Last night, I was up until nearly 5 AM with crazy thoughts running through my head. If you know me, you know that my bedtime is 10:20 PM (realistically, like, 11:30 PM). I am basically a grandma and I have no shame. Last night was truly something else. I kept praying and praying because that usually eases my mind and lets me sleep, but this time the Big Guy upstairs had other ideas. He decided that I would be overwhelmed with thoughts and ideas about the little Dominican town that I love so much and the lovely little brown babies that have stolen my heart.
During the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I took my first mission trip to Las Matas de Farfan, DR. Las Matas is a tiny little village tucked in a valley near the Haitian border.
In Las Matas, the average family income is between $1 and $2 (US) a day. That means that there are people living on less than $400 a year. The streets are commonly littered with bottles and trash. The people are generally uneducated. The weather is hot and sticky and there is no air conditioning and seldom running water.
This certainly was not 17 year-old Emily’s dream destination. I wanted to help people but I was scared. I was so scared of what would be waiting for me as I stepped off the plane in Santo Domingo. I was so scared of what would be waiting for me at the end of our 5 hour van ride towards the dangerous border. (Sancocho was waiting for me, but more on that in a second.) I was scared of seeing dying and malnourished babies. I was just scared.
The moment I stepped off of the van, went into the kitchen of our host, Hilda, things got even wilder. The lights were dim and everybody was speaking Spanish. Of course, I could understand a thing or two, but 9 years of Spanish lessons had not prepared me for this overload. Somebody handed me a bowl and one of the girls who had come with us said, “Put the rice in and then the soup on top. It is good that way.” I must have had GRINGA written on my forehead.
I served myself the soup and sat down by the two girls and began to eat. It did not take long for me to realize that there were chicken bones in the soup. BONES IN THE SOUP!! Here I am, at 10 PM after a long day of travel staring at the bones in my soup. I ate around them the best I could, silently freaking out.
A few minutes later, the priest who brought us told us that he was walking back to where he was staying and that he would be back to pick us up for morning prayer at 8 AM. Bones in the soup AND early mornings? This surely had to be some sort of joke.
The next morning I was woken up at around 6:30 AM to mangoes falling on the tin roof. I had decided that I would not let my apprehensions and fears hold me back. I had 6 more days there so I might as well make the best of it. I was welcomed by some boys around the ages of 12-16 outside the house. One lady involved with the mission, Abuelita to them, had known them since they were very young so they were waiting to meet all of the new people.
We all clicked very quickly. A few are still very good friends of mine today. They were the first to show me love on my trip. Little by little, I was falling in love with more people everywhere we went. From the preschoolers at the guardaria to the infants at the Nutrition Center to the “street kids” who were my body guards, I felt nothing but love.
Love is what I learned. Love is everything. Our tongues did not speak the same language, but our hearts did. There were endless hugs and constant hand holding. The street kids would shine shoes in the park to make a few pesos to buy cookies at the corner stores to give to me. They brought bunches of mamonsillos every morning to last me the day. They loved me and I loved them.
The impact they have made on my life was evident as I spent the 5 hour bus ride back to the capital with tears in my eyes. I never wanted to leave. I knew I needed to do something for them from home.
I have wanted to tell the stories of some of the kids for a while but I never had an appropriate platform to do so. Now is the time. Here are those with nothing that taught me everything.
This is Charlie. He was 10 years old when I met him last summer. He was surrendered by his parents to the care of the Nutrition Center run by the Sisters of Charity. He was scared and thin. He would not eat or show any emotion. We tried and tried and tried to get him to smile, but got nothing. We gave him hugs and kisses and tickles. I remember getting on my hands and knees to be his horse. Nothing got through to him.
He understood enough to know that his parents gave him up, but probably not enough to realize that they were only trying to save his life.
This picture shows the closest he got to smiling. One of the missionaries read him a book in Spanish that he did not understand (since he only spoke Creole) but he liked the pictures.
He was one of the children in the worst shape that I witnessed. Of course all of the babies were there for a reason, but he was not a baby. He appeared to be about 5 or 6 but he was 10. His sad eyes told stories of the rough life that he had temporarily escaped.
He was still in the Nutrition Center 6 months later when my parents went to Las Matas again. They said he was a bit healthier. My heart often aches for this little boy.
Each trip, I have gravitated towards one baby in particular. This is Christopher. In the first picture, he was 19 months old, but not bigger than a 2 month old. I did not believe it when nuns told me how old he was. He could not hold his head up. He baby puked and only took a bottle.
While healthy 19 month old babies run and play, this little baby who suffered from a rare for of anemia could not do much besides lay and coo. I held him, rocked him, and fed him every day. Everybody referred to him as my baby. I wanted to take him. I cried for this poor child. I cried because I could not take him home and give him a better life. I just wanted to be his mommy. He fit in my backpack (yes, I put him in just to see how hard it would be to smuggle him home!!)
The second picture is 6 months later during my parents January trip. I barely recognized him! He had grown so much and they reported that he was doing better. I nearly cried more tears. I hope that he is not there when I go on my trip next month. I hope that he is healthy and in his real mother’s arms. Better yet, I hope he is running around his mother’s home, as a 3 year old should be.
Here are two cousins, Eddy (17) and Diana (12). Eddy is a dear friend of mine, but he is not who this story will be about.
Diana is so young. So so so young. She is also a prostitute. I cry as I write this because she should not be. She does not want to be…well did not want to be (I do not know where she stands now.) I wanted to take her home to remove her from the situation and let her be a kid again, but unfortunately, that was totally out of the question.
I first met Diana’s siblings Carlos and Rosa. They come from a home where the father is abusive and the mother is a prostitute. Diana’s two older sisters were prostitutes, presumable forced by their parents, and she did not want to get involved. By the time she was 12 years old, her brother was forcing her to go with older men.
One day, she wore a little girl’s cartoon nightgown (I believe it was My Little Pony) to come say goodnight to us and to see if she could grab a bite to eat before heading home. We said goodnight and she set off towards home with her brother, cousins, and their friends.
The next morning she came back with the boys wearing the same nightgown. Some of the boys were being mean to her and telling her to get away because she was dirty. Some of the missionaries asked why they were being like that. Her older cousin told us that as they walked home the night before, some guys summoned her to their car and she refused. We had talked to her earlier in the day and told her that she should not sell her body because it was not safe to her health and soul. She did not want to go with the men but her brother pushed her into the car. Her own brother forced her to give her body to men so that he could make a buck or two.
This same brother had tried to sell his older sister outside of mass one day the summer before. The only reason she came back into the church was because the buyer was unable to come up with 400 pesos (less than $10) to buy her services.
The situation of the entire family breaks my heart. This beautiful little girls thinks a couple beers or a few hundred pesos match her worth, but little does she know, her tag reads “priceless.” She will never understand her worth.
I often wonder if she cries at night after having her childhood and purity snatched from her day after day or if she is numb to it by now. I wonder if she even understands what is happening. She probably does not know the risks she is exposed to. She just does not know.
Brittany is the niece of Diana, Carlos, and Rosa. Her mother, whose name I do not recall, is the same age as me, 19. She was 18 when she had Brittany. She was a prostitute as well. Brittany appears to be a healthy baby. She is well fed and giggly, but she could have STDs that her mother does not even know about. I pray that this beautiful baby is not forced down the path of her mother, grandmother, and aunts.
On the day I met her, Brittany’s mother asked me how old I was. When I told her I was 18, she asked if I had a boyfriend. When I said that I did, she said, “y no tienes un bebe?” meaning “and you don’t have a baby?”
She asked if I wanted one. I told her I did and she told me she didn’t. She asked if she could go get the babies “papers” so I could take her home and give her a better life. Again, I wanted to so so so badly, but unfortunately, the dorm that I would be living in for the next year had a strict no baby policy…(actually come to think of it, there was not a “no baby policy” but I think it was implied by “no pets”.) I could not take her baby no matter how much I wanted to.
* * *
So there it is. Those are some of the people who helped by loving or teaching me to love unconditionally and those are their stories. I could probably list close to 50 people who have changed my life in the mere 16 days that I have spent in that country out of the 7100+ days that I have been on this earth. The people of Las Matas will hold a very special place in my heart as long as I live.