Thoughts on Helping

January 12th, 2014 by Laura Kate Gamble

I have spent a lot of times on planes over the last few months. My favorite part of every flight is the first time I see the new country I’ll be visiting. There’s something incredible about catching a glimpse of a new place through the clouds as the plane starts to descend. Haiti was no different.  As the blue Atlantic gave way to a mountainous island, I could feel the familiar thrill of seeing somewhere new. Here’s the thing though, what do you think when you think of Haiti? What’s the first thing that comes to mind? As we were landing, I couldn’t help but think I was landing in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. I thought of corrupt governments and foreign interventions and devastating earthquakes as the song “We are the World” played in my head.

Haiti is a poor country. It was devastated by an earthquake four years ago today. Many Haitians have suffered and continue to suffer in a way that no person should have to. But, that’s not all Haiti is. It is stunningly beautiful. It has a wonderfully kind and welcoming people. It has a long and complicated history, but that does not diminish the pride heard when one says, “I’m Haitian.” Haiti does not need our sympathy. It doesn’t need our pity. Recovery and rebuilding are time consuming processes the outside world should see as an opportunity to build relationships, not dependency. In our haste to intervene and improve, we undermine this country’s ability to change for the better on its own.

Earlier this week, I was riding through Port-au-Prince after visiting an incredible organization that is working to employ Haitians, not simply pass out charity. As we made our way through town, sometimes on smooth, paved roads, sometimes bouncing along gravel and dirt, I watched the city pass by my car window. We passed the U.S. Embassy, an enormous building that towers over all other structures in the area. After that, we were passed by several UN trucks, the blue helmets of the police peeping out of the back. Next, a Red Cross vehicle rolled by. Then, a Doctors Without Borders van passed us.

I did not write this blog post to criticize foreign aid organizations. I admire the work that they do and the assistance they provide. If I’m fortunate enough to go to medical school, I’m interested in working with Doctors Without Borders, or an organization similar to it. But, in that moment, I wasn’t filled with the familiar warm fuzzy feelings of seeing these organizations on the ground and in action. Instead, I wondered what it would be like to watch these vehicles roll through the streets of Summerville or Spartanburg. I wondered how I would feel if the rest of the world assumed my country couldn’t function without their presence.  I thought about what it would be like to see these trucks every day, not just on posters and commercials, but on my walk to school or home from work.

I’m not denying the important work all of these organizations have done. Countless lives have been saved because of their presence. I’m thankful for the men and women who have left their families and the comforts of home to come here and help create change. I just don’t think we should be so distracted by the organizations at work here that we forget to see Haiti. Yes, Haiti’s political history is filled with corruption and leaders who let  personal interests cloud their judgment. Only 50% of Haitian children have the financial means to attend school. Many people lack access to clean water. But, that can not be the only thing we see when we look at Haiti. We can’t continue focusing on the flaws and failures. (And, let’s be honest for a minute, we all have flaws and we’ve all failed at some point or other.) We can’t assume we have all the answers. Rather, we can recognize the importance of working together and seeing the strengths of others.We can work with the dedicated Haitians who are already working to make this country better. Before we reach for pity or sympathy, before we pull out our checkbooks to support a “starving Haitian orphan”, we can remember that Haiti is not simply statistics and failures. It is a country with people just like you and me. It’s filled with moms and dads who want to send their kids to school. It’s filled with kids who one day want to grow up, but who are happy today being kids. It’s filled with churches where people come for worship and comfort. Sure, there are complicated problems to be worked out. Yes, there are years of hard work ahead. But, if we start out focusing on all of the things that have gone wrong in the past, how do we expect anybody to do better in the future?

Expectations

January 3rd, 2014 by Laura Kate Gamble

Happy New Year! I can’t quite believe that it is time to be welcoming in 2014, especially when I was just getting the hang of 2013. Nevertheless, I hope the new year has started out wonderfully for everyone.

My last day at the shelter was last Friday (December 27th). Leaving the shelter, with my backpack full of notes from the kids and a chorus of voices asking for one more hug, I couldn’t help but feel that I was completing the most difficult part of my trip. Granted, I haven’t been to Haiti yet (that flight leaves tonight), but the two months I’ve spent in rural Peru have been some of the most thought provoking, some of the most difficult, and yet some of the most wonderful of my life.

When I arrived at the shelter back in November, I wanted so much for the kids. I wanted them to realize how big the world was and that there was so much more for them than life in the small town of Huánuco. I wanted them all to finish high school and then college and have successful lives, where they never lived in poverty again. I wanted them to be completely healed from the abuse they’d suffered. I wanted the girls to realize that despite the incredibly macho society in which they’d been raised, there was nothing wrong with being a girl. They were not worth less, nor did they deserve to be treated differently because they were born with two X chromosomes.

I still want that for the kids I’ve worked with and loved the last two months. But, about two weeks into my volunteering stint, I realized that in two months I wasn’t going to be able to change Peru. I wasn’t going to be able to change Huánuco, and I probably wasn’t going to make a tremendous difference at the shelter. These children come from poor families, where abuse, both physical and sexual is the norm. They have grown up in a culture that even in 2014, women are often treated like second-class citizens and expected to obey their husbands (or any other male figure in their lives for that matter) regardless of the situation. The complexity of the problems I was witnessing couldn’t be untangled quickly or easily. These problems weren’t simple x causes y equations. Rather, I was looking at a mountain of a problem, built on an incredibly complex, intertwined series of issues, making the mountain of the problem grow larger and larger. As much as I wanted to, this problem wasn’t something to be tackled in a two-month volunteer stint.

But, here’s the question, what do you do? I’m a product of a very loving family and a very supportive upbringing. “If you put your mind to it, you can do it” is a phrase I’ve heard over and over again. And, I’m thankful for parents and friends who’ve given me this perspective on life. But, what do you do when you know you can’t just put your mind to it and change something?

This brings us to the whole point of this blog post, adjusting expectations. If you’d asked me about adjusting expectations six months ago, you would get a very different answer from the one I’m giving now. I would have seen “adjusting” or “lowering” expectations as a sign of failure. I hadn’t worked hard enough, I hadn’t done enough, and as a result expectations and goals had to be lowered. In what I can now see as a clearly egocentric approach to problem solving, I assumed the solution was all about my abilities, therefore the failures were all my fault. But, that’s not really the case.

I walked into La Casa del Buen Trato HOVDE two months ago. I walked back out the front gate last Friday, leaving some of the same problems I saw my first week there. The girls waving good-bye to me as I boarded the bus were not all suddenly college educated, empowered to stand up for themselves as women and confident in whatever direction they chose in life. I didn’t spend my two months in Peru leading antipoverty workshops designed to lift families out of desperate financial situations and set them on the road to success. I spent most of my days hanging out with the kids. I wiped spit up off a baby’s face. I helped with English homework and washed dishes after dinner. I demonstrated by truly abysmal volleyball skills and entertained the kids with renditions of popular American music. Most of the kids I worked with still aren’t going to college. Most of them have years of therapy ahead of them to work through the despicable things they’ve had to suffer. I haven’t eradicated the macho mentality in Peru that is holding so many poor, rural Peruvian women back. But, I did what I could. And, I’m glad I decided to focus on being a friend to the kids, rather than trying to tackle every problem plaguing their lives. Granted, in the long term, singing a One Direction song may not have had the impact a “know your rights” workshop may have had, but I did what I could in the time that I had. I wasn’t going to change Peru in the two months I was lucky enough to be there. I did have a chance to be a part of several children’s lives, and that is an opportunity of which I tried to take full advantage.

Season of Hope

December 23rd, 2013 by Laura Kate Gamble

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born;
Oh night divine, Oh night, Oh night divine!

I have to say, the Christmas celebrations have been a little on the subdued side this year. While it was lots of fun helping the girls put up decorations at the shelter, the warm weather and the lack of carols has left me a little surprised that Christmas will be here Wednesday.

And despite the fact that the only Christmas carol I’ve heard this year is “Jingle Bells” in Spanish, I’ve had the verse written above from “O, Holy Night” stuck in my head for most of the past week. I’ve always liked that song, but this year it’s taking on a new meaning.

I think part of that is because “the weary world” hasn’t been an abstract idea connected to people who lived a long time ago this Christmas. During these last few months, I’ve seen, and met, worked with and loved the people waiting for something better. I’ve joined them in that waiting and hoping that life tomorrow might be a little better than it was today.

Here in Peru, there is a big emphasis on the “Nino Dios” (baby God). Churches have signs up depicting the baby Jesus and inviting parishioners to invite Nino Dios into their hearts and homes this year. One of the few Christmas traditions here is to set out a nativity set in early December, but without the Jesus figurine. Then, on Christmas Eve, he is placed in his manger, to symbolize that the Christ child has come.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last two months surrounded by kids, maybe it’s because one of the little boys living at the shelter with his sixteen year old mom has been stealing my heart since getting here in November, but the birth of a child, albeit in humble surroundings to parents not entirely sure what the future will hold for their family is one I cherish a little more fully this year.

Not all children will grow up loved. Not all of them will go to school, or have parents or other loving adults in their lives to encourage them along the way. They might suffer in a way no child should, and then be asked to be brave in a way most adults couldn’t muster. But, that doesn’t mean that’s all their lives will be. It might not be a beautiful life. They might grow up to be adults living in poverty, with the odds stacked against their families as well. But, in this season of hope, I hope that it is a little better. I hope that somehow their futures are different. I hope that people who have a chance to help them along the way take advantage of that chance.

Wherever Christmas finds you this year, be it in a small town in Peru or under the Christmas tree with your family, I hope it is a day of hope for you and for those you love.

Marvels of Modern Technology

December 16th, 2013 by Laura Kate Gamble

I have never considered myself a technologically savvy person.  Checking email on my phone was about as exciting as I got. Any questions requiring additional understanding of the way technology worked were deferred to my infinitely more knowledgeable computer science major friends.

But, having been gone for close to four months now, I’m beginning to sing the praises of modern technology. Email and Facebook have helped me keep in touch with family and friends at home. I’ve been able to contact professors with things that I’ve encountered that I’ve had questions about. Skype has given me the wonderful gift of seeing my mom, dad and brother every weekend I’ve been in Peru. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved traveling and exploring and seeing new places. But, it sure is nice to see a familiar (albeit slightly pixilated) face and hear a familiar voice. And, technology isn’t just for the selective few anymore. On the bus ride this morning, I saw a woman, dressed in traditional Quechua attire, chatting on her cell phone. (How she was able to hear over the din of an overcrowded bus, the two boxes of live chickens at the front, and the yells of which stops were coming up, I’m not sure, but hey she was still talking on a cell phone!) In some of the poorest neighborhoods I saw in Tanzania, there were internet cafes, where for a few shillings, you could spend an hour googling to your heart’s content.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that just because a few people have cell phones the countries I’m visiting are rapidly developing. For every person I see texting away, there are likely ten or more families without electricity in their homes, let alone a computer or phone. The important thing to me though, is that slowly but surely technology is making its way here. And that progress, slow as it may be, means that more and more information is becoming readily available to people from all walks of life. Sure, you have to take what’s put on the internet with a grain of salt, but it still represents a chance to learn about the world outside your city block.

To me, there is tremendous power in that possibility. So many of the kids I’ve worked with over the last month and a half have no idea about the world outside their village in Peru. They don’t realize that there are other kinds of food or ways to dress or languages to speak. In my opinion, that lack of knowledge makes them more vulnerable to abuse.  How could you know that being physically or sexually abused is not acceptable, if your neighbors live in abusive relationships, as do most of the members of your extended family?  I’m certainly not saying that giving these kids internet access would eradicate sexual abuse in Huánuco, Peru. I’m simply suggesting that access to information is a powerful thing.

And, it’s not just the developing world that has something to gain from access to technology. Americans have a lot to learn as well. We have a responsibility to know what’s going on outside our borders. We need to know how other people live, what they believe and why they think the way they do. That doesn’t mean we have to change a fundamental belief we have, it just means we need to be aware that not everyone lives the way they do. And, the more we know about other people (and what influences how they think) the better we’ll be able to work with others.

Thoughts from the Roof

December 9th, 2013 by Laura Kate Gamble

I’ve found myself on the roofs of buildings quite often over the last few months. The view from Auntie Alice’s roof was great, and I loved to watch life in Ghana from that vantage point. Here in Huánuco, the space to do laundry at my host mom’s house is on the roof. Saturday mornings find me scrubbing socks and shirts by hand and then hanging them out to dry. While I’ll certainly be happy to see some washing machines and dryers in the spring, I enjoy the quiet time on the roof every Saturday.

In the midst of the suds and jamming to the Peruvian music blasting from the soccer field next door, I can’t help but make a few observations. Huánuco is built in a valley, and the Andes Mountains wrap all around this little town. Built on the sides of these mountains are small, simple houses. Almost haphazardly, they make their way up, carving a small space out of the green landscape. Some are colorfully painted with political slogans; while others are just the earthen brown of the bricks of which they are made. At night, a few of these houses can be spotted by their small lights, but not the majority. Indoor plumbing is an unknown luxury. The rates of crime, alcoholism and abuse are high, and they are linked to the poverty in which the owners of these homes live.

These are the neighborhoods most of the kids at the shelter call home. Their houses are on the side of the mountains, a steep and winding journey away from where I do my laundry every Saturday. As I washed my clothes this weekend, I thought about how important it was to make that realization.

To a certain extent, kids are kids no matter where you are. It would be impossible to determine the difference between a thirteen year old’s eye roll in the States and the ones I see on a weekly basis. I’ve settled an argument over whose turn it was to wash the dishes and who had to sweep the floor. But, even in the midst of this universal “kidness”, I can’t forget the closest I’ve ever gotten to these kids’ lives is on the roof doing laundry. I’ve read about women walking to wells to get water for their families. I’ve thought about how difficult it would be to study without lights after the sun went down. But, that’s never been my life. Not having those experiences, but rather having a completely different set of experiences, shapes how I see the world. It impacts how I solve problems and how I generally go about my day. In the same sense, the way these kids have grown up influences how they see the world. Keeping in mind that we’re coming from two different perspectives is important. I’ve caught myself thinking more times than I care to admit, “If they’d just do it this way, it would be so much easier.” However, it’s important to remember that I’m just beginning to get a sense of what life is like, while the kids have known it since the day they were born. It’s definitely a work in progress. Thankfully, I have a few more weekends in Peru left to think on the roof and then go into communities.