First Impressions

I arrived in Santiago on May 4th as a part of the May 2015 VE-Global Volunteer class. Much has happened in the last several weeks. I will try (and almost assuredly fail) to do justice to this time in the following discussion.

VE is a well-structured nonprofit organization whose mission owes its existence to its specific environmental context, as it should. The mission reads, “We foster the development of children at social risk in Chile by empowering and training volunteers to serve as positive role models, educators and advocates for social justice.” The Chilean government embarrassingly undermines the basic rights of some of its most vulnerable citizens. This hideous disfigurement in the state’s moral architecture, in part, stems from an era of neoliberal economic policies and anti-socialist fanaticism. At present, Chile’s Gini Coefficient is among the highest in the developed world (http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI – check out the rankings for 2009). The financial elites sit like dragons on their hoards, while the economically marginalized are left to navigate an endless swamp of social immobility and lack of opportunity. Inequality has metastasized to education, healthcare, language, clothing and even the geographical location of one’s residence. Meaning, for example, the pre-collegiate school that one attends is often indicative of the student’s socioeconomic standing. The vicious cycle that haunts the proletariat is inherently intergenerational. The children of the poor are bred to follow in their predecessors’ footsteps. SENAME, arguably a blessing on paper, in practice offers little more than another path to recursive self-destruction.

The Servicio Nacional de Menores (SENAME) is legally designed to offer a wide range of support to two groups of adolescents: those who have committed crimes and those who have not. The youth who haven’t committed crimes usually end up in SENAME’s system because crimes have been committed against THEM. Caretakers fail to uphold their duty in a sickly diverse number of ways. Drug addiction. Negligence. Verbal, physical, sexual and emotional abuse. An umbrella term for the aforementioned parental disgraces may be abandonment. The child is cast aside, designated a means to an end, utilized as an object. SENAME is supposed to save these kids. It is supposed to offer them the love, cognitive growth and support that they were denied by fate’s apathetic dice. It is supposed to help families help themselves, so a child does not live a childhood without the comforts of his or her home. It is supposed to be a social institution that combats the wheel of poverty by attending to the youth, the future. And it doesn’t. It is, in short, a failure. I am volunteering at Hogar Posada del Niño. After a mere two weeks of VE orientation and a week at the home, I already have a tale to tell that is long, winded and heartbreaking.

Posada is located in the middle-class neighborhood Macul. Some parts of Macul are better than others. I’m sure you can guess in which part the home is located. Posada is a complex of a number of buildings, and the entire area is enclosed within a wall ten feet high and topped with barbed wire. Yea, kind of like a prison. Nineteen boys currently call Posada home. They live in three different casas according to their age group; the youngest boy is eight years old and the oldest is eighteen or so. Each casa is managed by a tía (‘aunt’). Apart from the three casas, there’s an office area where staff work, including the director (Rodrigo), social worker (Felipe) and psychologist (Angélica). The office staff interacts with the kids, but the tías are the ones who take care of them. The tías do what they can. And, quite simply, it is not enough. Not once you start collecting stories.

One of the fundamental flaws in the Posada system is a lack of organization. Each worker has his/her own agenda. And thus, each worker treats the boys differently (the staff is evolving for the better, it is important to note, but a mere trend does not secure sustainability). These children need consistent, positive role models that set and pursue the realization of reasonable expectations. But, even if all the staff currently present perfectly executed a coherent governing strategy, progress would probably still be painfully slow. For another critical flaw is a dearth of human resources. Adequate manpower is lacking, especially in consideration of the following realities. Each boy is at a different stage of development. Most are on some kind of medication. All have suffered a unique combination of injustices thrust upon them by the faithful collaboration of their families and the system. And, all of them need individualized nurturing to help undo the damage incurred during their short but wretched pasts. That’s where I come in.

I am to aid in the development of these children. Thus far, I’ve mostly done some keen, mindful observing. Posada is a microcosmic chamber of raw, unadulterated natural selection. Survival of the fittest. Strength, confidence, aggression, apathy and disrespect for authority and order are markers of power and dominance. My first day, I was ‘play-threatened’ by a child with a kitchen knife. I was told on various occasions by a number of the younger kids to ‘suck their dick’ (in Spanish, of course). Routinely, I get yelled at to leave and I have thrown in my direction every curse word imaginable in Chilean Spanish (some examples include ‘weón culiado,’ ‘concha tu madre,’ ‘puto,’ and ‘hijo de perra’). I’ve been ‘play-threatened’ with long, wooden objects and spit (not to say that I escaped with an entirely saliva-free face). I’ve been ‘play-f***ed’ up the ass by the same boy that likes knives. All of this tends to be funny (for the boys, that is). Playtime can consist of anything. Scaring the dog (that was recently run over in front of the home; the shovel Josh and I used to bury it left a pretty little blister). Jumping from the roofs of buildings onto old mattresses. Soccer. Videogames. Relentlessly bullying the youngest kid, because apparently you’re not supposed to cry when you’re eight years old. Abusing the mentally and physically handicapped boy. Listening to music. The range spans from the mundane to the inhumane. How can I help? Do I help? Can I help? These questions are the bane of my contemplation.

VE has a four-month minimum time requirement. Most international volunteer agencies are not so demanding. VE also has a rigorous application process. It does not charge volunteers a fee (though ALL other expenses the volunteer has to cover for his/herself; most organizations that charge fees provide food and/or housing). VE brings together talented and motivated individuals from all walks of life to Santiago to serve a victimized youth population. But, of what value is this service? Four months, to a child, is nothing. VE’s time requirement is long enough to be respectable, but it is still far too short to make more than a miniscule difference (from a child’s perspective). Additionally, VE’s language requirement needs to be fiercer. The teachers of physical education at Posada have told me that the kids don’t respect me, in part, because they didn’t respect some of the past volunteers. Particularly, volunteers who hardly spoke any Spanish and were left to communicate with the boys nonverbally. Or, outsiders. The solution is obvious – VE needs a more Chilean volunteer core. I leave for Chicago in September. I will probably never see these kids again. A Chilean volunteer, after four months, would leave for… the north? South? A different part of Santiago? In any case, this person would not suddenly and eternally disappear. Continued presence, consistency, and dedication are key to establishing and preserving trust. They are the antidotes to abandonment. That said – am I wasting my time, money and effort? No, absolutely not.

Chronic stress during adolescence corrupts the developing neural circuitry, poisoning the cerebral foundation of consciousness for no less than the entirety of an existence. By engaging with and stimulating these kids in healthy ways, I am making a difference. The difference is not transparent and I will probably never have the data to prove its existence. But, I have faith. I have faith that I can infect others with my way of being. That by holding myself to the highest standard and expecting betterment and effort from the children, I am fighting the poison running through their synapses. I have only a few months. Most of the kids will assuredly forget almost everything about me in a couple years. But, that’s OK. I don’t need to be remembered. I need to make a difference. Even if it’s minuscule, it’s worth it. These kids, like all others, are f***in’ worth it. And I’ll be damned if I ever forget that.

Yours (and sorry for the delay),
JiNiT

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