Every Monday through Thursday morning, I roll (sometimes unwillingly) out of bed at 8:00am, throw on shorts and a t-shirt, grab fifty cents, and head out the door to catch the bus to my volunteering site. Sometimes it can be easy to forget how big of a piece of my experience my volunteering has been. These past several weeks where I have been ignoring my blog (sorry) and struggling to find time to catch up with friends back home, I have repelled down a 150-foot waterfall, white water rafted, sang on the streets of a beach town, and much more. The things that are routine can sometimes fall to the backburner. However, today I was reminded just how important my community service has been here.
For the past several weeks we have been painting at the foundation where I volunteer. Quick refresher: La Fundación Padre Damian houses mostly elderly patients with Hansen’s Disease, many of whom have been turned away by their families and are left without fingers and toes or even limbs because of hiding their disease. In the men’s wing they were working on widening the doorways so it would be easier for the patients in wheelchairs to get in and out of their rooms. The walls of the foundation are covered floor to ceiling with beautiful nature-themed murals painted by the residents and past volunteers. Some of those murals were damaged while they worked on the doors so they painted white borders around each door. The directors of the foundation asked if we would be willing to paint over those white borders with colors to liven up the patio. Well we took that request and really ran with it. Quickly we began covering the white paint in abstract borders with squares that each had a unique design. Each door looks different. Throughout our days of painting, the men would watch our progress intently and tell us day in and day out how beautiful our work was. All the while we chatted and laughed with them while we worked. Germania one of the directors told me she would check in with the men periodically to make sure they liked doors and they always jumped at the chance to tell her how different and beautiful our work was. She told me, “you all have brought a new energy to the men.”
Volunteering at Damien’s House was a unique way to see Ecuadorian culture in a way I otherwise would have missed out on. Since I worked mostly in the men’s wing, my relationships are strongest with them. This group of amazing and joyful men are inspiring to me. They have reminded me that happiness can be easier than it may seem sometimes. When we arrived today we were brought to the men’s patio where each of us was presented with handmade gifts from the patients. Not only was I touched by the presentation of the peace birds but by the kind words that followed from each person. Each one of them commented on our hard work and big hearts. They wished our families and us well, explaining that they understood why we had to return to our countries but that they would never forget us and hope we will return. We were also given miniature wooden houses in boxes. Sister Annie, the director, told me, “Leon’s house is a little less perfect but it’s the last one he was able to make before he was unable to do the work with his hands anymore. He’s been saving it for years for the right moment.” When he handed it to me I could not have been more touched. He followed my painting attentively and was always giving me suggestions. He is the patient that has been there the longest amount of time. He has the most infectious laughter and a strong personality.
After we thanked the residents and gave speeches of our own (I even did mine in Spanish!) we realized one of the residents we were closest to, Cesario, was missing. We were informed that he was sleeping in his room because he had been on guard duty the night before. We decided we could not leave without saying goodbye to him so we went to wake him up for just a hug. Him and I constantly joked around with each other and I definitely appreciated his sarcastic attitude (I wonder why). He rubbed his eyes and sat up in bed. When we told him we wanted to say goodbye, the deep wrinkles in his face that I always assumed were there from his huge smile and constant laughter, seemed to sadden. He began to wish us well and tears began to roll down his cheeks. As we hugged him and got emotional ourselves, he told us he would hold us in his heart forever.
As the goodbyes begin, so do the emotions. Today was the last day of classes and many of my friends are leaving this weekend. I am heading to a national park on the coast to volunteer for a week and then will head out to the Galapagos Islands immediately after (rough life, right?). When words just seem to fail I remember Cesario, patting his heart as if to say that I get to take a little bit of it with me, as I will with each and every person and place I have come to know here.