What is true happiness? Joy? Thankfulness? Aluma Linda Thill served at Sagrada Familia children’s home for orphaned, abandoned, and neglected children in Peru over Christmas for her first international volunteering experience. As a retired special education teacher, Linda’s worked with many children over the course of her life. But, she says this teaching experience exceeded others. Read on for her description of how the children at Sagrada Familia are unlike any she has ever known as a teacher – leading her to challenge her definitions of happiness, creativity, and gratitude.
By Linda Thill
On my first international volunteer experience over Christmas 2019 at an ‘orphanage’ in Lima, Peru, I took with me my own limited definition of happiness. But, I found the children opened my heart to more. I continue to be moved by who I met and what I learned.
I went with a feeling of sadness for the children who live at Sagrada Familia, an orphanage. Their families live in profound poverty and when they cannot feed and provide for their children, they sacrifice for them to be cared for at Sagrada Familia, at no charge to any family. Lesson 1: There are many definitions of being a loving parent.
On Christmas Eve, I thought I was to help with decorating their eating hall. As a teacher, I knew how to do this. There were only four adults and 30 enthusiastic girls aged ten to 12, all moving and talking at once. I thought they might be disappointed that their only supplies were bits of ribbon, used paper from businesses, a bucket of crayons, one pair of scissors, and one glue bottle. I thought of how much fun they would have with glitter. But they made their own creations, laughing, helping each other, sharing. One child made a sign that said, “Celebrate Christmas with love in your heart.” Lesson 2: Their creativity and happiness did not depend on materials or adults to show interest. They acted as their own teachers.
Then I helped distribute donated items into gift boxes to be given to the children on Christmas morning. There were dozens of baseball caps and t-shirts with business logos. Toothbrushes. Small airline travel blankets. These were gifts of things the children needed. I felt sad because there weren’t any toys. On Christmas morning I saw them wearing new shirts and hats with pride, laughing, playing chase, singing. How could they be happy when they weren’t with their parents and didn’t have toys? Lesson 3: These children are not like any I have known as a teacher. They are deeply grateful to have a roof, a bed, clothes, food of any kind, friends to help, and safety. They are their own family. Their happiness comes from within, from the sense of stability that comes from belonging, not from having belongings.
The number of adults available may not matter as much to them as it did to me because they provide each other with the love and guidance needed for learning healthy relationships. What I saw was sustainability of the human spirit.
When it was time for us to leave, two six-year-old girls wanted me to stay and play with them. With sad faces, they whispered to each other, reached into their pockets, and each gave me a small bead. What I knew was this was truly a gift from their hearts.
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