Pricila Heads to School

After two years of struggling to get Pricila’s birth certificate,  she is finally fully documented and this week she was super excited to start attending Kinder!  Tiny steps to a new a life …..

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An Uncertain Christmas

Generally, I like change.  I like when surprises sneak up on me.  I like when things are new, unexpected, adventurous, unknown.  You can’t move to Mexico and expect things to look even remotely familiar.  But Christmas is different.  Christmas is about tradition, about recreating memories, about things staying the same.  And for that – well this Christmas I was just a bit sad.  This is the first Christmas that we have not been with our own daughters.  Flights were too expensive; job vacations were too short.  This year it didn’t make sense.  Still, reason and common sense gave way to se24899711_10155086227796198_3210385353696014323_nlf-pity.  After all, this was the year I thought we would finally build a proper family Christmas.  Among our 3 loads of belonging, we had moved our big old Christmas tree, our stockings, our ornaments.  Snowmen and stockings and candles and the tiny Nativity scene.   My roasting pan and that old gravy bowl.  My tablecloths and napkins and those cute little snowball place card holders.  Everything I needed to finally make a family Christmas dinner in this new home.  Familiar.  Safe.  Traditional.

So when we agreed to postpone our family time until spring this year, I admit I was disappointed.   I briefly… really briefly…. considered flying north to them but I knew that was not right either.  We were needed here and as December unfolded, I began to see the plan emerge exactly as it was meant to.   Since the last weekend of October, we have enjoyed opening our guest rooms to three little girls who need a home and as Christmas approached, I realized our tree and our decorations and even our stockings still had work to do.

Of course, as often happens here, the road became bumpier and more uncertain the closer we got to Christmas weekend.   It looked like we would have the girls for the weekend.  We shopped –  for toys and groceries and surprises.  We hung our own daughters’ stockings in preparation for Santa’s arrival.  Nope.  They’re going with mom.   Tears from everyone.  Nope.  Mom changed her mind – please come get them.  More tears.  More pain.  So much pain.  But finally, it was Christmas morning and I looked around our breakfast table and rejoiced that our chairs were full and our table was overflowing with Christmas treats and Christmas love.  Unlike my own daughters, these children hadn’t even considered looking under the tree or looking in the stockings.   I had however found a letter under the tree on Christmas Eve written by 10-year-old Marely.  “Santa, they say you’re not real but I still believe in you.  If you are real, please tell me the truth -Yes or No”.  Over breakfast, when Grant said, “I wonder if Santa came, she actually looked pretty angry.  “No.  There’s no Santa”.  “Well, let’s look”.  They ran to the stockings and I was elated with the pure joy on Marely’s face “He came, Santa came”.  I don’t know what she really believes, but for this year at least, she got to experience being a child with a stocking full of treats and gifts under a tree.

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Christmas Eve Candlelight Service

 

 

Christmas morning surprise!

That evening, we had a traditional Canadian Christmas meal in our tiny garden.  On Friday I thought there would be just 5 of us, but by Monday night our family had grown to 13.  Canadians, Americans, Mexicans of all ages.  Spanish and English jumbled together.  So different than our normal tradition.  So exactly the same.

 

As always, the happy stories are mushed together with the painful stories.  The joy of a Christmas weekend is paired with some truly difficult moments and I have new respect for all foster moms and adoptive moms who love children who come from difficult places.  The same little hands and arms that gave generous hugs of joy, left painful bruises and scratches when they realized mom wasn’t coming for them.  Gifts that were purchased with love were stolen and hidden away.  So much laughter mixed with so many tears.  But that is the whole point of the Christmas story.  A baby coming into a broken world.  Love wrapped in flesh.  A father to the fatherless and the orphans.  Peace that passes understanding.  Not the Christmas I expected but oh the Christmas I will cherish.   Joy to the World!

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A Long Awaited Christmas Gift for Pricila

You know well the story of our little weekend girls who have not been able to attend school because they have never been registered with the Mexican registry.  In Mexico the rule is “No birth certificate = No school.”   In Canada, that process happens in the hospital when our children are born – it is free and it is easy.  It is automatic and I never had to question whether my children would be allowed to attend Kindergarten when that big day arrived.  But here, it costs money to get a birth certificate and it means going to a few different offices and filling out reams of paper.  So some moms just don’t get it done and that means their children will never receive an education.  The children who come from difficult places, who need education the most, cannot access it.  This has been the case for Britani and Pricila and Mama Vero has been working for many months to get the papers processed.  Unfortunately, mom must be involved in the process and that has not always been easy in this family.  But over the past couple of months mama has been living nearby and has been cooperative.

The process has been long and it has been difficult. Surprise, right?  Because Britani is now 7, her papers were no longer available at the hospital where she was born.  They had been sent up to Tepic – a 2 ½ hour drive through winding mountain roads.  Veronica, our Super Hero Orphanage director, made 2 trips there but must now hire a lawyer to start a whole new process because too much time has passed.  Since the process was underway, the school allowed Britani to begin classes but only for 2 months.   If the papers aren’t here in 2 months she will not be able to continue.  Unfortunately, the clock is ticking down and it is not looking good.  But it is just a matter of time and perseverance and eventually Britani will be registered and in school permanently.

Yesterday the word came that Pricila’s papers were ready to be signed, fingerprinted, sorted, copied and stapled and this morning we all headed over to the Registration office.  Pricila put her tiny little fingerprint in all of the correct boxes, Mama signed the papers, and then Grant and I, as her Padrinas, signed as the witnesses.

That made me think about our roles in these little girls’ lives.  We have indeed been witnesses… to so much –  their pain, their poverty and their brokenness.  Their laughter, their affection and their hugs.  We have witnessed their sad faces and their joyful hearts.  We have witnessed their pranks as they snuck up on a sleeping Grant and scared him half to death.  We have witnessed their messy morning hair when they knock on our door at 5:30 am and their late night pyjama movie parties where they slather their popcorn with ridiculous amounts of hot sauce.  Last week I witnessed a single tear from Mareli as she watched the ending of a happy Christmas movie.  Oh how we hope that we can continue to witness these precious lives and maybe more importantly, we hope to BE WITNESSES to them … of love, of family and of future hope.  Of God’s love for little orphan girls.

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But for today, Feliz Navidad Pricila – next month you’re going to Kinder!

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More Chasing After Illusive Papers

This week we tackled the next step of our legal residency and while it was eventually successful, it was not without the expected challenges.  As our first year of Temporary Residency comes to an end, it is time to renew our residence status for 3 more years and renew our Temporary Import Permit (TIP) for our truck.   The good news is that there is lots of information online as to how to do both of those things.  The bad news is that absolutely none of it is accurate.  Rules change here often, and online advice has not kept up.  We decided to start by heading directly to the Immigration Office to get the correct papers and procedures.  The process is pretty simple, even though it will mean 5 trips to the office in Nuevo Vallarta:  One to get the correct papers and instructions;  two to deliver the papers and photos and many copies of everything and to get the form that must go to the bank;  three to take the financial paper to the bank and return with the receipt and again many copies;  four to get our fingerprints taken when the application has been approved and; five to pick up our new Residency card.   The clerks at the Immigration Office are friendly and helpful and although it is time consuming and really poorly organized, it is not difficult and hopefully we will get an email next week saying we are approved for 3 more years and can come to give our fingerprints (which we just did a year ago and …. uhhh… they haven’t changed).

The vehicle was a little trickier.  There were so many different opinions online as to how to renew its TIP.  We asked the Immigration officer and she said we needed to go to the Customs office (Aduana) in Puerto Vallarta – across from Costco, beside the wine store.  Okay that works – I need groceries, I need wine, we can make a day of it.   When we walked into the Aduana office I stood in shock – there were DOZENS of people waiting for an appointment – maybe HUNDREDS.   It was a huge building with SO MANY PEOPLE and none of them appeared to be speaking any English.  The first woman we talked to told us we would have to take the truck back to the border.  Ah no.  Another person please.  Finally the English-speaking supervisor appeared, gave me the form we needed and told us she couldn’t help us.  We needed to go to the Aduana office at the airport.  They could help.  Sigh.  Every post I had read online said the office at the airport was absolutely NOT the place to go.  But I was more than happy to get out of that madhouse –  the airport was the next stop.

When we got to the airport, we wandered around for a while looking for the Customs office.  We found the Immigration counter – but no Aduana office.  We approached the Information Desk and a Spanish clerk directed us to the office we were looking for.  “Go outside and turn left.  Go to the end of the building, go around the corner and walk until you find the only grey door.  Knock on the door until someone comes and then tell them you want the Aduana office.”  Okay – sounds easy.  Even in Spanish, I thought I understood.

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Imagine eyes staring through that slot!

We eventually found a grey door, but there was literally nothing on it indicating it was an Aduana office.  In fact, as I stared at the door, I notice a tiny slot in the door with two brown eyes staring at me.  After jumping out of my skin, I told the eyes that I was looking for the Aduana office.  “Uno momento”.  And the slot slid shut – was I at a government office or a rent-by-the-hour motel?  After waiting for 5 or 10 minutes, a Customs officer opened the door, and we explained what we wanted.  He took our papers and began looking through them.  And I mean ALL of our papers.  Papers in our file folder that had absolutely nothing to do with this process were inspected.  “Okay, let me get someone to help you.”  Big grey door slam.   After we waited in the tiniest triangle of shade for 15 or 20 minutes, another Customs Officer came to the door and we told her our story again. She looked over our papers and told us we needed 2 copies of these papers, 3 copies of those.  Again, the copies.  “There is a copier in the middle of the airport.”  Okay we will be back with our copies.  But the desk in the center of the airport said “No Copies.  Maybe at the nearby business mall.”    Which meant leaving the airport parking lot.  We had, of course, parked in the absolute last stall of the parking lot, and when we got to our car we realized we had forgotten to pay for our parking at the machine – INSIDE THE TERMINAL, at the furthest spot from where we were now standing.  We trekked back to the Arrivals area of the airport, paid to get out and drove a mile or two to the mall where we indeed found a copy store.  After getting our copies, we headed back to the grey door.  We knocked on the door, spoke to the eyes, waited 10 or 15 more minutes in the blazing sun and eventually another Customs Officer – now our 3rd – came to the door, inspected the papers, shuffled the copies around and told us to wait a few minutes.  It was now 2:00 – we had left home at 9:00 – and we were hot, thirsty and hungry.   But in another 10 or 15 minutes the grey door pushed open and the Officer handed us our papers – with the needed stamp.   Our truck is in – again.  For 3 more years.   And I am considering taking donations, so Customs at the Airport can have a sign, maybe even a desk and a chair, to help weary travelers who don’t want to stand outside in the parking lot while papers are being shuffled.

3 times waiting – at least – and we’re all fighting for that one triangle of shade

As we have worked through all the steps to live in this country, I have been frustrated but I am also super excited.  No one would ever go through all of this craziness unless they knew they were meant to be here, unless they were already rooted in the soil and breathing the air.  We have been grumpy, we have been angry, we have laughed, we have cried – but we have never doubted.  And that makes me happy.

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How Can We Help?

The thing we have struggled with the most and continue to struggle with is how to best help the people we find in our path here.  Every day we see a need, feel some pain, touch a wound and we are not sure when we can or should help.  It is not just about money – maybe it’s least about money.

I have told you many stories about some of the families we have come to know and love.  Recently I have been sharing about the 3 girls who have stayed in our home after mom lost her house.  We are living week to week in that story and last weekend we waited at the orphanage on Friday afternoon to see if mom would come for her girls.  2 of them were in school (yay!) and the agreement was that at 4:50 she would come to pick up her youngest and then walk to the school to gather her other 2 for the weekend.  We waited and at 5:27 we decided she mustn’t be coming and we needed to go pick up the 2 at school at 5:30 and bring them home with us.  I was relieved.  We jumped in the golf cart and about 4 blocks from the orphanage we saw mom slowly walking towards the school.  So now my conscience had a battle.  Should we meet her, hand over her 5-year-old who was with us and deliver her to the school to get the others?  Or should we turn down a different street, so she didn’t see us, go get the girls and take them home.  Honestly, I didn’t want them to go home with her – but she is their mom and she appeared to be doing the right thing – although late and without her youngest.  So, we pulled up and

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Watching Mom walk away with ‘our’ girl

offered her a ride to the school.  I knew the oldest daughter would not be happy – she wanted to go home with us – so we quickly left before we were seen by the girls.  No one needed a scene outside the school.  We continued on to drop off 3 of the other Mans de Amor children in another town 20 miles away and stopped for some seafood.  We were quiet – I imagine this is how divorced parents feel when the ‘other parent’ gets their kids for the weekend.  We were worried, angry, frustrated.  But we are not their parents and it seems mom is trying.

About the time we were leaving the restaurant, I looked at my phone and saw a number of missed calls from the orphanage director.  She had the girls, mom didn’t actually want them that weekend because she had no beds in her ‘new’ home.   Relief.   They would be ours for one more weekend at least.

We headed back to Bucerias to pick them up and then we were faced with another moral dilemma.  We had an extra bed in our garage.  Our friend Diana had left it there and told us to give it to someone who needed it.  I knew the orphanage had another little bed to be given away.   We could help them set up their house so that they could again have their daughters with them.  I could make happen the exact opposite of what I wanted.   Oh, the struggle that went on inside.  No bed = the girls stay with me.  Beds = the girls go home.

I talked to Veronica that night and she said “let’s meet tomorrow morning and take them the beds.  Also, they want you to take your truck and help them get all the things that were thrown in the street when they were evicted from their last house.”   I knew – albeit grudgingly – that this was the right thing.  Let’s help them make a new home.

Saturday morning, we drove to their new house to pick everyone up.  House is a bit of an exaggeration.  There was a tiny cement room.  The yard was surrounded by a wire fence and miscellaneous filthy blankets were attached to the fence to create walls.  There was a piece of tin over it all.  That was the home – a fenced yard.  But it was theirs and it was not much different than many others in the neighborhood.

Off we went to help them find their discarded stuff.  We drove into one of the worst neighborhoods in Bucerias.  Grant and I had driven through there before in the golf cart and had said we didn’t think we better come back – a little rough.  But we helped them load and unload their few belongings and left them to set it all up.  The littlest one

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Family Saturday errands

stayed with mama and we took the 2 middle girls to the swimming pool for the afternoon.   I was very upset – I didn’t want them to go live in that little house – and when some tourists at the pool tried playing with the girls I grabbed our stuff and said “Let’s go” – no stranger is going to talk to my kids.   Except they’re not my kids and the home their mom is making for them is all she can provide.   The best way to help right now is to empower her to be the best mom she can be – offering support when she needs it.  That is what my mind tells me, my heart was struggling to agree.

That night the two youngest daughters were excited to stay with mom.  The oldest still refused and stayed with us.  We had some good talks about the importance of family and we told this angry 9-year-old we would be there if she needed us.  If you are scared, you know where we live.  She talked about her other siblings – besides the three of them there are 3 more brothers, 2 more sisters.  The sisters live with Grandma.  She doesn’t even know where the brothers live – Brian and Juan Carlos and one other. They are just teenagers living on their own.   It was a sad conversation and I feel so much pain for this child and for the mom who has lost all but 2 of her 8 children.   For now at least, the girls will continue to come to Manos de Amor during the week so mom and her boyfriend can find jobs.  Our weekend house will be open if they need us.

This family is not the only one we contemplate helping each week. There are constantly people showing up at our door selling things, needing things – maybe legitimate needs, maybe scams.   There is one young man who comes once or twice a week and rings our doorbell and asks if we have work.  We get him to sweep leaves or wash our car or other small tasks.  We give him 20 or 50 pesos, usually whatever food we have around.  Grant noticed his shoes were almost completely worn out and gave him some sandals.  Another day some pants.  A leash and some food for his scruffy little dog.  Well you’re not going to believe this.  Today he came to our door as usual and this time he said – “I am Juan Carlos.  You know my sisters.  You know my mom.”  It was one of the lost brothers!  For the past 4 or 5 months we have been feeding and clothing the brother of these three sweet little girls.  No one but God could have joined us all together.

I don’t know what our continuing role will be with this family.  The oldest daughter does not want to go home with her mom.  She does not like the mom’s boyfriend.  I don’t know that it is right for us to keep her with us.   I want to support a relationship but how can we help it become a healthy one?  How can we help reunite the brother with his siblings and his mom?

Today we stopped at the orphanage and all 3 girls surrounded us and gave us letters they had written to us.  Yesterday they had been in a fight with one of the boys in the home.  The letter said they were sorry for fighting.  (I didn’t know anything about the fight – not sure why I was getting the apology 😊) And then the last sentence of each letter – one to Grant, one to me.  I love you Grat. (They can’t say Grant).  I love you Karen.  Hugs all around.   And the story continues.

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Good News for Britani!

Good news!  I’ve been telling you the story of the 2 little girls with the missing birth certificates.  In Mexico, children need birth certificates to go to school. Unfortunately, getting one is not free, so often the poorest moms just don’t get it done.  Which means the children who need education the most, may not be able to access it.  It is frustrating and Veronica, the director at Manos de Amor has spent too many hours to count over the years chasing moms for papers.  If mom won’t cooperate, her children can’t go to school.  That has been the story for 7-year-old Britany for the past 18 months.  She has been shuffled back and forth between Mom, Grandma, and Manos de Amor and has never been able to attend a school.  She has watched her friends go to school each morning while she is left behind.   Although Manos de Amor has offered to pay for the birth certificate and do all the legwork, Mom has simply refused to cooperate, and she is the only one who can make the application with a photo and signature.

On Monday, Mom came to Manos de Amor to tell us where her new home is, and Veronica insisted she go with her to get her photo taken.  At first, she refused…. again…. but after borrowing some makeup from one of the staff members she agreed to go.  By Tuesday Veronica had the papers filled out and signed and many copies made.  It will still be a while before she gets the actual birth certificate – papers must be filed at 4 different offices around the state.  But having the papers filled out was enough for the school to agree to allow Britani to attend – under 2 conditions:

  • It is only approved for two months. If no papers are produced within 2 months, no more school for Britani.
  • She had to bring her own chair. What?  Nope, the school did not have an extra chair for Britani, she would have to bring her own.  So Veronica took a little wooden chair from the Manos de Amor dining room, outfitted it with a desktop and voila…. she had a desk.

From the dining room to a classroom

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By Wednesday, Britani was in school in her spiffy new uniform and polished black shoes, and when we picked her and her sister up in the golf cart after school she was happy beyond measure.  She is a year behind others her age, 2 months behind those in her class – but she is in school and she is excited.

More than anything, we hope that this will be a turning point for this family.  That Mom will step up and recognize how amazing her children are.   Will be there Friday afternoon to take her daughters home from school like all the other mothers who crowd around the school doors.    And if that doesn’t happen, our guest rooms are ready.  But for this week we celebrate that finally Britani is in school!

 

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A Weekend of sad FUN

Last weekend was fun, scary, hilarious, perplexing, humbling, exhausting and deeply satisfying.    Instead of doing our regular weekly vegetable shopping and house cleaning, we spent the weekend playing Monopoly, making bracelets and trying to braid the hair of the three little girls who stayed with us from Friday afternoon until Sunday evening.

We are so fortunate to spend most days working at Manos de Amor, a children’s home here in Bucerias.  Most of the children have some type of family or extended family – but every one of them has a painful story of poverty, abuse and neglect.  Even those parents who care, struggle to provide what their children need.  I have written before about the three little girls whose mom pops in and out of their lives, depending on the desperation in her own circumstances.  2 of the girls have never received birth certificates so they cannot attend school.   Usually we drive them to their grandmother’s home on Friday nights but since their mom and their grandmother recently had a falling out, that is no longer an option.  Mom has recently moved to Bucerias and we were hoping that living closer would make the situation a bit safer for these young girls.  Unfortunately, for the past 2 weeks Mom did not show up on Friday to get her children, nor did she call to explain.   The first weekend they went home with the orphanage director and then came to our house for Saturday afternoon.  On Sunday we all ran/walked/biked/skipped in a 5k together.

Our first weekend together away from the orphanage – some beach time and a 5k together

Last week they begged to spend the entire weekend with us.  No one, not even these sweet children, expected their mother to show up.  Of course, we agreed.   We knew it would be fun and maybe a bit terrifying.

On Friday after our English class we loaded them into the golf cart along with the other 3 that we drive home to a neighboring village a few miles away.  About a block from the home, we saw a couple sitting on the curb and one of the little girls quietly said to me “That’s my mama.”  We slammed on the brakes, pulled a U Turn and signaled for the woman to follow us back to the orphanage.  I could immediately tell she was in no shape to look after 3 children, and my own motherly instinct kicked in.  I was not about to part with these children who deserved to be safe this weekend.  I needn’t have worried.  Mom was coming to tell us that she did not have a home to take the girls to, she had been evicted and would like them to stay at the orphanage for the weekend.   I tried to see the positive in this – she had at least come to tell us.  Unfortunately, she did not talk to her girls, did not hug her girls, did not acknowledge them.  She walked away, and we drove down the dirt road out of town.  I turned around and watched the middle girl – the 7-year-old – put her dirty little face in her hands and start to quietly sob for the mom she still loved and wanted to be with.  The mom who hadn’t even said hello after not showing up for a number of weeks.   I saw she had a paper in her hand and when I took it I saw a heart she had drawn and the word “mama” written on it.  Even though she didn’t expect her mom to show up, she had drawn her a picture just in case.

Grant and I did all we knew to reduce some of the pain – we went into extreme grandparenting mode.  Over the next 3 days we took the girls swimming, played all kinds of games, did crafts, cooked the foods they requested, went out for pancakes, watched movies with popcorn, went to church, and even got up in the middle of the night to get rid of a bug in their room.  They chose which bedrooms they wanted, unpacked their few clothes into drawers, and claimed a stuffed animal each.   We had a blast and they behaved really well.  Each of them had a ‘moment’ but we were prepared, and they passed quickly.  It was a great weekend and I was even called ‘Mama’ once by the littlest 5-year-old.

 

At the end of the weekend the oldest 9-year-old asked for my Spanish translator and typed in ‘divertido’ – FUN –“this weekend was divertido.  Can we come again next week?”  How do you answer that when everything about her life is so uncertain and unstable?  I don’t know what next week holds for you little one.

Today during English class Mom showed up at Manos de Amor.  She has found a new home, close to the orphanage.  The director immediately took her by the arm and drove her to get a passport photo taken.  That is the first of many steps to get birth certificates for her daughters.   At first she argued because she wasn’t’ wearing makeup.  Seriously?  That’s what you’re concerned about?  Obviously, I have mixed feelings.  I am invested now.  I have wiped away tears and combed away lice and cut up pancakes.  But she is their mom and they love her and in her own brokenness, she must love them too.   But she needs help and perhaps that is the best we can do – be there when she doesn’t show up to pick up the pieces.   Suspend judgement and be a friend.  Love her daughters when she can’t.  Today I shook her hand and said, “It’s good to see you”.   And then I came home and tidied two bedrooms, put stuffed dogs in the center of beds and prepared for visitors.   Maybe these three will be back.  Maybe it will be others.   Whatever our assignment, we’re ready!

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