Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A random list of gratitudes, in no particular order

     Having never been one for goal-setting, the end of the year appeals to me more as a time for reflecting on where my life is at than as a start point for setting goals that may or may not be achievable in the next 12 months. As John Lennon so eloquently noted, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. (In the spirit of goal-setting, perhaps I should pick 2016 as the year that I finally get that truth tattooed on me. I've been talking about it for long enough.)
     So I got to reflecting this morning. And I guess it’s not surprising that my thoughts turned to all the things I’m grateful for, given that I’m currently sitting here in my comfy home in the Managua heat, still in love after 19 years, practically giddy to have recovered from two herniated discs in my neck this past spring, and fresh off a terrific two weeks of travelling Nicaragua with a couple of our grandkids.
     Herewith, a list of personal gratitudes to herald the end of one year and the start of another. It’s by no means a complete list – just the things that popped into my head today. I wish for all of you that you find gratitude in the things that have gone well, and the resilience to get through the things that haven’t. Today, I’m grateful…

·         For having been a teenage mother, because what that translates into at the age of 59 is the chance to hang out in Nicaragua with two teenage grandsons when I am still fit and healthy enough to do adventurous things with them like hiking up volcanoes. Not to mention the great joy of having had more than 41 years of being a mother, and a ton of quality grandchild time for almost 17 years now.

·         For having been born and raised in a country with a high-quality, accessible education system, decent salaries, and publicly funded health care, because growing up in a country like that is a lifelong gift that gives you a giant leg up in this world no matter what happens after that.

·         But at the same time I'm also grateful for the opportunity to experience life in countries with none of that, where I have seen that even downsides can have upsides, and that countries where people have no choice but to figure out their own survival are capable of great innovation, adaptation, resilience and compassion.

·         To be part of a vast extended family that definitely gets fed up with each other from time to time but fundamentally understands that family is forever.

·         For whatever mysterious forces drove me to leave my really great private-sector job as a journalist back in 2004 and venture into non-profit work, where people’s stories still make up the bulk of my work but in ways that make me feel much more connected to meaningful change.

·         I am grateful that a lot of people are scared to live in Honduras, because that meant that the first Cuso International post I tried for back in 2011 had sat vacant for the two years prior to that, which in turn meant that my basic tourist-level Spanish passed muster and I got the post. And a whole other world opened up to me.

·         For a four-month strike in 2002 at the Times Colonist that at the time almost gave me a nervous breakdown, but ultimately revealed to me that I could easily live on half my wages. That revelation set me free.

·         For all the people who have opened up their homes, pets and possessions to Paul and I since we become “homeless” in 2012, welcoming us to care for their stuff while they are vacationing and making it possible for us to live as gypsies. (Well, except for our 2002 PT Cruiser. Come on, even a gypsy needs a caravan.)

·         Grateful to my parents and my piano teacher Kaye Wilson for hammering discipline into me at a young age, because I have put that to use in so many ways over the years, most recently to be able to learn Spanish as well as a new instrument (the accordion) that’s small enough to accompany me in my wandering.

·         For being a sickly kid who experienced being teased and judged, because that has made me into someone who never takes her health for granted and feels a kinship with anyone who has experienced being an outsider. And there’s a lot of us.

·         For all the times I failed, felt my heart break, stumbled, erred. Failure has taught me how to get back up again, and freed me from the nameless dread that gets in your way out of fear that you might fail.

·         I’m grateful that even before I knew that the man of my dreams needed to be someone who could help my youngest daughter with math, embrace cheap travel and a life of uncertainty, and be a kind and patient grandfather to my then-unborn grandchildren, I found my way to just such a man. Here’s to many more years together, Paul.

·         For whatever it is in my genetics that led me to be a person who can’t hold onto resentments and disappointments for very long. Life’s too short to be bitter. Happy 2016, everyone.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Casita Copan: The home of Mami Zoila

Casita Copan Home for Abandoned Children

Background and Project Outline

December 2015

The goal:

 Raise $15,000 to cover 12 months of maintenance costs (approx $1,200 per month) at one of the three family-style homes that Casita Copan operates for abandoned children in Copan Ruinas, Honduras. This particular project will focus on the home of Zoila, who has made a commitment to be the permanent foster mom of five children ages 6 to 11 – Maria, Jesus, Estrella, Alex and Rosario – and live at the casita with them until the youngest one turns 18. While Zoila was offered two days’ a week off, she has chosen to work full-time, 7 days a week – just like any other mom. Her own mother, Juana, is a foster mom at one of the other casitas.

Facts on the Casitas:

  • The three homes opened in July 2014 and cost about $15,000 a year to maintain, roughly $1,200 a month, which includes rent, utilities, maintenance, food, water, medicine, salary for Casita mom, school fees, and weekly visits with a psychologist.· Two of the casitas have four children living in the home, and one has five. 
  • There were a number of sibling groupings living at the former orphanage Angelitos Felices (closed down in July 2014 by the Honduran government); these children continue to live together in the same casitas. 
  • Each casita has a permanent foster mom who lives at the home and participates in all the activities that any mom might do for her children. 
  • The children are in their casitas on weekdays from 4 pm, Saturdays from 1 pm, and all day Sunday. On weekdays they go to school and then to Casita Copan (the main center) for tuoring, special activities, etc. This approach gives staff a chance to check how they are, address medical needs, ensure sessions with our psychologist, etc. The Casita model blends the best aspects of permanent foster care with the oversight of a children's home. 

Specifics on the casita run by "Mami Zoila"

The foster mom:

Zoila is from Nueva Esperanza, a small rural community on the outskirts of Copan Ruinas. A middle child in a family of 6 children, Zoila always helped out at home by taking care of her siblings and later her nieces and nephews. Though she loves children, she never wanted to get married because (in her words) she "didn't want to work for a man." She started working at Casita Copan in 2012 and the kids immediately bonded to her because of her calm, affectionate nature and her infectious smile.

When the Casitas opened in July 2014, she was the first person the organization asked to be a Casita mom - a serious commitment since she was asked to care for the kids in her care until they turn 18. (A 13-year commitment in this case, as the youngest child in Zoila’s casita was 5 when the home opened last year). It goes without saying that the kids love her dearly and all call her "mamá." Side note: She is the daughter of another Casita mom, Juana.

The home:

Zoila’s casita is a bright, happy place. The walls are decorated with pictures the kids have drawn, and diplomas and certificates from school. All of the kids help out with the household chores and as soon as they get home, they wash their clothes and help Zoila fold the laundry. Some play with blocks on the floor while others go into their bedrooms to relax while they wait for dinner. The children are usually in bed by 8 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, they like to get out the puzzles or coloring books and play on the patio, watch movies, go to church, or take a trip to the Mayan ruins.

The children: 

Rosario is 11 years old. Her mother died in childbirth and Rosario's father didn't have enough money to care for her, so he entrusted her to the care of the orphanage "Angelitos Felices." He died a few years later. Living on her own at the orphanage, Rosario grew into a fiercely independent, tough, and intelligent girl. The smaller kids looked up to her and relied on her to care for them when adult supervision was scarce. Rosario loves to sing, dance, and draw and really loves to watch music videos. When she grows up, she wants to be a teacher. This isn't surprising since she still loves the role of caregiver and is always helping out the younger kids and teaching them new things. She is going to 5th grade next year. 

Alex is 10 years old and the brother of Estrella. His mother was just a teenager when she had Alex and the police removed him from her custody because of extreme malnourishment. He entered Angelitos when he was about one year old. Alex is energetic, creative, and very affectionate but still struggles with anxiety. But that doesn't stop him from trying. Right now he is very into dance and has incredible acrobatic skill - he can walk on his hands, do crazy flips, and is starting to learn some basic breakdance techniques. In the past he wasn't sent to school regularly so he is only in 3rd grade, but he is a good student and was elected class president this year. Alex is incredibly helpful to his Casita family and always make sure the others are helping out too. He's still not sure exactly what job he wants when he grows up but he wants to have enough money to build a house where he and his sister Estrella can live. 

Estrella is 7 years old and the sister of Alex. She was taken into an orphanage when she was a baby because of malnutrition and later sent to Angelitos. She is a born artist. She is inquisitive, thoughtful, creative, and already shows above age level technical skill in her drawings. Right now she's into drawing butterflies, flowers, and animals and she always draws free hand. Estrella is such a sweet and kind girl that everyone likes to be around her and she has made lots of friends at Casita Copan. She just finished first grade and is doing very well so far. When she grows up she wants to be an artist and when she is "medium sized" she wants to be a ballerina.

Maria is 6 years old and sister to Jesus. Her mother has severe epilepsy and so she was taken out of her mother's custody by the police and placed into Angelitos Felices when she was about 3 years old. Maria is a spitfire. She is bright, bossy, and has a great sense of humor. She just finished kindergarten and was one of the most advanced among her classmates. Maria loves to be around people and you will usually find her at the center of any game (although she will definitely want to be the one to go first, so watch out!) When she grows up, she wants to "plant flowers all around." 

Jesus is 9 years old and brother to Maria. When Jesus entered Casita Copan, he displayed severe behavioral and developmental issues and we were very nervous about how we would react in his new environment. While he still loves to be in his own world, he has changed dramatically. He is incredibly gifted and has a remarkable talent for puzzles and math. Even though he often escaped from his 1st grade classroom to play on the swings, he was one of the first in his class to learn to read and he earned a 88% average. Jesus has now become affectionate and respectful with adults that he cares about and trusts and is turning into a wonderful young man. His favorite thing is to make people around him laugh. At his Casita, he is relaxed and helpful. When he grows up, he wants to "fix things" although I think he may end up more interested in computers since that is currently his favorite pastime! 

Note on Alex and Estrella's birth mom: Mirna has 5 children and his pregnant with her 6th. Only one child still lives with her. She suffered severe physical and sexual abuse as a child and has struggled to maintain a steady job or income. She admits that she never cared for her kids like she wanted to and was sometimes too rough with Alex. She never had a chance to care for Estrella since she herself was malnourished when she had her and didn't have money to feed her. Mirna comes from La Entrada (an hour away by bus) once a month to visit her children now that she has permission to see them. She is shy around them but has the same sweet and helpful personality as her children. She always helps out at Casita when she can and smiles constantly, just like Estrella and Alex.

Note on Maria and Jesus's birth mom: Maria has severe epilepsy that started when she was a child. Casita Copan provides her medication but because of the severity of her condition, she still has seizures and her intellectual development was stunted by the frequency of her seizures and falls. So she often forgets to take her pills and does not maintain a healthy diet which only makes things worse. But Maria loves her children fiercely. She is the only mother that comes to visit her kids every single Wednesday and somehow always manages to bring them food and drinks. She helps them with their homework, draws with them, and always encourages them to behave well and study hard. She would like to be able to care for her children again one day, but her medical condition makes this unlikely.

Bang for your buck:

· Just 5 per cent of donations to Casita Copan go to administrative costs.

· Click here for the Casita Copan web site and more background information. (It's a registered charity in U.S. and Honduras, and Canadian charitable tax receipts are available if donors contact the organization first to arrange for how to make those donations)

· Click here to sponsor a Casita directly 

· Click here to sponsor an individual child for $30, $60 or $90 a month

Monday, December 07, 2015

Then and now: The children of Angelitos find their dreams at Casita Copan

It will soon be four years since we first met the kids living in squalor, smell and deprivation at what was then the Angelitos Felices home for abandoned children in Copan Ruinas, Honduras. 

We were on our first Cuso International placement and needed a side project for our weekend hours. Once we made our first visit to Angelitos, we knew we'd found it. Friends and family back home did so much to help us make life better for the children during our two-plus years in Honduras. 

Together we raised $30,000 for a range of projects that included new tile floors, a vastly improved water system and renovated bathrooms, clothes, school uniforms and supplies, and weekly excursions to someplace fun for the 14 children for pretty much the whole two years we were there. (The regular visits to a local pool were the highlights, and all the kids learned to swim during our time with them.)

But everything comes to an end, and in April, 2014, we had to return to Canada. One of the great joys of my life was that within weeks of our sad goodbyes to the children, the Honduran government finally stepped in and removed the kids from Angelitos. They were put into the loving arms of the fledgling Casita Copan project and Emily Monroe, a young American who had been living in Honduras for a number of years at that point and putting in enormous effort to try to get the children moved into a better situation. She had already started a day care for impoverished single moms and their children in Copan, and within weeks of the news of Angelitos' impending closure, quickly opened three "casitas" in Copan that now house these children in family-sized groups with a permanent house mom. 

Emily's involvement has not only changed the lives and dreams of these children, but has meant my partner Paul and I can continue supporting them and watch them growing up. Hope you enjoy this series of then-and-now photos of the children, who are all doing great. I urge you to add Casita Copan to your Christmas giving plan! 

Beautiful Belkis is 15 and a young woman with hopes and ambitions - so far from the silent, timid girl she was when we first met her. I will never forget the wonder and joy on Belkis's face as she learned how to swim during our pool trips.

Eduardo is now 16 and living with his brother Naun and two other former Angelitos boys in his great new casita run by Juana, who knew all the children from her Angelitos days. The future of Eduardo worried us because vulnerable boys are at such huge risk of being drawn into gang activity. But he's well-supported now and doing great.

Sweet Elsy is eight now and living in a casita with her two younger sisters. With a developmental disability, Elsy not surprisingly had behavioural problems at the old home, but is now a happy girl growing up in a proper family.

Alba is the daughter of one of the impoverished women with few options who typically ended up working at Angelitos in exchange for a place to stay and some food. Mom Fanny now works at Casita Copan, and her three children - Alba, 8, Juan, 5, and baby Iker - are all with her and the family is thriving. While the 3 casitas are an important part of the work that Emily's organization does, what is arguably even more important is the terrific day care program and support/training for single mothers that Casita Copan also provides.

Angie Nicole (seen in the 'before' photo with Angelitos caregiver Juana, who is now a Casita Copan house mom) was such a sick little baby when we first saw her, the youngest of three siblings all living at Angelitos. Now she's a sparkling four-year-old and lives in a beautiful, clean home with her two older sisters.

Little Zoila was one of three sisters living at Angelitos, and was significantly behind in her development when we met her. Happily, not any more! She's five now and living with sisters Elsy and Angie Nicole at one of the casitas.

Jesus is nine now, and he and his sister Maria are the other brother-sister set living in the casita with siblings Estrella and Alex (and "big sister" Rosario). Small donations make a big difference in Honduras - $100 will cover the costs of primary school for a child, and $500 provides a year of medical care and any necessary medication for 30 children.

Ah, Juan Carlos, we won't soon forget your mischievous grin - and it's clear you've still got it! He's 10 now and living in a casita with Jose Manuel and the brothers Naun and Eduardo. His nickname was "Chino" because he had a vaguely Asian look to him, and he absolutely hated that nickname. We made sure to never call him that, but I sometimes wondered if the other kids even knew what his real name was. 

Sweet Jose Manuel basically didn't walk when we met him at age three, which the Angelitos people told us was because his blind mother carried him everywhere for fear of losing track of him up until she had to give him up. True or not, I don't know. His walking did improve, although his feet always seemed to give him trouble. He was the heartbreaker at Angelitos, so often left to sit neglected in a corner, quietly crying. Now he's six and full of life, just like every child should be!

Juan is five and the brother to Alba. The two children lived at Angelitos with their mom Fanny during some of our time there. As noted in Alba's writeup, Fanny now works at Casita Copan and the family is doing much better, as you can see by Juan's smiling face! Emily did a great campaign recently based on what the kids want to be when they grow up, and Juan wants to be a policeman so he can "get the bad guys."

This photo of Maria disturbed me to no end when I took it shortly after we got involved at Angelitos, as her raggedy-tag outfit, giant shoes and the filthy appearance of the upstairs area where the kids all slept spoke volumes about the conditions at the place. But look at her now! She's six now and living in a casita with her brother Alex and others.

Naun and Alex - shown here in the 'before' photo with little Jaidy, who is now in state care elsewhere in Honduras - were a couple of our favourites, notable for their spirited cartwheels and backflips (Alex) and complete excitement over any outing (Naun). Alex took his time learning to swim during our pool outings, but slow and steady got him there, and he was so proud. Naun is now 11, and Alex is 10.

The lovely Rosario, who was always the one who I thought could be anything she wanted if she could just get out of Angelitos. She was the only true orphan of the group. And now she's an 11-year-old princess, finally in a place to be able to realize her dreams and put her significant intelligence and drive to work.

First to learn to swim, street-smart like you couldn't believe from his time as a seven-year-old living on the streets of La Entrada - Arnold must be 13 now, and has gone back to his family. I am choosing to believe he is well and happy. Here he is pictured during our time in Honduras, enjoying his new bunk bed built by a wonderful group of Louisiana men who came to Copan specifically to build beds for the kids at Angelitos. Up until then, they were mostly sleeping on filthy foam mattresses on the concrete floor, and some just slept directly on the floor. 

Fernando had gone back to his family before Angelitos closed, but ended up abandoned again. Happily, he has now been adopted by a woman who works for Children's International and is in a happy, stable home about 40 minutes away from Copan Ruinas. He's 5 now.

Jairo has gone back to his family and is living with his sister and grandmother. Casita Copan does whatever it can to help abandoned children return to their families, and when that isn't possible, it supports family visits so the kids can continue to maintain a relationship with their families.

These 3 sisters - Johana, Noelia and Janine (seen here with Angie Nicole) - were returned to their family in La Entrada very suddenly one day when we were still in Honduras. We never got a chance to say goodbye. They were from a very troubled family, but their dad regularly showed up at Angelitos to visit them and they often tried to sneak in cellphone calls to their wandering mother (Daisy, the woman who operated Angelitos, didn't like the kids to have contact with their parents). We will have to hope that they, too, are doing well. They would be 11, 16 and 17 now.