The Good, the Bad, and the Exhausting (A Full Update on Life at Casita Copán)

Last night I ran into a friend who used to live and work in Copán and she complimented me on the “amazing updates” (her words) I’ve been posting on Facebook about the new developments at Casita Copán. While it’s true that it has been an amazing couple of months and that many of our dreams as an organization are coming true, it has also been (and continues to be) an incredibly challenging time for all of us. I tend to focus on the positive, so I realize that I haven’t written a truly comprehensive update about life at Casita. So here goes.

Anyone who works with kids knows how difficult it can be. We’ve been doing it for a year and a half with some very troubled children, but our new children are different. Most of these children were abandoned at birth, others taken away from their mothers because of extreme malnutrition, neglect, or abuse. Some spent their whole lives at the orphanage Angelitos Felices here in Copán, others lived at anther orphanage in Santa Rosa (about 3 hours away) first before being sent to Angelitos. All of them suffered extreme neglect and often spent large stretches of time barely supervised or completely unsupervised. The main form of discipline was the “barra” or a metal rod. Food was sometimes plentiful, sometimes scarce. Hygiene and sanitation were absent; most locals couldn’t enter the orphanage because of the awful smell. All of the kids are at least two to four years behind in school. When it comes to trusting adults, let’s just say we’ve got a lot of work to do. When our youngest kids cry, they don’t cry for “mama,” they cry for “Chayo,” the nickname of the oldest girl at the orphanage, Rosario.

The kids have terrible nightmares. Nightmares about burning buildings, kidnappings, murder, the devil climbing out from underneath the floor. We keep a light on and try to talk about each dream as much as possible, but it is heartbreaking to realize how deeply the trauma runs. The kids have started to share a bit about their past at the orphanage, but in a detached way. They tell us about the rats and the cockroaches, the scary noises they heard, how dark it always was, how the people there would call them names and beat them. They don’t tell the stories with sadness but rather just recount their experiences, but the nightmares show that the issues run deep.

One of the first things the kids bragged to their teachers about was how their new home was “clean.” You wouldn’t think a kid would comment on cleanliness. I remember as a kid defending my messy room and dreading the Saturday wake up call to start doing my chores. But I never lived in filth. Last Saturday, eight-year-old Alex grabbed a broom and a mop and cleaned the entire main building of Casita without being asked. He said he likes the way it looks clean.

Our kids struggle with anger. Probably struggle isn’t a strong enough word. The slightest disappointment is impossible for many of them to self-manage and can turn into extreme temper tantrums or fits of rage. Most of the anger is self-focused. Ten-year-old Naun threatened to throw himself from the top of the fence when he didn’t get a chance to use the computer. The next day he was apologetic but also self-critical, saying he hates the way he is and doesn’t know why he does that. Last year at school, Alex was angry about something at school and had such an intense reaction that he fainted. Even the smallest kids (I’m talking 3) spout so many swear words that it would make a trucker blush… let’s just say my Spanish vocabulary has increased in ways I hadn’t imagined.

But more than anger, the main thing that the kids express is a need for attention. It’s a yearning, really, that can be emotionally and physically exhausting for those on the receiving end. Our new kids will do anything just to make you look at them or acknowledge them, but it is impossible to divide your attention equally between 13 children (plus the 33 children that were already at Casita!). For our kids, receiving love is not always easy and they fight against it, but then fight for it at the same time. The way I describe it is as an emotional ping-pong game. That’s how it feels for all of us – the staff, the volunteers, the kids. We’re bouncing back and forth between these extreme emotions while the kids test us to see if the love we’re showing is real. It’s going to take a long time before they’ll be able to accept it or trust it. In the meantime, there will be lots of tears, lots of temper tantrums, and lots of disappointments.

The other huge change for us is we now have a 24-hour, 7-day a week job. Emergencies can happen (and do) at any time. Right now, when it’s so necessary to emotionally relax and unwind, there just doesn’t seem to be any time! And while I dream of the time when things will “settle down,” I know that Casita is now responsible for 13 lives. We now need to make sure that we do everything in our power to help these 13 young people work through their trauma, learn to trust and love, and grow into healthy, productive, and happy adults.

But even on the hardest days, I know we can do it. So I guess that’s a positive update after all.