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.