San Andrés were Ismar Velásquez, hermano mayor (former pequeño) from NPH Honduras, as well as an old friend "on loan" from NPH Honduras:  Juan Bautista, a University student whose drive and focus allowed him to pursue his studies in Guatemala, with NPH Guatemala's support.  Highlights of the visit included sampling the snacks at the “Tienda Sonrisa” (The Smile Store) run by Special Needs pequeños and supervised by a youth in her año de servicio (pre-university service year pequeña, also referred to as año familiar), admiring and purchasing a few items from the Taller Recreativo (recreational workshop), a special needs recreational therapy workshop that makes artwork and jewelry for sale, with the proceeds going to the project and NPH Guatemala.  Like the Taller de Arte giftshop in NPH Mexico, both projects are great examples of Padre Wasson´s principle of giving pequeños a sense of responsibility and contribution to the home.  One final unique experience for us was seeing the pequeños divide into teams for the Guatemalan home's upcoming 20th anniversary, an experience in NPH Honduras known as “Las Olimpiadas.”
Casa Sagrada Familia, NPH El Salvador (in Santa Ana), was unique because it was the youngest, smallest and least populated of the four homes we visited.  If anything, the smaller space and lower population of the home allowed us to get acquainted more quickly with the home and its pequeños and staff.  We were also struck by the warmth and graciousness of the Casa Sagrada community of pequeños.  Everyone we passed- from the youngest preschoolers through the oldest año servicios- stopped, looked us in the eye, shook our hand and greeted us warmly.  Our visit was facilitated by the friendly employee, Carmina, who gave us a very enjoyable and helpful tour.  An additional highlight included meeting Brenda, one of the home´s administrators, who has worked there since the home opened in 1999.  We were able to visit two days of classes and spend our time in the most structured manner of the four home visits because of the timing (NPH El Salvador was getting ready for exams and was therefore in more of a regular routine; Mexico had been busy with a special event- the celebration for the retiring teacher- Guatemala had just ended their school year, and the Honduras visit was during the weekend).  We had breakfast and lunch with the school-aged groups and dinner with the casa de bebes ("baby house"), where the youngest pequeños (ages 3-8) live.  The little kids treated us to an unforgettable dance session, which included punta (traditional dance popular in Honduras, a homage to my Honduran “roots!”) as well as choreographed routines to pop music and several renditions of their NPH anthem.  We were impressed by how well the children of different ages got along with and looked out for each other and how close and friendly staff members and children were to each other.  We attended a beautiful, uplifting mass on Saturday morning before departing.  The two most noticeable differences between mass in El Salvador and Honduras were that NPH El Salvador has a more traditional, large church for their masses with amplified live music, while NPH Honduras uses an amphitheater and acoustic music.
Our visit to El Rancho Santa Fe, NPH Honduras (nearest to La Venta), was at least the fourth visit for each of us.  We spent several hours with the residents of Casa Emanuel, the hogar (dorm) I worked with as a volunteer.  Casa Emanuel is the hogar for the older group of Special Needs boys and men at El Rancho.  Mom met some of the surgical brigade staff and briefly helped them get some last-minute lunch food ready while I watched futból (soccer) with Casa Emmanuel, the Visitor Coordinator, Steve, and the año familiar currently working with Casa Emmanuel.  We also met some Honduran brigade-translators in the dorm section of the Volunteer House where we all were lodged; all four were talented, eager and interesting people.  We greatly enjoyed seeing the babies, kids, youth and staff but it was a somber moment to visit because dear Abuela Engracia from Casa Eva, (“Casa de Los Abuelos,” or the home for elderly people at El Rancho) had just passed away.
Each home visit was unique and tremendously moving.  While we would recommend visiting each home, the smaller physical size and populations of the Guatemalan and El Salvador homes seemed better suited for a short trip.  A few miscellaneous tidbits we learned along the way:  The more Spanish you (or someone in your group) know(s), the better your trip will be (this includes the trip to and from the home, especially if something unexpected happens and you have to spend a night, or- like us- TWO nights in a capital city); have backup plans for all transport and lodging-related details; and, finally, you´ll spend less money if you have secured some local currency ahead of time (it can be ordered ahead of time at local US banks and AAA travel club offices).  Because of the distance from the capital city to the home, NPH Mexico was unable to provide transport to and from the airport (the other three homes did).  However, it was easy enough to do that bit on our own, and the bus line the home recommended (“Pulman de Morelos”) stops literally right in front of Casa San Salvador.
All four homes are filled with wonderful people whom we feel blessed and grateful to have met and hope to see again soon (which we´re sure would be the same case at all NPH homes and communities).  Perhaps as a metaphor for Central America, the homes do an amazing job of providing visitors with breathtaking contrasts that sometimes change instantaneously: from beautiful, calm, quiet views of mountains, fields, farms and pastures to a cacophony of voices, laughter and el latido (the beat) of hundreds of kids living Padre Wasson´s dream.
While it would be easy for us to plug Mexico as the most populated, beautiful and original home that it is, Guatemala for its pleasant climate, strategic layout and most visitor-ready feel, or Honduras as our deepest emotional connection, we´d like to point out that El Salvador REALLY deserves visits!  Whether it´s due to being the youngest of the 4 homes, having a less-established volunteer program, or other factors, a visit there definitely seems the most unique and special for the home and they REALLY- all ages and roles- show their appreciation!  We encourage those who have never visited NPH to do so because it is a life changing experience, and for those who have been to one home and (understandably!) continue to go back there whenever possible, consider visiting another home as well.  Your heart will be the fuller and your life the richer for it.