Utah Daily Chronicle
An orphan's gift
Changes transform an orphanage, in part to one student's determination
By: Ryan Oliver Hansen
Issue date: 3/7/05 Section: NewsArticle Appeared in Daily Utah Chronicle Once again, the orphans were yelling at Andrea, the most unpopular 4-year-old at the Loreto children's home in Ecuador. Andrea was a difficult child. She was always fighting with somebody. The nuns told me that she was hopeless, and that she was downright bad.
"She's so gross! Look at her! She stinks. Eeeewww, get her out of here," the orphans chastised.
The equatorial sun was scorching as usual, and as always, my tank top was wet with sweat, my hair separated by wet clumps sticking to my forehead. The shiny brown faces of the African-Ecuadorian children were dotted with their perpetual sweat beads.
I briefly looked over at Andrea and saw her legs covered in what appeared to be some slimy food leftovers she found in the trash. She smelled horrible, and the heat intensified the stench. My patience ran out.
I thought to myself, "God, she is such a pain sometimes," as I tried to refocus on putting on the socks of another child. But Andrea persisted-she stood there crying, seeking someone to defend her. "No, not this time, Andrea. I'm sick of you getting into the trash. You know you are not allowed in the trash! I'm telling the nuns and you're going to be in trouble," I said.
She continued crying. I tried to ignore her. After a moment I noticed that she was not covered in something from the trash. She was covered in diarrhea. "It's her own fault," said Sandrine, 5, "because she eats mangoes off of the ground and she knows she's not allowed to do that."
I sat and looked at Andrea for a few moments, pondering our misery. Her cries were now soft, muffling shame and embarrassment. Andrea ate things off of the ground-all the time. She always got into the trash-her favorite treasure was chewed gum.
I angrily dragged Andrea to the orphanage "shower," an outdoor water faucet where the cold, tan-colored river water came shooting out with great force. I placed Andrea in front of the showerhead and shouted at her to strip down and start washing herself. The smell of her infected feces made me gag. She would do the washing, not me.
Lesson learnedI stood in disbelief at my situation, feeling sorry for myself. But as I watched tiny Andrea struggling to wash herself clean, and squealing in fear of the shooting water, something inside of me snapped. "This is not Andrea's fault," I thought.
I realized this miniature person probably wouldn't wander around the orphanage eating things off of the ground if she had someone watching over her-just her, all day-someone to care for her like my mom cared for me when I was 4, watching over me, and never leaving my side.
I thought, "If she had parents, she wouldn't have worms from her clandestine, dirty mango eating and garbage searching. Then, she wouldn't have diarrhea. There are too many kids here for her to get the individual attention she needs. How could I be such a jerk, and blame Andrea for this?"
Things changed that day between Andrea and me. I took her inside and found her some clean clothes, trying to speak gently to make up for my impatience and harsh reaction to her potty fiasco. I decided what Andrea needed more than another scolding was love.
Then, for a while, I picked her up, laid her head on my shoulder, and swayed back and forth, singing her songs from "The Little Mermaid" in Spanish. Her exhausted body started falling asleep. Her sniffles ended. But mine had just begun. In the course of 20 minutes, Andrea had broken my heart.
Before I went to Esmeraldas, Ecuador, to volunteer in an orphanage, I thought I had known the pain of a broken heart. I'd been through break-ups. Ending a romantic relationship isn't easy for anybody-least of all for me, somebody who tends to get attached to the people I love.
But orphans have a way of surpassing the emotional depth that comes from a romantic partnership-a way of looking you in the eye that comes from nobody else but a helpless child who has never been loved by anyone.
The Loreto orphanage, a child refugee center run by Catholic nuns, was the place I called home for seven months of 2004. Originally, my trip was meant to be a summer-only endeavor-a fun, feel-good experience that would look smashing on my ever-improving résumé. Little did I know what was in store for me at summer's end, however. I could not bring myself to leave.
Perhaps I could have left if I had had more confidence in the nuns. But those nuns and I-did we ever differ.
When a child like Alicia, 2, came running at me with a big grin and fuzzy Afro-Ecuadorian ponytails, I had to pick her up.
The way of that worldBut the nuns, after years and years of living at the orphanage, don't do that. In fact, they believe in doing the opposite.
"You shouldn't pick them up so much. It teaches them to get attached. Then they won't be independent. You're going to leave. Then who will pick them up?" they would say.
I often wondered if they were right. But my doubts didn't keep me from picking up my little friends, swinging them around, tickling them, kissing them or carrying them on my shoulders. Where I come from, that's what grown-ups are for. Besides, the orphans didn't seem too worried about becoming independent.
I think that deep down, the nuns were happy to see the kids have a big brother. Almost every child in the orphanage had been abandoned by his or her father. Many had mothers, but because of social discrimination against women in Esmeraldas, mothers could no longer care for them. So a male role model-one who was not a beer-drinking, macho, multiple-girlfriend juggling sperm donor-was sorely needed. They'd never had a male volunteer stay as long as me.
They'd never had a male volunteer who taught crazy dances all the time, painted fairy tale characters on every wall available, taught the kids yoga, and sang songs with the kids from morning till night. One time, while I was swinging on what we considered a swing set with some orphans, and as we belted out Disney songs, Sister Isabel, a Loreto nun, walked by and said, "Look, there's Loreto's biggest kid." It was true-I had become Loreto's biggest orphan.
Loreto became home to me. My American world of school stress, cars, fast food, big malls, nice clothes, dating, hot water and tabloid-magazine checkout lines seemed light years away. My every minute was spent doing what matters most-loving and serving. I had completely forgotten about the importance of being cool.
Time flew, and like a stinging slap on the face, my last day at Loreto arrived.
Fortunately, there was a community party at Loreto that day. I was busy directing a play and helping with odds and ends. But then dinnertime came, and it hit me-this is my last meal with my best friends, my angels, my life's greatest treasures.
I served the usual rice and greasy meat "mixture" to each child for the last time, and as I passed around the food, I gave each of the 60 kids a kiss on the forehead and said, "I love you." The heaviness in my chest seemed to pull me toward the floor.
Thus far, I had held it together...that is, until one orphan broke the silence. Jean Carlos, 9, ran to me, pleading, "Ryan, please don't go! Please don't go! Don't leave us!" and clinging to me. His voice shook with desperation. Agony would be an understatement for the pain I felt in that moment.
Jean Carlos started a domino effect in the children as each realized what was happening. In choked voices, we sang our favorite songs for the last time. We huddled together in a cluster of tear-soaked brown faces (one white). It was bedtime. I peeled myself from the kids, and thanked Sister Alexandra for allowing me the extra few minutes. Then I left.
My bus ride the next morning through the jungle to Quito was surreal. I passed in and out of a dizzy state of confusion. That bewilderment lasts even today. I have not fully come to grips with the injustice of not being able to save those precious children. It comforts me that at least they have food and a safe place to sleep. I try to be positive. My mom always reminds me, "Don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened."
My time at Loreto with the orphans was a personal miracle-our bonds came straight from heaven.
But more than the miracle of friendship that will live on in my heart and the hearts of the orphans is the miracle of Nadya, a 23-year-old woman I befriended in Ecuador.
Nadya was suffering from an abusive relationship when she met me. Our friendship helped her discover her worth, and she started coming to the orphanage with me to play with the kids. I told her it would help her forget her problems.
The nuns didn't like Nadya at first-claiming that she only wanted to hang out with an American and wasn't interested in the kids. But she proved them wrong, and to this day she goes to Loreto to be with the children.
Thankfully, the nuns have grown to love her. Nadya is now the orphans' big sister, and she's not going anywhere anytime soon.
I met Nadya only one month before I left, but I believe that Nadya is the true reason I felt called to go to Ecuador in the first place, and also the reason I stayed seven months instead of three.
Nadya's last letter said, "Today I took some Loreto girls out to the park and we ate treats. We talked about you. These kids still love you, Ryan. They're not soon to forget you."
Nadya, the beauty of all of this, to me, is that they won't forget you.