T.I., Maguire Fellow in Panama

T.I. is a junior majoring in international studies, religious studies, human rights and Spanish in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. He was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Fellowship for summer 2014 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU to intern with the non-governmental organization Hope for the Silent Voices.

Retracing my steps: Reflections on Panama

While the past month I’ve spent working for Hope For the Silent Voices hasn’t been quite as riveting as the time I actually spent in Panama, it was satisfying in the sense that I could behold the fruits of my labor.

It’s impossible to separate the highly emotional nature of the work we did working with children from the magnitude of the impact it had on all of us; still, I may never see Ruth score a goal with the soccer ball that we left her and her friends, as I might never see which child ends up with the giant stuffed bear we ergonomically (and miraculously) packed into three quarters of a suitcase to leave with them. I’ll never know what grade Manuel will get on his physics test that I helped him study five hours for. I’ll never see Benjamin’s face as he opens the letter congratulating him on his acceptance into the University for computer science.

In contrast, though the secretarial legwork I spent many hours in front of a computer screen completing will assuredly meld together when recalled some few odd years later, it IS fulfilling to look over a dossier brimming with the thought and attention I poured into it. It’s humbling to look over the site reports it took so long to draft and think that they might better equip the next wave of volunteers to walk in our shoes. Quite frankly, it’s cool to look over the online materials that now communicate a deeper understanding of Panamanian culture and significance to the potential traveler, and the trip application that now caters to college-age students like me, and addresses the unique skillset they will bring on the trip. It also helped me to better reflect on the trip itself as I retraced all the steps we took in our service there and broke down each activity’s effectiveness in the context of the site concerned.

The research I did for humanitarian networking also taught me a lot about the work by the scarcity, purpose and trends that I came across looking up various organizations involved in Panamanian social services. The low, albeit steadily improving levels of educational availability and quality, particularly in rural areas, is one such example of systemic inefficiency as well as an area which could benefit from sustainable external partnerships.

Another pattern I found is that while a few schools and a couple churches in the United States offer service-based trips around the country, the labor-recipients are almost always localized cases where there is little growth or benefit to the greater community. I learned how truly costly it is for NGOs to create services so far away with any hope of achieving progress on a modest scale, which only solidifies the desire for individualized approaches. If your organization is going to be paying so much money anyway, why not create a program tailor-made to its particular organizations? And yet, how much greater efficacy would there be in an NGO conglomerate partnering for a couple years with a single shelter for abused and neglected children, rather than several of them with the tunnel-vision ambition of a project that could come to fruition in the span of a spring break?

Still, although the country could benefit so much from foreign investment, it also stands that the field is ripe for the entrepreneurship of charity, so to speak. With every situation that can be made just a little bit better comes an opportunity to steward the resources we’ve been gifted with on this side of the fence, and while the ugly world faces of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and suffering may never be completely eradicated, a negative can always be counteracted by a positive. As in Loren Eiseley’s story of “The Star Thrower,” it may indeed be impossible to save an entire beach of starfish hazardously washed ashore, – but every starfish thrown back into that great ocean is one more which gets to experience the gift of life a little more vividly.

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On human rights, compassion and hope

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.”

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Summer 2014 006There 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.


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Injustice and resilience in Panama

Today marks the first day of our work with the children shelters around Panama, and it couldn’t have been more striking. We spent the first half of the day touring the facility, hearing the history behind the program and the stories of many of the children and faculty and how they came to be there. The entire experience was highly emotional and gripping, and we were shocked to find eight of the abused teenage girls were either pregnant or nursing young infants.

Few in our society as so naïve as to not be aware of the great injustices of the world, but coming face to face with the people who’ve undergone exploitation and abuse radically put things in a more personal perspective. We took extensive notes on the needs of the facility and the areas in which the program could benefit from support in the future, and talked extensively with the director about the societal mechanisms which put these children in such devastating conditions, about the problems the children face as they grow older and different approaches to solutions.

Summer 2014 092Once the kids got back around midday from school we were able to interact much more directly; making new friends, playing with them, teaching them new games, and helping them with their homework. After we covered all of our administrative angles we were able to interact freely with the children and work hard to make sure every kid had a smile on. As distressing as many of their situations are, for us it was far more moving to get to know them for who they are: what their personalities are like, what their hobbies are and what are their life dreams and aspirations.

Summer 2014 097The process of arriving here has also been much anticipated, and I couldn’t be more excited for the work to come after so much preparation. The team working on this trip put a lot of work into getting us where we are today, and it’s fulfilling to see so much effort conglomerate to the final product of being on the ground. The month prior to departure was filled with a lot of scrambling on my behalf to coordinate the information Hope for the Silent Voices needed as far as emergency protocol and medical information for the group, while we collectively established the itinerary and flight details through a series of conference calls.

Another factor heavily contributing to the trip’s excitement was the level of success and support I found in the process of fundraising. As an example pitch to raise donations, the organization put it in the context that people could be inspired to give by means of serving vicariously through us on the ground, and when I first started asking for support I felt uncomfortable asking so many people for help. The reaction I received, however, was that was exactly what called people to give so openly and so generously. I couldn’t believe how many people came by with books, shoes, clothes, and stuffed animals for me to take on the trip and the number of people who helped with donations, money, and prayer. I was dumbfounded to hear how my own service and good intention could touch those around me.

10534811_798600356850938_7186782314789985855_oTo summarize everything I learned from getting to work less than 24 hours after landing in the country, the name of the game is endurance. It took patience to hold onto the money I’d raised for the trip, deciding to assess the needs and funding of all the sites instead of trying to throw it at the first problem I came across. It took stamina to match the Newtonian-esque conservation of energy a 4-year-old maintains as he throws toys from his high chair only to giggle and revel in delight as I retrieved it again, and again, and again. And, it took perseverance to earn the trust and friendship of young girls who characteristically hid behind a defensive bulwark of shyness as a result of such an emotionally turbulent past.

Regardless, all the patience and endurance was a small price to pay for interacting directly with such a wonderful assortment of human beings, and witnessing their testament to humanity’s resilience.

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