Our first visit to the children’s home was on the way from Ojojona, where we had been training for a week at the beginning of April. Despite a fairly long drive to Marcala, we all felt excited as we pulled up outside the children’s home in La Paz. We stumbled out of the mini bus to face what can only be described as a rather dilapidated building. Upon entering, impressions of the building and structure didn’t improve but the sense of well-being we felt was overwhelming. Sister Edith Suazo Fernandez greeted us with warmth and some of the children clung to her whilst peering at us to see who we were. They’d been expecting our arrival and were shy to begin with, but soon followed us around the building, showing us the bedrooms and the classroom.
Sister Edith’s story is a tremendous one of a woman who has given her life to others. Having served for 16 years in the Immaculate Conception congregation of Franciscan nuns, Sister Edith left to begin the Fundación Señor San José in August 2004. Katie Sims interviewed Sister Edith during our last visit to the children’s home in order to find out more about how the Fundación started and the challenges Sister Edith has faced. “One day it hit me that I was stuck in the same daily routine of getting up, eating and teaching classes. I decided that I needed to change this routine and the difference I needed to make was to start working with children. I left my congregation in 2003 and I spent some time between 2003 and 2004 looking for how I was going to change my life and work with children. One day two children arrived in my hands, left to me by their drug-addict mother. And from this moment they kept on arriving, more and more and more until there were 17 children.”
Despite the building being donated to Sister Edith by the then Mayor of La Paz, it took a further two years and a lot of hard work and donations to make the building liveable. In 2006 Sister Edith was able to move into her new home and took in the first two children. As the intake of children grew, who were mostly from homes that were broken and consisting of drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty and abuse, it didn’t take long for them to run out of space in the building and so moved, in 2009, to another building which had been uninhabited for 25 years. Again the process of hard work and donations were required in order for this new building to be habitable. Sister Edith explains the difficulties she faced when finding places to live, “It was very difficult because the places that we borrowed from the municipality were never in the best condition. We had to clean and fix the buildings. The rain and sun came into the house and there were times when we had to eat in the full hot sun or times when it rained and we had to run around putting everything away so it didn’t get wet. So the places where we’ve had to live haven’t always been in the best but at least it has been a roof over our heads and it’s always been a home.”
One of the things I noticed, on each of the three times we’ve visited the home, is that there is a distinct lack of sadness here. Sister Edith fills the place with happiness and the children with love and support. In a place where children have been through more in life in their few years than we have as adults, you’d expect to feel the darkness in some corners, but Sister Edith has put everything into making sure the children are comfortable and happy, “despite the children having family issues, they know that this is their home and there will always be people here who love them very much. They should never feel too worried or sad about their problems because they can’t spend their lives worrying, they have to live their lives and move forward, and think what am I going to do for myself today to take that step forward?”
Our first visit to the home was brief but our second visit was for a whole day. For the day we took simple things such as crayons and stickers, things which tend to be taken for granted by some children back home, but which brought joy to the children here. We also played ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ and Waleska, COOMUPL’s in-country volunteer who is training to be a nurse, taught the children the importance of hygiene and washing their hands. In the afternoon we took the children to the park nearby and played Frisbee and football with them which they enjoyed a lot. On our third visit we took along caramel, biscuits and oats so the children could make some treats for themselves. A very messy but engaging activity which resulted in plates of caramel balls taking over the fridge at the home!
When asking about how the community helps in regards to the home and the children, Sister Edith explains that “yes they help but only a very small amount. Sometimes the malls give us a hundred Lempiras or people donate their clothes, or for example there’s a man that leaves us the excess of his cucumber crop – that’s his way of helping – but the help from the community here is very little. But the Peace Corps are building us a new house! Dan from Virginia and his friends are building the house. It’s going to be a lovely house with all the mod cons of American houses! With all the luxuries that they have! We’re hopefully moving there in September.”
Some of the children that come to the Fundación Señor San José come as a result of a court order or simply because their parents leave them there. One of the issues with working with these children is working out their behaviours and the problems that they have, some of which are profound, according to Sister Edith. One of the girls, Nicole, is nine years old. She arrived at the home when she was only four. At the time her father was in prison because of domestic violence and it is believed that Nicole’s mum may have been beaten during her pregnancy with Nicole. Due to this, Nicole has learning difficulties and has been in first grade for three years. Unfortunately there is a severe lack of support available for the children here with learning difficulties, not just at the Fundación but in Honduras as a country. Therefore children can never advance and tend to stay at the level they are at. Another girl who suffers from learning difficulties is Celia, who is thirteen years old and has been in third grade for three years.
Sister Edith likes the children not to leave until they are eighteen years old, once they have taken their Bachillerato (equivalent to A-Levels) as it’ll then be easier for them to find a job. She believes that “the best thing they can do is integrate themselves into society, become independent, so they never fall back into the small hole that they’ve come out of.” Some of the children leave and go back to their families, which in turn will usually undo all the hard work Sister Edith has put into their upbringing. Others leave at around fourteen to sixteen years old because they’ve ‘fallen in love’, especially in regards to the girls. This can mean that they end up in worse situations than where they came from as “they will do whatever the man wants.” Many don’t return to the home because they don’t like hearing that they made the wrong decision to leave. “I’m always trying to guide them, telling them it’s not a good idea to fall straight in love with a man. They must prepare themselves, study as much as possible. I really hope they don’t follow the same example as the other girls because they will make the same mistakes too. They need to prepare themselves for work. I hope by repeating this, repeating the same disc, at best it will stay in their heads. “
One of the many stories that has touched our hearts was the one of Marisol, who arrived at the home in September when not yet two years old. Her mother was only sixteen and Marisol had been taken from her when she tried to sell her in the street. Sister Edith explains that it is very difficult for the children when they first arrive and their Mum’s come to visit. The children still have a connection with their parents, even if they were abandoned and left with nothing but a candle. This was especially apparent for Marisol, “every time somebody came to knock at the door, she would look over to see if it was her mum. She didn’t used to sleep at night because she was waiting for her mum to come. On the first night she cried and cried, the second night as well. The first week was difficult, the second was easier, the third easier and then when the mum came to visit she always stuck next to me!”
With Sister Edith’s help and the help of the Fundación, the children have a much brighter future and hopefully with their new home things will improve even more so for them all. It is the incredible never-ending support that Sister Edith provides them which enables the children to look up to her as their mother. “They know I’m family, that I’ll always look after them and that I will be by their sides for as long as they need me. I tell them, I’ll be with you until I’m old and crazy!”
Blog written by Alice Pepper.
Interview by Katie Sims.
Pictures taken by Maddie Dicks and Rose Forman.