El Carmen

Describe a significant setback, challenge or opportunity in your life and the impact that it has had on you.

This summer, I had the opportunity to escape from the routine of daily life and spend a week in Mexico. However, this week was no Acapulco vacation. I journeyed alongside several dozen members of my youth group to El Carmen, a small village on the Mexican interior, far from the tourist-friendly coastal cities. It had none of the amenities that an American takes for granted, such as ice-cold water and plumbing strong enough to flush toilet paper. But we were there on a mission: to bring love, friendship, and structural improvements to twenty children who resided in an unfinished orphanage by the name of Casa Hogar. Casa Hogar is located in the middle of nowhere. Only after driving miles down an unpaved, rocky trail, dwarfed on either side by harsh, mountainous terrain, did we arrive at the concrete orphanage. Designed as a haven, most of the children who take refuge there are not actual orphans, but rather sons and daughters removed by the government from unhealthy living conditions. Because Casa Hogar specializes in severe cases, its location makes it an ideal fortress for children fleeing from not only impoverished circumstances but abusive, unstable parents. Fernando, like many of the “orphaned” residents, was raised by his mother, never knowing the violent man technically referred to as his father. Upon Fernando’s arrival to Casa Hogar, he maintained contact with his mom on weekly visit days, an option available to most of the children but taken advantage of by few parents. It is easy to imagine the pain of disappointment resulting in a no-show parent; the agony of maternal rejection freshened on a weekly basis. Fernando eventually joined this category of children as his mother’s attendance faltered, choosing to focus her energy on alcoholic cravings rather than the needs of her son. Practically abandoned by the strongest bond of love he had ever known, Fernando would cry out for his mother in the middle of the night, every night. He was deprived of a carefree childhood, afraid to bond for fear of rejection, and rarely truly happy. Our last day at the orphanage, however, I was privileged enough to watch a different Fernando at play on the fruits of our labor, a wooden playground set five other teenagers and I had spent the week putting together. Initially as unorganized piles of lumber, bolts, and screws, it had presented a daunting task for a group of students of which none could boast construction experience. But four steamy days under the relentless Mexico sun later, I found myself proudly brushing a final coat of sealant on our finished product. The real treat, however, came in watching Fernando set his troubles aside, at least for a while, and enjoy being a kid. It was worth every drop of sweat and every aching muscle to see him laugh and rejoice over conquering the climbing wall, a mere molehill in comparison to the mountains of pain and sorrow he has been forced to scale already. To watch him smile and shout along with the other children is an image I will never forget. Although it lasted barely five minutes, his triumph is living proof of the difference one person can make in the life of another. Before the trip, I found it hard to believe that something I could do, like building a playground or painting a bathroom wall, could be a significant improvement to a child’s life, especially a child who had lost everything. What they really needed was two parents committed to providing a safe and healthy environment for their new family; a need we were unable to satisfy. But, as Fernando so clearly demonstrated, I was wrong. I underestimated the value of my little contributions to a person who has nothing. It doesn’t take something as huge as ending world hunger or discovering a cure for cancer to improve lives. It doesn’t take orphans, or even third-world countries. Making a difference is setting my needs aside to focus on someone else. It is stepping out of routines and comfort zones to see the bigger picture. Making a difference is as simple as an everyday commitment to helping others.

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