I have always loved to travel and have been fortunate to have spent most of my life fulfilling my dreams of seeing the world.
As I began traveling to more remote and lesser developed places, I was struck by the level of poverty and hardship millions of people around the world face. During a life changing trip to Nepal and India, I made the promise to myself that I would try to make the world a better place through my voice and my actions.
A trip to Honduras last January reminded me that making a difference is not always black or white and can also lead to mixed emotions of confusion, sadness and joy.
A month before leaving, I found out my volunteer placement would be at a Honduran daycare center for poor single mothers. As a mother myself who adores children and is an advocate for fighting poverty, I couldn’t think of a better placement. I could hardly wait.
The first morning, I arrived at the daycare center and was welcomed by the loud, boisterous voices of over 60 children ranging from one to five years old.
I was let inside the gate to an old-run down building that looked like it used to be a school in its past life. The building had four dingy classrooms with peeling paint and minimal supplies and an open-air dirt-filled playground that was never used.
There was also one large room with over 60 bunk beds where the children nap, plus a boys and girls bathroom, and a large sparsely decorated eating area.
All in all it was what I expected. Rustic, dirty and the bare minimums. But what I didn’t expect was how the place would make me feel.
When another volunteer and I entered the daycare center we were instantly attacked by hordes of smiling young children grabbing our legs and wanting to be held. Instantly, my heart melted. These children were so beautiful, so innocent and lovely. Yet they seemed so forgotton and unloved at this place.
After the first hour of volunteering in the two and three-year-old classroom I realized why the kids were so enamored with us—because the volunteers are the only ones who actually play with them and give them any attention at all.
I was horrified at how the ”teachers” just sat in their desks all day, away from the kids, playing around on their cell phones and only pausing to bring order to the room.
The only time they interacted with the children at all was to either yell or physically discipline them. It was absolutely heartbreaking. Yet I was amazed at how resilient those kids were.
Through tears and struggle, they moved on.
Their toys were all dirty and broken, making me ashamed at my children’s playroom at home.
The room was spartan and depressing with little fresh air or light. The teachers were uninspiring, unloving and darn right mean. If children were tired, they were forced to stay awake until the official group nap time at 1:00 p.m. even if they were crying of fatigue and falling asleep in their seats.
It wasn’t a good place but for these mothers, there was no other choice.
At home, I’ve been exposed to many different kinds of childcare centers over the years. Having two children, I’ve been in early education centers, preschools, summer camps and drop-off daycares.
Yet I had never been exposed to this kind of maltreatment of children before.
First of all, I do not believe in corporal punishment. I especially don’t believe in it in a daycare setting for young children. Second of all, there was absolutely no love or compassion whatsoever shown towards these children. They were expected to sit quietly around a table sometimes for up to an hour playing only with one small broken toy or a couple of flashcards.
And these were toddlers who are used to curiosity and wanting to move around the room and explore! Whenever the kids got out of their seat or misbehaved they were swatted with a ruler, yanked by the shoulders and spanked on the bottom.
Then they were left to cry. It wasn’t right.
I understand that there are cultural differences involved in how we rear children but as a mother and a human being, I felt this treatment of the children was wrong.
We were told not to make judgments while volunteering or try to change the way things work in our host country. We were told that oftentimes things are handled differently than they are at home and we were reminded to be flexible and open minded.
Yet I did not feel this kind of mistreatment of the children was acceptable, no matter what country we are in.
So, I did something about it.
When I got home, I wrote a long letter to my US-based volunteer organization telling them about the situation and how I felt it was not a good place.
They had no idea and sincerely appreciated me speaking out. Last I heard, there were some people fired at the center. Knowing that those kids are in that kind of unloving environment away from their mothers all day is absolutely heartbreaking.
If I look at the positive side of my volunteer experience, it is certainly the beauty of the children.
I adored them. I held them, played with them, smiled at them and loved them. If only I could have been there for more than a week. If only I could have truly made a difference. If only they could have a chance to be at a better place.
Even now, I think about them often. I think about how they have so much less opportunity than my own children and it makes me feel sad. Yet I feel blessed that I could help, even if it was a small gesture, in making them smile at least for awhile.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Courtesy of Author