My apprenticeship has one basic job description: to be loving and forgiving towards children who are victims of domestic violence. Put like that, it sounds so simple, right?
This year I am working at a Casa de Acogida, or in this case, a shelter for women and children who have escaped from violent households. These families are from all over Ecuador and Colombia. Some come with suitcases packed with family history and valuables–others arrive with the clothes they are wearing. Some stay for one night–others stay for years. All of the people who pass through benefit from the safe, private space where they can begin the process of healing.
I specifically work with the kids, who range in age from 2 days old to 12 years old. I help with homework, create and teach art projects, lead 10 minute yoga classes and supervise playground time; but mostly I give and receive hugs and kisses and struggle to appropriately reprimand the kids when they hit each other (happens daily) or when they bite me (happened yesterday…and that wasn’t the first time).
These kids have heartbreaking histories that probably created their individual and unique behavioral issues. The problem is: how do you punish a child for hitting his friend when his parents have hit him his whole life? And while I mull over this question in the moment, two kids start crying, one paints her lips with semi-washable paint, and one pees herself.
Dealing with the behavioral issues isn’t the hardest part though. It is watching the kids, who each claim a piece of my heart, leave under tough circumstances. Some go back with their moms to live with their aggressors, some leave but have nowhere to go, and some have mentally ill mothers–I have learned that living with and being the recipient of violence is exhausting and takes a detrimental toll on self confidence, sense of safety, and self image.
A bit over a month ago, I cried myself to sleep two nights in a row because two kids–kids I played with, ate with, hugged goodbye every night–left under these types of situations. I can still clearly hear one’s guttural sob as he hugged goodbye to his friends.
At that time, I wondered if working there was emotionally sustainable, if I would ever see a success story. Pouring all my energy into loving and forgiving these kids didn’t seem worth it if I would watch them all leave with 95% certainty that their lives would be extremely difficult.
A few weeks ago, a group of women left around the the same time to start separate lives of their own. I was sad to see the kids go, especially since I was hesitant to believe they would be ok. Recently however, I’ve seen two of the women outside of the shelter, and both are doing really well! I see two of the kids frequently, and I can’t help but grin like crazy as they run towards me yelling “CHARLOTTE!!!!!” while spilling their snack (usually granola) all over the road.
Knowing that there are success stories makes it easier for me to breathe when a child bites me. It makes me cherish the moments when I get an unexpected hug, or when I hear a child’s insanely high pitched “stop tickling me” laugh. I look forward to work because even though I know it will be exhausting and exasperating, I also know that there will be small moments that will make it all worthwhile.
One of these moments happened a few weeks ago when a child who had recently arrived gave me a bracelet. It is one of the multicolored plastic friendship bracelets that all the cool kids (or the kids who have 6 cents to spend on luxuries for themselves) seem to have. Each bracelet has a message written on it. This child’s entire forearm was covered in these bracelets, and without looking she pulled one off and handed it to me. On it was written “Paz y Amor”.
Peace and Love.
Now I wear this bracelet all the time as a constant reminder of all that my fulfilling, exhausting and rewarding apprenticeship stands for. Each time I glanced down at my wrist, my heart swells with gratitude.
The letters have faded a bit, but they are still legible if you zoom and squint. Also visible are my bed bug bites!