Since the first day in Panama, our team went on to work with two other sites around the country with congruent objectives. The second visit was centered on an orphanage run by the sweetest little old nuns, which doubled as a shelter for abandoned kids with a range of mental and physical disabilities.
There we were able to tour the facilities and take notes on areas in which they sorely needed resources, as before; but unlike the first site, we were also able to see the school where the kids attended, in addition to playing a variety of sports due to the much larger space. By a variety of sports, I mean we played a LOT of soccer with the kids. I don’t mean to brag, but I was a pretty big deal on a field with a bunch of 12-year-olds. They even gave me the nickname Tomate-Tomás, which upon investigating further I found out to mean “Tomato-head Thomas.”
There were as few means of playing other sports as there was interest; although sideline alternatives included storytelling, coloring, and hairdressing, for which the latter I was admittedly a guinea pig.
The third site we visited allowed for a much greater chance to work with the kids directly in their school work, and that proved to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the trip. Precious few times in my young adult life have I struggled so much as trying to teach a kid the fundamentals of high school physics in another language: I think he and I both walked away from that lesson with a greater appreciation of just how much we had yet to learn about the subject.
All in all, the other two sites we visited gave us unique insight into the struggles and challenges of running a children’s shelter, while simultaneously granting us a substantial amount of time to interact, play, mentor, and tutor the kids there. I cannot articulate how humbling the experience was to be given such a revealing, albeit brief, look into the lives of the kids there and how honored I was to be received so willingly and enthusiastically by the programs which literally opened their doors to us.
After being back in the states for a few days, I’ve had some time to process my time spent in Panama and the experience in a bigger perspective. The time we were able to spend working directly with the children’s shelters expanded my understanding of the problems and causes of child exploitation, as well as how to nurture and help the kids who fall victim to it.
After seeing the programs firsthand I learned that the institutional aspects of education, housing, and care far outrank the problems the programs face as a result of underfunding. Every organization in the entire world needs more funding to comfortably compensate for overhead, c’est la vie. However, when a program is under the right management and has exemplary protocol, there can be a lot to offer children for very little.
At a couple of places we visited, for example, it was customary to group the mentally and physically disabled together for purposes of caring for them, which is not uncommon throughout Latin America. The result was that the children with physical disabilities often were deprived of an education equivalent to that of their peers due to being grouped with other children with mental disabilities. As a result, they had no chance of academically achieving their potential. We saw that even some of the brightest kids with an alacrity for learning found themselves in a similar situation due to a lack of appropriate curriculum to challenge them. The education system in the United States often faces similar difficulties, but without a strong commitment to reform or necessary governmental funds, these difficulties are greatly exacerbated in other parts of the world such as Panama.
Other than the matter of education, by far the most distressing human rights concern I noticed on the trip was the scarcity of medicine for a staggering number of children in need. Part one of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
A common theme of answers we heard when asked, “What is a resource you consistently find yourself without?” was medicine. At the shelter for children born with AIDS we learned that while the government pays for the medicine of their established illnesses and diseases, it does nothing to cover the household medicine necessary for a child to grow up. Never in my life would I have imagined that there are places where kids are accustomed to taking half of a children’s Tylenol, or rationing out the available cold medicine amongst the kids who need it. Medicine is a fundamental human right which every man, woman and child is entitled to, and it mortified me to learn how often some of the shelters were doing without. I’m truly dumbfounded at where to even begin remedying a paradigm of sharing medicinal doses as a result of inconsistent supply.
To end on a positive note, the impact trip through Hope For the Silent Voices reminded me how children are our most important resource, and just how much they are in need of hope. As we were leaving one of the sites a girl came up to me to wish me goodbye, and almost as an afterthought she told me in complete seriousness that playing soccer and laughing with all of us and her friends was the most fun she’s ever had in her entire life. Now I myself am no stranger to the magnitude of a child’s capability to wield hyperbole; but in that moment at the sincerity of her comment, I stood in awe, without the words to express how privileged I felt to be so impressionable to a young girl whom I had only just met. And in the gravity of scrutinizing the needs of the various facilities and how we could better secure them resources, it was easy to overlook the single most important objective of our trip: giving hope to the children.
Kids need attention and mentoring more than anything else. Children are children no matter where they are in the world, and their most basic need after food and shelter is love, human compassion, and safety.