The last week of celebrating Casita Copán’s one-year anniversary has finally died down enough to give me a little time for reflection.
When we started a year ago, it was a huge risk. We had the idea, the passion, and the drive but we were depending entirely on the hope that others would jump aboard and help us keep our new little organization afloat. With a few thousand dollars in the bank, two local employees committed to working for an indeterminate amount of time, and the extra boost of confidence always offered by an amazing volunteer Charrissa Taylor, I went to city hall to receive permission to open a daycare center in Copán Ruinas. That was the easy part.
I still remember the first hour of that day. My nerves on fire for fear that no one would show up. That fear proved to be the exact opposite of the challenge we’d face. By the end of day one, we had 10 kids and 3 more on the waiting list. With only two employees, plus me and Charrissa and a promise to the moms that we’d be open 7 days a week from 6:00 am to 5:30 pm, I had to learn to say no. Those few months are a haze (mostly because Charrissa and I shared the morning shift and I am NOT a morning person) and like most exciting times in life, they sped right by.
The memories of those early days are sweet, although I don’t miss the sleepless nights worrying about whether we’d have enough money to keep going. After a while, more people learned about what we were doing and offered their support in ways that left me infinitely grateful. And along the ways, I learned a few things that I want to share here.
1. Food is amazing. Ok this one seems like a no-brainer. But if you’ve never yourself gone hungry, watching children go from being hungry to being full is an incredible transformation. Right before our eyes, each Casita kid changed dramatically once they entered our daycare center. And this was for the simple fact that they were receiving two balanced meals a day, plus snacks and clean water. The first thing you notice is the quality of a child’s hair – it gets thicker and shinier and turns black. Then the skin brightens and softens. Next it’s the energy. Children who spent most of the day sleeping refuse their naps in favor of playing all day. They start talking more, exploring the world around them, learning. They’re finally full.
2. Children can bounce back – quickly. Our first Casita kids came to us with a lot of emotional and developmental challenges. One of our kids, Alba, was so behind developmentally that we thought there was a mistake on her birth certificate that said she was four. At the beginning, we tried to use a teaching approach to help our kids catch up. But I feel that it was the overall environment of Casita rather than the teaching that helped our kids get back on track and exceed our expectations. I watched our kids settle into an environment that was safe and loving, where they were listened to, talked to, cared for, accepted – and as each child became more accustomed to this environment, the learning came easy. Many of our children still struggle with developmental, academic, and emotional challenges, but I feel confident that they have the support they need to meet these challenges head on. And our little Alba is now so talkative, creative, and smart that she is obviously a 5 year old and ready for kindergarten next year.
3. There’s always more to the story than meets the eye. We all navigate life with blinders on, and it’s usually a good thing when these are forced off. We started Casita Copán mostly for the children. We knew them from the local shelter and were eager to improve their daily experience and their chances for the future. We wanted to create a happier, safer orphanage for the community of Copán. It turned out we didn’t even know half of the story. Many people are highly critical of the act of child abandonment and it’s no doubt that the outcome is tragic. However, the truth of the matter is that most women do not want to abandon their children. But when poverty is crushing, when you have no family or partner to help you, when a baby was created by force, when you’re only 15 years old, when a baby is born sickly and you have no resources to support him – the point is, we never know the whole story and therefore can’t judge. But there are other options than orphanages. If you look at this challenge without criticizing women, you start seeing opportunities to help women stay with their children. The first? A daycare for working moms. A daycare that provides food and medical care and lifts a little of the burden off of single mothers. Next, opportunities for education, safe spaces where women can come together and share their stories and build a support system of other women, classes where women can develop stronger self-esteem and life-skills, and even resources such as micro-loans to help women start their own businesses. Even though we started Casita for the children, it is now definitely all about family.
4. It’s never too late for someone. The oldest woman in our literacy class is in her sixties, our beloved “Mami Juana.” She sits with the kindergarten kids after lunch and they all do their homework together; she beams when she shows off her letters and when she gets the chance to help her granddaughter finish her homework. The women we serve are currently stuck in a reality of deep poverty; without a proper education and the ability to read and write, they can only get jobs cleaning houses. Many are stuck in unhealthy relationships, struggle with being the kind of parent they want to be, and lack strong friendships or family support systems. But when our moms meet for literacy classes in the evening, they start talking about their dreams for the future and they get overwhelmed with the excitement. Already they have seen drastic changes in their children, and they are starting to believe us when we tell them that they can change their lives too. They have dreams of starting their own businesses, of buying a little piece of land where they can grow food, of continuing their education, of having a separate bed for their children. When I see the excitement in their eyes, I am confident that it is never too late. And I can’t wait to see what’s next.
5. Patience is definitely a virtue – but man, it’s difficult. When I start thinking about Casita, the ideas for new programs and activities overflow. You should see one of our staff meetings! But I am lucky to have a wise and patient staff that helps ground me in the reality that this type of work is slow. We have a lot of work ahead of us with the children, the moms, and with the organization as a whole. So as I reflect back on the year and celebrate our anniversary, I also look forward to the coming years. It’s a long road ahead, but I am confident that we can stay on the right path. A huge part of this confidence comes from the supporters we have all over the world who believe in our vision and who have helped make our early dream come to life.
Thank you to everyone who has been a part of Casita over the past year. And if you’re just finding out about us, why not join the ride? You can help right now by making a donation, sponsoring a child, volunteering, or contacting us. Welcome to the family!