Now that tourist season is over, our little town is quieter and visitors to the Children’s Shelter where we work are fewer. That has given me some time to think about the many families and volunteers who visit us over the winter and to ask the question that others have asked me “Is it good for strangers to visit children who come from hard places?”. Honestly, there are many answers to this question and as a disclaimer, let me say that this post is going to contain my opinion based on my experience. That’s it. My personal gut feeling. Which I think is okay because….. it’s my blog! It’s my story. If you have a different opinion – well that’s okay too.
Grant and I brought our daughters to visit Manos de Amor for the first time in December of 2011. We knew we couldn’t keep vacationing in beachfront resort Mexico without also engaging in dust covered back street Mexico. So, we googled, we went shopping and we showed up at the door that would change our lives forever.
I will never forget that day. We had absolutely no shared language, but we played games and colored pictures and ate soup and wiped snotty noses and honestly, we didn’t consider if our presence in their home could be hurting these little ones, we just wanted to love them. Perhaps our motivation was more to assuage our gringo guilt, but our love was genuine, and our laughter was shared.
Top: Me and Brayan Bottom: Rubi, Carlos, Grant & Fernanda
Since that time, I have read books and online articles and watched videos that tell me that short-term missions projects or visits can be harmful to those we think we are helping and as a member of the Steering Committee of Manos de Amor we discuss how to best invite guests into the home in a way that is safe. I have read strong arguments and stats on both side of the issue. But as I reflect on my personal experience and observation, it always comes down to one simple phrase: Love always wins. Showing love is always good and caring for the poor is always right. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be healthy boundaries, and if you come to visit us, we are going to give you a brochure with some guidelines we want you to follow. Affection and attachment and giving of gifts can be confusing to children who come from backgrounds of abuse or neglect. It would take more than this blog post to share all my views on HOW to do this well, but I want to assure you that you CAN make a difference with your once-a-year visit to our home. I know because it happened to us!
That first day 8 years ago I met Brayan and Carlos and Fernando and Daniella and Rubi and Jackie. This week, as in most weeks, I waved at Jackie on Facebook while looking at pictures of her little girl. This morning I sat in church with Fernanda and Rubi and we shared gum and hugs and Rubi reminded me to bring her prize to English class tomorrow since she finished 5 lessons this week. She was proud of herself. Last week I ate Tacos Pastor with Brayan and Carlos and a small thing happened that day that prompted me to write this blog.
Brothers, Brayan and Carlos, 8 years later
The past few months whenever visitors have come and wanted pictures of the children, Carlos would hang back and when I prompted him to get in the picture he would say “No Karen. No picture”. He is a preteen and I respect that he is setting his own boundaries. He doesn’t want to be in pictures with strangers. I think that is fair and I told him that. Even when I tried to take his picture he would say “No Karen. No picture.” But on Thursday, Carlos took my phone from me and asked for a selfie with me. He applied some filters, opened my Facebook app and posted the picture with the caption, “Carlos. Karen. Friend” with a bunch of emojis of smiles and heart and thumbs up. He looked happy in the picture. And it hit me really hard. I have known Carlos for the better part of his life. Longer than his dad was alive with him. Far longer than his own mom knew him before she left. What started as an afternoon visit from strangers turned into a selfie and a caption filled with love. A friendship.
So, if you are wondering if it is a good thing to visit us next time you are in town …. YES. It is. Not to fix us but to serve us. Not to give us stuff but to show us love. To learn as much as you teach, receive as much as you give. To empower rather than enable, to respect rather than judge. Your heart will be broken – that I guarantee. But in the breaking, your love will grow deeper. And if you’re lucky, you might just find yourself living on a dusty street in my neighborhood eating tacos and taking selfies with little Mexican kids.
It’s not that complicated. Love always wins.