I had many preconceived notions about the orphans I was to meet on my trip to Ecuador.
I thought the children were going to be similar to the kids I had met in Mississippi, children who lived in poverty and who had never had their pictures taken. Children who rarely smiled, but who I managed to get to smile for the camera.
I went off to Ecuador with an Epson Charm photo printer and paper, ink and laminating sleeves for 700 prints. My goal: To photograph the children in each orphanage and give each child a laminated 4/6 print before we left.
To my surprise, these were actually not children who had never been photographed. But while they had seen pictures on the back of cameras, it seemed the only prints they had ever received were those sent down to one orphanage by Travis Gugelman and Lori Nordstrom from their October 2010 trip and the ones they brought down last week.
And these were not kids who didn’t know how to smile. Despite difficult beginnings with ranged from unkindness to the unimaginable, these children had a lightness of spirit and a joy that I had not expected. For the first 3 days I was pretty insulated from much of what the rest of the group saw. I parked myself in one spot and the volunteers and/or staff brought the kids to me or lined them up for their “school” style pictures. Then I went to a corner and printed. Often helped by 5-year old fingers wanting to press buttons and 12-year-olds wanting to count the pictures as they came out of the printer. The kids loved getting their laminated prints… clutching them, gazing at them and showing them off. But having pictures, which has been proven to build self esteem in at-risk kids, felt like a insignificant hedge against the future challenges these children will face. Where most will not be adopted. Many will end up in the sex trade. Others will become homeless.
For the first few days, I did not see the rotten food, the urine stained single-sized foam that was used as beds for two and the babies left to cry because there wasn’t enough staff to pick them up.
But I did hear the stories: The boy who had raised himself on the streets from the age of 5, until knocking on the door of an orphanage, asking if he could live there. The boy found shackled, who still bears the physical scars from years of abuse. And yet, these kids are resilient. They find joy where they can. They take care of each other.
On the third day a few of us went to a mattress store to purchase brand new mattresses to replace the thin pieces of urine stained, moldy foam that the children were sleeping on at one of the orphanages.
The shocked excitement I witnessed when the kids saw those brand new mattresses with matching sheets was beyond words. We spent much of the last day at an orphanage we had visited on the first day, the orphanage where they had enough food left for just a few days. We brought with us enough rice, oatmeal, oil and other provisions for 6 months.
Since their printed photos had been done earlier in the week, I was free spend lots of time with the kids. One boy, probably around 11, attached himself to me for most of our visit.
We struggled as I tried to remember high school Spanish. I taught him to count in English. He showed me his room, where 6 boys shared 3 beds. He showed me the storage room where brand new soccer balls are stored until the one in use is flattened beyond recognition. There is no waste here.
It was hard to leave the kids. They questioned us repeatedly, asking in Spanish, when we were coming back.
I was largely unemotional while we were there, I think partly because on the majority of days I was able to not look beyond the delightful kids themselves. But I have had plenty of time to let the sadness wash over me, since I’ve been back.
I picked up a cold while I was over there and spent today shivering under my down comforter, in my king sized bed, drinking orange juice, eating soup and making sure I use Puffs Plus with lotion, to keep from having a sore nose.
I could not help but think about my own childhood, where as one of four kids, being sick meant special attention, a tray of food in bed, the TV stand rolled into my room and my mother’s attention all day.
My heart breaks for all of the children in Ecuador, in the US and around the world whose experiences do not include a lifetime where they are made to feel special.
If you would like to donate to help the orphans I met in Ecuador, please click here and look for the “chipin” box on the right.
If you would like to see more pictures, please friend me on Facebook (Joan Robins Brady) and include “Ecuador” in the message.
The amazing photographers who went on this trip are from all over the country: Organizer: Travis Gugelman, Organizer: Lori Nordstrom (and her daughter, Jayci) Angela Douglas, Rachel Elkind, Mark Fitzgibbons, Eve Hannah, Kelly Highby, Julianne Jonker Kevin Jordan, Tiffanie Loyd (and her husband Steven) JB Sallee, Kay Trieb (and her husband Jay) and Tricia Whitmer