It was a humid morning in September of 2012, the sun already blazing just after 6 am. Fanny was the first to arrive, her two youngest in tow, pausing only for a quick good-bye before rushing off to her job at the market.
Four-year-old Alba and one-year-old Juan both walked cautiously into the new daycare center of Casita Copan – a small rented house with only a handful of toys and no furniture – and when they looked up at me, they simultaneously began to wail.
I was a preschool teacher for years, so the crying didn’t faze me much. But I wasn’t prepared for all of the challenges our small team would face in those first few months. We started out with a straightforward goal – create a daycare center for working mothers so they wouldn’t have to leave their children on the streets, or in the horrible conditions of the local orphanage. I couldn’t have imagined what was to come next.
To start, all of the children were malnourished. Food helped, but eating a well-balanced diet appeared to make them sick at first. The stomachaches only added to their other health issues: parasites from not having access to clean water, contagious diseases because of the proximity with many other children, and rashes from sleeping in completely unsanitary conditions.
Alba was four years old but didn’t know how to hold a crayon in her hand. Mostly, she slept or sat quietly in a corner, waiting for her mother to arrive.
Her brother Juan was overly clingy. None of the children were used to following a routine or sitting still for longer than five minutes to complete an activity. None of the moms who enrolled their children in the program could read or write, and their schedules were grueling (which meant that as caregivers, our schedules were equally grueling). As the lucky founder, I got to share the morning shift at 5:30 am!
Our daycare expanded and we started to get in the swing of things. With a lot of hard work, the kids became healthier and we all began to settle into our routine. The caregivers attended trainings to be better prepared to handle the everyday challenges. Child sponsors, both local and abroad, joined us in order to support the sustainability of our organization.
Just as we started to relax, we got the news we’d been waiting for since Casita Copán first started: the local orphanage was being shut down because of its poor conditions and thirteen children needed a home. Now.
I will never forget the joy of a wish coming true and the terror of the size of the responsibility arriving at our doorstep. Both our staff and budget doubled the day that the new kids arrived. But the financial strain was just the tip of the iceberg.
Thirteen kids were dropped at our doorstep with no explanation from the government, all without their belongings, some without birth certificates, one little guy without shoes. With each child dealing with his own lifetime of trauma, the first few months were a whirlwind of temper tantrums, fights, and power struggles.
These children had practically grown up on their own and so we needed to teach them hygiene, self-care, structure, and how to trust adults.
We took each day at a time, patiently building relationships and creating a family where each child would feel safe and loved. It’s still a struggle, but we’re getting there.
After all these years, I still remember the stress and exhaustion of those first days of the daycare and the first months when the children came from the orphanage. But the memory of that struggle is vastly overshadowed by the each moment a child met a new milestone in their development, catapulted by our love and support.
I remember the sheer joy of watching the kids grow (one child from the orphanage gained 15 pounds and grew 8 inches in the first three months!). I watched their skin clear up and turn brighter; I saw them start to hold pencils in their hands, learn to walk, begin to read their first words.
Little Juan, who I used to carry while running errands, is now taller than his older sister, Alba, and is excelling at school. Alba still struggles with academics, but she is healthy and locally famous for her infectious laugh – everyone knows “Albita (little Alba).”
Her mother, Fanny, now lives in a two-bedroom house and has set aside money from each month’s salary to buy a bed, a refrigerator, and a stove. The children from the orphanage now live a normal life in their “Casitas” with their foster families, and they each have a space of their own where they are accepted and loved.
It is these memories and the moments that we shared – and continue to share together at Casita Copán – that keep me here in Copán Ruinas.
If you want to celebrate five years with us, consider signing up to create a fundraiser and help us spread the word. Or you can join us by making a donation today. Thank you so much to everyone who has been a part of this journey!