Gael’s Gets His Surgery

Most of you now know the results of our long-awaited trip to Guadalajara for the Cochlear Implant surgery for Gael. It was the day we had been working towards since late last fall when we first took Gael to a doctor to find out just what was possible for him. Since then there have been many trips to many doctors in Puerto Vallarta and Tepic and Guadalajara. Tests and more tests -MRIs, CT scans, Brain stem tests, blood tests, audiology tests. Hours and hours of research to find the best surgeons, the best implant device, the best sign language and speech therapy resources. And of course, the fundraising. 5 months of events and online crowd sourcing campaigns and Facebook posts and email blitzes and PayPal transactions and bank wires. After many setbacks, many date changes and location changes and device changes, we were finally on the road to Guadalajara to have the surgery. Gael, his mom, his teenage cousin, Francisco, myself, Grant and a big red cooler – all piled into the Blue Explorer SUV owned by Manos de Amor. We had a three-bedroom Airbnb booked for 2 nights, the cooler full of important stuff like coffee and peanut butter, and Grant’s leather bag packed with cash. Yes, we were paying the hospital and the surgeon in pesos – a giant pile of pesos.

The surgery was booked for early Tuesday morning and the doctor had asked to see Gael on Monday afternoon at 5:15 in preparation. We headed out around 10:00 in the morning – certainly better than the 3 am start on our previous trip to Guadalajara. We stopped ½ way for some tortas and gorditas and were just coming up to the outskirts of the city when a warning beep and light came on. An oil light saying oil pressure had dropped. Of course. This day had been all together too smooth to be a Swanson story! Almost immediately we saw a small shop that sold oil and other lubricants – how perfect was that! We pulled in and the owner said he only sold products – he didn’t fix vehicles, but he would call us a mechanic. It didn’t take long for a young mechanic to arrive in his beat up blue half ton truck. He looked, listened and agreed that it didn’t sound good. We better not drive any further. Aargh. This was not in our plan for

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this week at all. On the up side, we had made it to Guadalajara. Almost anywhere else along the way would have left us stranded in the middle of nowhere. On the down side, Guadalajara is giant, and we were nowhere near the surgeon’s office and now we had 5 adults, 1 deaf boy, a bunch of suitcases and one big red cooler standing by the side of the highway.

The mechanic suggested we call Uber and for the next 3 days that is just what we did. In Guadalajara, Uber only uses small cars for up to 4 people so that was our first challenge. And you can’t call a second Uber with your app until the current trip is finished. So we placed our request and within 5 or 10 minutes Ana Patricia was there. Francisco and Gael and mom and cousin jumped in the car, leaving Grant and I and the luggage and of course the big red cooler on the side of the highway while Grant downloaded the Uber app on his phone. I watched as the tiny car on my phone app rushed Gael to meet Dr.


Macias. They left us at 4:06 – arrived at the hospital at 5:18. 3 minutes late for the appointment we had been planning since last fall. Ana Patricia waited for them outside the hospital – in the end the trip was over 2 ½ hours and it cost $392 pesos – that’s about 20 bucks. For 2 ½ hours. In the meantime, Grant and I had called another Uber and loaded it up and headed to the apartment that would be home for a couple of days.

We had expected to take Gael to the hospital by 7 on Tuesday morning, but instead Dr. Macias decided to admit him Monday night, so he would be prepped and ready for the early morning surgery. His mom was nervous and scared but also excited. She and Gael were given a beautiful private suite with a separate sitting area for her to spend the night. We promised to be there in the morning when Gael came out of surgery.

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The surgery took about 3 hours and the doctors told us it had gone perfectly. While there is never a guarantee, they were confident it had been a success. We won’t know for sure until activation day which will be in 6 weeks. That is the day the device will be turned on and Gael will hear.

We were relieved and thrilled. Gael was carried back from the operating room and his mom and I shed a couple of tears as he moaned in pain. His head was wrapped in a giant white bandage. The nurses laid him in his bed and as I leaned over to kiss his cheek he reached up with his one arm and hugged me tightly around the neck. He was groggy and in pain but still the affectionate Gael we love.

I expected him to be dopey and in a lot of pain all day, but it couldn’t have even been an hour before he sat straight up in his bed, grabbed Grant’s phone and started playing Candy Crush. It was as if nothing had happened. Soon he was out of bed, entertaining us and playing with the 2 trucks the hospital had given him. He was concerned as they took his IV line out, didn’t like the teensy drop of blood that was on his hand, but he was amazing and strong and brave and was proud of his bandage when I showed him his picture.

About 9:00 that evening he was released from the hospital and we made plans to go home the next day. Except of course we had no vehicle. After many conversations with the mechanic it was determined a timing chain had broken but he promised it would be repaired by Thursday at noon. Guaranteed. We really didn’t want to keep the whole gang in Guadalajara. Our suite was not available for another day and we couldn’t all fit in one Uber so we had to take 2 cars every time we wanted to go anywhere. So on Wednesday morning Francisco, Gael, mom and cousin headed to the bus station to take a bus back to Bucerias. Grant and I found another suite in the same apartment building that was available, and we moved our suitcase and our big red cooler down the hall. We would stay for one more day – have a mini vacation – and bring the car home on Thursday.

Wednesday was a fun day. We went to the giant Guadalajara zoo and had a romantic dinner in a nearby restaurant. I was ready to be home, but this had turned into a nice bonus day together.

On Thursday morning we called our Uber, loaded our crap into the trunk and headed to the mechanic shop to get our vehicle. He said he was on track – it would be ready by noon. The first problem was that we didn’t really know where the shop was. The address he had given us was super vague. The Uber guy couldn’t figure it out. We knew the general vicinity of where we had pulled over when the whole problem started, but the mechanic had towed the truck to his shop and we weren’t sure where that was. Finally, thinking we were close, we told the Uber driver to let us out and then we piled our suitcase and briefcases and the big red cooler on the side of the road and started asking people if they knew where this shop was. Turns out we had quite a way to go and we weren’t even on the right side of the highway. Luckily there was an overpass to walk over the highway nearby, so we started the long walk to find the shop. Along the way we kept asking people where this shop was, and we got all manners of directions – all of them different. 5 more blocks. 3 more blocks. You’ll have to turn left and go one block. No, it’s on this highway. No back the way you came. We just kept walking. We piled the red cooler on top of the suitcase which promptly hit a hole in the road and dumped the contents of the #*(#**@ red cooler all over the road. Just as we were getting frustrated and a bit grumpy, we came upon the shop. In fact, we almost walked right past it until I spotted the car right out front. Still being worked on. Not quite done.

Fine. I was happy to sit for a while and wait. After a 1/2 hour or so, the mechanic guy got in and started the car. He stepped on the gas. And then we all heard it. A weird knocking noise. It didn’t sound good. Long story short….. the car wasn’t ready. It needed more work. Maybe Monday or Tuesday. Not today.

And that is how we found ourselves boarding a fancy 2-story bus heading back to Bucerias. I laughed when Grant frowned and said, “We’re not really bus people”. No, we’re golf cart people and this bus had huge reclining seats, flip out foot rests, individual TVs, and a free sandwich. A big upgrade for us!

As always, the week had more challenges than expected. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. But we arrived at the correct destination unharmed. Gael had the surgery we’ve been dreaming of for a long time. If all goes as expected, his life will never be the same. The course of his future has completely changed, and we are so grateful for your generous help and God’s provision and protection. And of course – even in the midst of celebrating, there’s another bumpy surprise! The day after Gael got home, a red rash broke out – he now has chicken pox! Oh Gael….

A Week of Parties

The hotter the temperature rises, the quieter our little town becomes. Most of the tourists have now gone home and many of the local restaurants and shops have either closed for the summer or reduced their hours.  The ones that are still open are offering great discounts.  We are enjoying eating out more, supporting the locals who are hoping to hold on until the tourists return.  Yesterday at Los Tejabanes we had a full lunch with vegetables soup, rich and delicious Chile Rellenos with rice and a drink for only 70 pesos –  $4 CDN.

The summer slowdown definitely does not mean the Mexicans have stopped partying however, and we had two great parties this week.

First was a surprise birthday party for me at the orphanage.  I am usually not there on Wednesday afternoons, but I have some new English teachers and was showing them the ropes.  We held our 5 classes – 3 hours of singing “Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes” while teaching body parts (when did I stop being able to comfortably touch my toes?) and I really can’t believe that none of our little students gave away the secret.  While we taught the oldest class during the last hour, the staff and younger children were busy blowing up balloons, decorating the house, stuffing a piñata and putting a LOT of candles in the cake.  Just before 5:00, the classroom door opened, and Grant came in carrying a cake followed by a crowd of little ones wearing crowns and masks and yelling “Happy Birthday Karen”.  We spent the next 2 hours singing and dancing and eating cake and piñata candy and of course the obligatory Mexican tradition of smashing my face in the cake.   This is called “Mordida” – literally “taking a bite” – everyone yelling “Mordida, Mordida” while the birthday girl or boy takes the first bite of the cake.  Gael thought it was hilarious to really shove my face in that delicious chocolate icing.

The next day I looked through all the cards that the children – and the grown ups had made – and I was moved by their love, their openness and their artistic abilities.  They had worked hard to make beautiful messages of love and I am so grateful.  Perhaps my favorite came from Mareli who is one of our weekend children.  This is the card she wrote:

This is the translation:

“I love you and I give thanks for all that you have given us Karen. I love you very much.  Karen with all my heart I thank you for giving me the opportunity to go to your house.”

Sometimes it’s hard to love children who have really tough lives and families, who struggle and who can never truly be my own, but this message just made it all worthwhile.  Not because they are grateful for the ‘stuff’ we give them, but because they feel loved and are able to share love.  That is good for them and also super good for us.

On Friday night we were invited to another party.  You remember Gloria?  I told you about the house she built and the pit her husband dug to be an oven for their birria.

Gloria Builds a House!

Well this week Gloria invited us to come and share the deer that one of their friends had hunted up in the mountains.  I have never seen a deer in Mexico, but apparently they do exist.  Gloria and Adrian put the gifted deer meat in a large pot with chilis and spices and slices of oranges and buried it all in the ground with hot charcoal and wood and waited a few hours.   It was exciting to watch Adrian take off the coals that had been heaped on top, remove the metal covering, hoist up the hot, heavy pot, unfold the layers of foil to finally reveal the meat.  The mouth watering smell hit us first and although I wasn’t very hungry and hadn’t planned to eat much, I ended up with a heaping plate of beans, tortillas and tender shredded deer meat.  It was a feast and of course the night ended with karaoke and laughter and I even blew out my shoe dancing!


Thank you for the many birthday wishes I received this week from all over the world – Canada and the US and Sweden and Mexico and Cuba.  I couldn’t be more excited to see where this new year takes Grant and I.  All I know for sure is there will be children, there will be delicious food, there will be adventure, there will be love, and there will be DANCING!

A Big Final Step for Britani

Two steps forward.  One step back. ALWAYS!  If we think we have something completed, well we don’t.  It’s just the way it is and we are learning what it means to be persistent and stubborn and patient.  Last November I told you about Britani who was in the process of getting her birth certificate which would allow her to attend school.  She is 7 and has never been registered, has never legally existed.   So we were excited in November when it seemed the process was finally complete and Britani started school for the first time.

But the story was not finished – not even close.  After I wrote that Blog post, things slowed down.  The government registration offices said too much time had passed.  The final papers we needed were no longer accessible at the hospital – they are only kept for 5 years.  The whole process had to start from the very beginning. A lawyer, more offices, more trips to the hospital in San Pancho and saddest of all – no more school for Britani.  At the end of December, the school reminded us that 2 months had passed and no papers had been produced.  Britani could not return to school after the Christmas break.  Just one more sad letdown for this little one.

But Super Director Veronica kept knocking at the door, kept pushing.  We kept picking Mama up and driving her to the hospital, to the registration office.  It was sad but hilarious when they put Britani’s 7-year-old foot in ink and stamped it in the box on the birth certificate form that was the size of the baby foot it was intended for.

But finally!  This week Britani received her Birth Certificate – with Grant and I signing as witnesses and friends and weekend parents.   Her life, well it is still full of challenges that make me cry every day, but tomorrow morning she can go to school.  She can learn and grow and dream of what she wants to be when she grows up.  She can be like the other little girls who are 7.  And that is a big deal for Britani!


So the World May Hear

When you move to a new place – especially a new place like this! – you are constantly stumbling into new experiences, new places, new people.  This month we took part in a project that was outside of our normal areas of involvement with people we had never met before.  And it was very cool!

As we have been helping to raise funds for our little deaf friend Gael, we have been searching out contacts within the hearing loss community – doctors, therapists, and other service groups who just might be able to help us.  We have been learning and stretching into a whole new world that we really didn’t even know existed.  Which led us to meet Enrique and the Lions Club of Puerto Vallarta.  They were holding a Hearing Aid 30777117_10155413869121198_2007058191_nbenefit in conjunction with the Starkey Hearing Foundation, a charity that was created by Starkey Hearing Technologies and its founder William Austin.   Austin is a leader in the Hearing Aid industry who has worked with a number of US Presidents and other celebrities.  He now spends his time giving the gift of hearing to those in need.  This amazing group has donated hearing aids to people in over 100 countries and its goal is to provide 1 million aids in this decade.   This month they were in Mexico and we saw that they needed volunteers for their outreach in Puerto Vallarta.  Wanting to know more about this whole area and to meet some people who might have advice for us and for Gael, we offered to help.  We literally had no idea what we were volunteering for, but we showed up at 6:30 a.m. as requested, ready to lend a hand.

30429685_10155413870136198_1784692417_nAs we predicted, we were the only volunteers to show up at 6:30.  We noticed many Mexicans already lined up at the front door of the convention center, but when our new friend Enrique motioned us to follow him to the volunteer area, we saw we were the only ones there.    2 or 3 more arrived around 7:30, the majority after 8:00.   Why am I still surprised and why am I still showing up on time for things?  At about 7:40 Enrique’s wife came to us and said, “I am so sorry you are on time”.  You and me sister.

But finally, at around 8:30, a bus load of people wearing red T-shirts with the Starkey Foundation logo arrived and the front doors were opened to allow the long line of waiting people in.  My job was to work with the hearing specialist at the first point of contact.  As people filed in, the red shirted lady looked in each of their ears and indicated to me whether their ears were clean or not.  I had to take their application form, check a SI or NO as to clean ears and sign the paper before directing them to take their form and their little white card to the next station where their forms would be inspected.  Grant then led them to their next station – the ear washing place or the hearing aid fitting place.


Over the next 4 hours, I marked and signed forms for 400 Mexican people.  800 ears inspected.  The youngest was 5.  The oldest was 103.  All poor.  All needing help to hear.  All excited to be receiving free hearing aids that day.  They came from around the states of Nayarit and Jalisco – from Tepic down to Manzanilla.  Some came on buses.  Some had other disabilities.  It was amazing and beautiful and I was so pleased we had showed up to see this miracle.


As we were about to leave, Enrique’s wife came to us and said, “I would like you to meet Mr. Austin – he is a very important man.”  Now at this point, we had no idea who he was.  We knew nothing about his company, about his work with Presidents, about his billion-dollar net worth, about his philanthropy around the world.  We only knew he was offering free hearing aids to 400 Mexicans and we were happy to meet him and tell him about our small project with Gael.    His response was not what we expected.  He told us that perhaps he could help Gael with a hearing aid.  He said that he had the best hearing aids in the world and just maybe he could help.  Just maybe Gael could hear if we brought him to meet him that day.   Well you can imagine that we didn’t need to hear more.  We phoned our friend Francisco and asked him to track down Gael – we’re coming to get him and bring him here.  Just maybe…..

It took around an hour to drive back to Bucerias, pack up Gael and drive back to Puerto Vallarta.  The crowd was still large when we returned but Mr. Austin dropped everything to look at Gael.  He tried several different aids and Gael sat quietly, curious as he watched all the people in chairs around him putting these strange devices in their ears.  He seemed to understand what was happening and was very cooperative.  After 30 minutes or so, Mr. Austin said what we had already believed.   Hearing Aids will not help Gael.  He just doesn’t have enough hearing in either ear to create discernible sound.  I admit I shed a tear or two.  Even though we were receiving confirmation of what we had already learned, a tiny bit of hope had landed on my heart that afternoon.  Perhaps this was the miracle we were hoping for.  Instead we were encouraged to stay on the path we were already on.  To find a way for this little guy to have the Cochlear Implant surgery.  To help him learn sign language so he can begin to communicate while going through the whole process of surgery and speech therapy.


But then, as we turned away and prepared to leave, the miracle arrived after all.  It just looked different than I was expecting.  As we turned around, a young woman and an older woman were standing behind us.  They had been quietly listening.  And waiting.  I saw the name tag on the younger woman.  It said, “Sign Language”.  The older woman introduced us to Isabel and told us that she is a sign language teacher.  She lives in San Vicente and is willing to do private lessons.   Would you like her help?


Well yes. Yes we would.  And just like that another piece had fallen into place.  Isabel now comes to Manos de Amor 3 days a week to teach Gael, his mom, and one of the Manos caregivers how to sign.  We have wanted this for a while but had no clue how to find someone who would come to us.  Had we not taken Gael to see Mr. Austin, we never would have found Isabel.



As always, things happened exactly as they were meant to.  For Gael and for 400 other Mexicans who now have the Gift of Hearing!  Thank you to William Austin and the Starkey Hearing Foundation.



Who Cares if it’s a Square?

Today is Friday -the final day of our Monday, Wednesday, Friday English class schedule.   On each of those days we teach 3 classes to the children of Manos de Amor Casa Hogar.   These children are living at Casa Hogar because their parents or caregivers need a helping hand.  A few have no parents.  Many have 1.  Lots of grandmas have stepped in.   They have all experienced great trauma in their young lives – abuse, prostitution, alcoholism. And poverty.  A lot of poverty.

So 3 days a week we arrive at the home with our bag full of worksheets and crafts and videos and songs and tablets.  We have divided the groups by age.  The 6-9 year olds have learned about colors and families and counting to 20 and greetings and this week we learned about Day and Night.  We are working on vocabulary but also trying to learn some sentences.    “I have 4 shoes”. “Touch something red with your nose”.  They love songs and sing them REALLY LOUD.  I expect the whole neighborhood now knows the days of the week.  They especially love the English learning apps we have on the tablets that we use once a week or so.

20170906_163354The oldest children – those 10 and over – use the Duolingo language learning app.  We don’t really have to teach them – we are there to help when they are stuck and to do group review from time to time.  We are also there to stop their little fingers from ‘accidentally’ going to the App store and ‘surprisingly’ downloading games.  “I don’t know how that happened Karen”.  Sure you don’t.  We do reward them with a few minutes of game time to keep them coming back.  I love using this app because each child moves at his or her pace and new students can join at any time.

20170922_145605The funnest class is the littles, the 4-6 year olds.  They are hilarious and are actually learning quite a few words.  They are the ones who speak to me in English every chance they get.  “Hello, my name is Azbeth, how are you I am fine and you?”  They just run it all together and are so proud.   This week they learned shapes and today we finished the week by making Shape Guy heads.  They practiced shapes and face parts and colors on one little craft and they were pretty excited with the final product once they had added some butterflies and dogs and family members.


We are having fun but I have to admit that some days I look around at the needs and problems in this country and I wonder what possible difference it will make if Jose knows the difference between a square and a rectangle.   Will knowing their colors keep 12-year-old girls from getting pregnant and will greeting gringos in English stop boys from becoming trapped by alcohol?  Today after our final class we drove children from 3 families to their homes for the weekend and as I am every Friday, I was saddened by what I saw.  How can we think our little classes can make a difference?

But as I held babies and hugged toddlers, and stepped in poopy diapers littered on the ground, I smiled.  Yes, if children here learn English they will have an opportunity to secure a better paying job in the tourism industry.  But these 4-year-olds aren’t out looking for jobs.  What they are looking for is acceptance, confidence, affection, hope, safety and security.  For LOVE.  I watched Jose show his sisters and his niece Lupita his Shape Guy and I realized that for a few minutes today he felt proud of himself.  For at least an hour he experienced confidence and creativity and joy.   I remembered the look on Jorge’s face when he told me he had finished 8 Duolingo lessons.  The cheer Mareli let out when she finished a whole section of today’s learning app.

Our English class is not going to change Pricila’s life.  But maybe it will bring a tiny bit of healing to her broken heart.  Her mom isn’t there for her – but on Monday and Wednesday and Friday I can be.

As we left each of these children at their homes today – I really hate doing that – I did what I do each week.  I opened their little hands, tapped my fingers to their palms and then touched their palms to their hearts, “Okay, here is Jesus.  Don’t forget he’s going to be here with you all weekend.  You’re going to be ok”.

I realized what our class has to offer these little ones. – it offers US.   Our hearts.  Our acceptance.  Our love.  And really, that’s all any of us have to offer.

A Week of Surprise Dates

This was the last week of summer vacation for the school children of Banderas Bay.  On Monday, they will head back to school after a 4 or 5-week break.  Like children everywhere, they are not happy about the end of freedom, the beginning of perceived bondage.  Someday they will remember these as the simplest days of their lives, but for now it’s just school with its early mornings (school starts at 7:30 here) and afternoon homework.

Some of the children went to stay with immediate family or extended family during the break.  I have worried about them because I know they may have been left alone while parents or grandparents worked and they may not have had much to eat.  I will feel better when everyone is back safe in our care. But many stayed at Manos de Amor for the entire summer and we continued with English classes twice a week.  We went to the pool and the beach and played games and went for rides in the golf cart.  This week Grant and I decided to celebrate the last week of vacation by taking each of the children on a surprise date.  We took most of them in pairs, but the littlest girls are impossible to separate so we took all 5 of them together.  Although we know that living at Manos de Amor Casa Hogar has made a huge difference in each child’s life, we also recognize that living in an institution can never be quite like being in a family.  These children long to spend one-on-one time with grown-ups who love them and we knew they would be excited to head out for a treat with us.  We didn’t tell them what we would be doing – each date was a surprise.

Samantha and Mareli

On Friday, we picked up the two oldest girls and headed to the theatre to watch Despicable Me 3.  I had checked online for the movie times and dates – I double and triple checked.  The movie was to be on at 11:00 at the mall in the next town.  Of course, as per Mexico, schedules mean nothing and when we arrived at the theatre, the ticket counter was dark.  Others were waiting as well, until an employee told us all “No, we’re not having it today”.   Our very first date of the week and our plan was already in jeopardy.  I quickly went online and found out the movie was showing in Vallarta in 90 minutes – and looking at the puppy dog eyes of these two girls I knew we had no choice.  We headed into Vallarta to the bigger mall where we had lunch, played a couple arcade games, and watched the movie with giant tubs of popcorn, both plain and caramel.  They loved the movie but do you know what made them the most excited?   The escalator and the automatic hand dryer.  It seemed they had never used either before and they just laughed and laughed.  Samantha said, “You’re the Mom and Gran is the Dad (they just can’t say Grant) and we’re a family.”  Before heading home, we stopped at the giant bead store where they each picked out one charm to remember the day by.  It was a good day.


Cesar and Luisito

On Monday, we picked up two of the boys in our Golf Cart and took them to our house for an afternoon of Wii video games and a hot dog BBQ.  As they came into our very simple house, Luisito said “You must be so rich – you have a TV and games and an office.”  Well that’s humbling considering how often I grumble about what I think I lack.   We laughed and laughed as they raced cars, played tennis and baseball and boxing.  A perfect boy date.

The Littles

On Tuesday it was the little girls’ turn – 5 of them, aged 5-7.  They were waiting at the door when we arrived and the next 4 hours was nothing but a pure giggle fest.  We took them to a little zoo in Nuevo Vallarta where we fed the turtles and fish.  Then we headed indoors to the nearby mall to play in the giant play structure, eat pizza and Happy Meals and finish off with ice cream sundaes.   I am not really sure if the littlest ones understand that we don’t speak the same language – they just keep talking and we just keep nodding and laughing.  It seems to work.

Fernanda and Santiago

We have known these two for many years – they used to live at Manos de Amor but at some point, went back to live with their father.  They were visiting for a few days and when we arrived back after our zoo date, they were waiting by the door with expectancy.  What about them?  Could they go with us too?  Honestly, I was pooped, and we had English classes to teach in a couple of hours, but they looked so sad.  How could we turn them down?  So we put them in the golf cart and took them home – Wii games were waiting.  It was hilarious watching these spunky siblings fight it out – but I was so sad as I watched Fernanda’s tiny arms swing the tennis racket.  She is too thin and that scares me.


Carlos and Brayan

Wednesday was another Video Game and Hot Dog Day with these two brothers. This day was kind of special to us.  These two boys were the first children we ever met at Manos de Amor on our very first visit 6 years ago.  They captured our heart then and that was really the start of our “Moving to Mexico” journey.   They have had a tough life – their Dad died when they were very young and their mom left.  They live with grandparents who really can’t care for them.  Manos de Amor has been the only constant in their young lives.  Watching them play with Grant in our home felt like coming full circle in this adventure.

Meeting Carlos & Brayan in 2011 – the day I fell in love with Mexico’s children.  Who could have guessed the road ahead!

Grand Finale Water Fight Party

Thursday was the party to end Date week – and more importantly to end the summer.  We filled up 350 water balloons, cranked up the music and spent the afternoon drenching one another.  When the water balloons ran out, Carlos introduced the hose and that took it all to a whole new level.  Grant and I were not spared – in fact we were ganged up on – and with 32 degree heat, it felt really good!  We finished it all off with a bunch of pizza and danced around the patio with Brayan as our DJ.  I was tired, but we weren’t quite finished…..

Jorge and Victor

These two guys don’t live at Manos de Amor, but they live in the neighborhood and are in our English class.  We couldn’t leave them out.  Especially Victor.  His mom recently died and he lives across the street with his stepdad who is seldom around – he is so sad and often cuddles close under my arm.  When the water party seemed to be winding down I gave them the signal – let’s go to my place.  It’s your turn.  One last round of video games and since they were a bit older than the rest, they really got Mario’s Kart moving!  It was so good to hear Victor laugh.

That was the end of Date Week.  We will never know what it meant in the lives of these children.  Probably something different for everyone.  But it brought us all closer and as I watched them play throughout the week, I recognized that they now deeply trust us.  When they were scared or upset they ran to either Grant or I and held on tight.  They held our hands as we walked.  They whispered “Gracias”.  And today, when we were driving a number of the girls home for the weekend, Mareli said “Karen, remember the day we went to the movie and Samantha farted and Grant plugged his nose?”  And then we all laughed like crazy again – cause that’s what families do!


El Dia de Ninos – Kid’s Day

In Canada, we look forward to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day – a day for children to express love for their parents.  Mexico celebrates those days too.  But every April 30th since 1925, Mexico has also celebrated Children’s Day, El Dia de Ninos.  It is a day – a few days actually – where everyone stops what they are doing to honor children.  We noticed that even in the poorest neighborhoods, homes were decorated with balloons and children were hauling around bags of candy.  I spend a lot of time with children here and I tend to see all the things that are wrong – poverty, disease, lack of decent education and medical care and shelter.  But when I let myself relax a bit I also see a country where family is important, where children are allowed to play with abandon and where laughter is loud and common.

This weekend we celebrated Dia de Ninos twice – once with the children of Casa Hogar and one with the children in our community.  Because Natalia’s birthday fell on Thursday and the children had Friday off school, we had a combined Birthday/Children’s Day party.  Natalia and her brother and sister live at Casa Hogar during the week to help their mom who works at night during the week.  She is young and had her first daughter as a very young teen. But she loves her children in the best ways she can and they love her too.  On Friday, she brought a giant pot of pozole and a cake for all of us to share.  We played some games, had a dance party and eventually filled up the water balloons for a giant water fight.  It was a super fun day for the children and the grown-ups too.

Natalia’s mom (top) brought delicious pozole for us all to share

Water fights and dancing party – yup I was soaked too!

On Sunday night, the local church had a community Dia de Nino’s party – over 300 children showed up to play games, eat hotdogs and cake and watch a bunch of Trolls tell them that Jesus loves them.  We picked up Jose to come to the party and while we were waiting at the house his 3-year-old nephew Kevin gave me the ‘look’.  The ‘please don’t leave me here while you take Jose to a party’ look.  “Do you want to come too Kevin”.  Giant smile.   His 16-year-old pregnant mom gave me a tired smile and a nod.  So Kevin came for his first big outing with us.  I don’t think Kevin has been out of his neighborhood often and he clung to Grant and I as he tried out the activities.  I have never seen a child ravage a hot dog like that and by the end of the evening my dress was literally dripping with green juice, snot, and catsup.  Once I asked Grant, “Do I even want to know what I feel dripping down my leg right now?”.  Twice he wiped out on the play structure hard enough to make most children cry – instead Kevin got up and kept going, not wanting to miss a second of this new freedom.

Kevin’s first adventure


Hanging with my buddy Lucio

Obviously, I still worry about the children in this country.  Every day Grant and I get up and we work to find ways to help the children in our lives experience futures with hope and opportunity and possibility.  But this weekend we put that all aside and we joined with our community in celebrating these little people and the simple lives they live today.  Feliz dia de los ninos mis amigos!

Learning a Language

The more time we spend here in Mexico, the more we realize the importance of shared language to build relationships and experience success.  Every day we struggle to explain something we need or want – to express an idea or an emotion.  We are fortunate because there is a lot of English spoken here in the Bay – it is a big tourist area and we really could live comfortably if we never tried to speak Spanish.  But we don’t want to live life on the outer edges – to be tourists in our own town.  We want to experience life in the center of the community, to be able to speak to our neighbors and especially to communicate well with the children at Manos de Amor. duolingo2 So we are doing our Duolingo every day and slowly getting better.  Grant is way ahead of me in the program – he has a bigger vocabulary and has done many more lessons.   I am more willing to just start talking, even if I sound ridiculous and make no sense.  We are each learning within our own personalities – the introvert and the extrovert –  and we are slowly making progress.

Using the Duolingo app every day gave us an idea – why not use this same type of fun technology to teach the children how to speak English?  The children at Casa Hogar are already one step ahead of many of their family members and peers because they are regularly attending school.  They receive help every afternoon with homework from our tutor Jezebel.  They are all bringing home good report cards.  If they stick with it, this will definitely help them get a job when they graduate.  But we live in a tourist zone – if they learn English another door will swing wide open for them to work in the hotels and restaurants.   We have volunteers throughout the year who come to the home to help with English, but many are in the area temporarily and we have not been able to set up a long-term English program.

Last summer my friends from Bloom Church came to Bucerias for a week of service – working with the local churches in several surrounding communities and of course working at Manos de Amor.  At the end of the week there was around $1200 left from the money they had raised and we didn’t really know where to use it – so they told me to hang onto it until I saw a good place to use it.  One day a few weeks ago Grant and I decided this might be it – let’s buy some tablets and combine fun technology with language learning.  It’s working for us – surely it can work for children.  We went shopping and bought 5 tablets.We downloaded Duolingo for the big kids and a few English learning apps for the little kids.  And we jumped in.  Obviously, they were super excited to use the brand new tablets – and I am impressed with their progress.

We are just getting started.  We have had 4 or 5 classes using the old and very slow computers in the homework room and now we have switched everything over to the tablets.   We will have 2 classes a week for the big kids and 2 classes a week for the little kids.  They will work through the apps at their own speed and at the end of the class there will be some time for game fun.  At first Grant and I will supervise and we hope to figure it out enough that volunteers can step in and work with the children.

Thanks to those of you who donated money to Bloom last summer.  We would love to buy more tablets – if that is something you would like to donate to, you can do so by giving online.  You will receive an income tax receipt if you donate using the Canadian or American link.  Go to and click on Give Online tab.

Stay tuned for a progress report!  I suspect it’s going to be a bumpy adventure.

Raising Some $$$

It has been a whirlwind, but the fundraising season for Manos de Amor is almost over.  In the span of 5 ½ weeks, we have held 3 major events: a Cocktail Party, a Hamburger Fest and last weekend was a GIANT event called Rhythm and Ribs where 1500-2000 people sampled food from almost 30 restaurants, drank beer and danced under the stars to the music of a local band.  It has been fun – and exhausting – and I’m pretty sure that all of us on the steering committee are happy that this part of our job is finished.  We have auctioned off almost 150 items, given away 70 raffle prizes, and split a pile of 50/50 money.  We have sipped wine and danced on the beach, flipped burgers and sang Karaoke in the middle of a street and gnawed on ribs in a big empty field.  Most importantly, we have raised a lot of money which is essential to keeping our home running and keeping our children safe and educated.

Dancing Under the Stars

Hamburger Fest

After picking the short straw, I had the privilege of chairing this last big event and I am so grateful for the dozens of volunteers who worked hard helping this greenhorn pull this off.   I have led a LOT of events, but this one was certainly unique in so many ways.


Although we have not seen rain here in Bucerias for months, my biggest fear was the big black clouds that began to spit just as we started.  To my great relief, instead of rain we were given a beautiful rainbow.  I took that as personal encouragement!  At the end of the evening, we were treated to a fireworks display by the nearby hotel.   Pretty awesome start and finish to a great event!

I have been in charge of venue setup for many gymnastics meets, and my friends Lorne and Barry have often teased me (you were teasing right?) about how I bossed them around during equipment setup.  (I want the vault runway there…. No there….. no 2 inches to the right…. I mean 3 inches to the left….).  Well I have to say I get much better service here (now I’m teasing).  I mentioned that we really needed to get someone to move a car that was parked in a bad spot, and instantly I had 8 Mexican men literally pick up the car and move it out of the way.  I picked up a table to move it and a nice Mexican man told me ladies don’t have to lift tables.


She said she wants the car moved…..


steps.jpgSo my inauguration into Bucerias fundraising is over.  I met many very cool people, counted a LOT of pesos, sampled ribs and tamales and ceviche, and shook hands with Mexican politicians.  I translated spreadsheets with income and expenses (I can truly say I have never had a line item for ‘Bano revenue’ before), cooked 120 pulled pork sandwiches and walked a LOT of steps.  I can’t say it is my favorite part of charity work – I’d rather just play with kids-  but I do know that raising funds is super important and I am grateful for the many snowbirds and other tourists who supported our children.  GRACIAS!

A Sad Week for Jose

This was a sad week for Jose and his family – and it broke my heart too.  Every Friday Grant and I drive 6 year old Jose home to spend the weekend with his family in San Vicente.  He lives with his mom and his 6 siblings and his nephew and 2 nieces.  His grandma and aunties have come from the state of Michoacán and have been living 3 blocks away for the past few months.


Abuelita is on the far right at our Boxing Day Pizza Party

On Sunday I received a message on Messenger from 13 year old Isabel.  Although she no longer lives at Manos de Amor, I hear from her almost every day.  “Hello Karen – what are you doing today?”.  I value the relationship we have built with this family.  But the message I received on Sunday was not just chit chat with a bored teenager.  She told me her abuelita – her grandma – had died.   Oh no.  We had just visited with Grandma the week before when she had been caring for a sick Jose.  She had not been sick then – but apparently a sudden pneumonia had taken her.  We were set to pick up Jose later that evening and I asked what they needed – should I still get Jose?  Would they keep him with family, would he attend a funeral?


In Mexico, funerals often happen very quickly – within 36 hours.  There is no embalming, no waiting for many days for family to travel.  There is a wake the first night with a viewing of the body and some type of funeral or gathering the next day.  I received a message later that afternoon asking me to come get Jose at 7:00 as usual.  In Canada it is normal to bring food to a grieving family – and I knew that it would be even more important to do the same here in Mexico.   There is no extra food in the fridge to feed visiting relatives.  So we stopped at the grocery store and bought 4 roasted chickens and some rice and beans and headed out to get Jose, not knowing what to expect.

When we arrived it was quiet at the house -and 12 year old Laurentino told us all of the family had gone to Michoacán – his mom, most of his siblings, his nieces and nephews and aunties and uncles.  He and 13 year old Isabel were left at home and Jose would be going with us to Casa Hogar.  He did not know how long they would all be gone.   I was so glad we had brought the food as there was none in the house and the two children were there alone – under the watchful eye of a neighbor who I knew probably did not have extra food for 2 more.

20170214_142302-4Jose seemed stoic – he walked out of the house and climbed into my car without a word.  I talked to Laurentino for a while – told him to contact me if he needed anything – and drove Jose back to the orphanage.  As soon as we walked into the home, Jose’s damn broke.  He started crying- deep sobbing.  For over an hour I sat on the couch holding this little guy in my arms while he cried and asked for his mama.  I have seen Jose angry, happy, mischievious – but I have never seen such sadness and pain from him.  He cried and I cried and told him “Today I am your mommy Jose.  It is okay”.  After an hour or so I laid Jose on the couch and left.  Laura, the night worker, said he could sleep with her.  I was heartbroken leaving him but I knew he needed a good night’s sleep.

The next morning I arrived at Manos de Amor and as soon as Jose spotted me he ran up to me and said to me (in Spanish of course) “Karen, last night I was crying because my Grandma died  – I’m ok now”.  I smiled and said “I know Jose – you were sad.  It will be okay.  Your Grandma is with Jesus now”.  His serious little face, “No Karen – my Grandma is in Michoacán”.



So Jose will be okay.  Sometimes it is healthy to cry hard – not just for Grandma but for a missing mama, for a hungry weekend, for nieces and nephews who are born to 13 year old moms, for one room homes in cardboard towns, for all that is hard in his young life.  Today I watched him laugh as hard as he cried on Sunday and I smiled with him –  Jose will be okay and we are so happy to be part of his story.