A lesson in philanthropy

Buenas noches,

As you can probably tell from my sporadic appearance of my blogs, we are having too much fun to sit still at the computer long enough to record meaningful descriptions. I would apologize for not writing often enough, but I am really not that sorry because my time has been so well spent elsewhere.

When the five of us were planning our senior project, we all agreed that we wanted to have service be the focal point of our trip. We have all been privileged in all aspects of our lives, infusing us with a gratitude that we hoped to express through aiding others who are less fortunate than us. We had originally planned to work in an orphanage in Santiago, but the connection fell through. Luckily, Sarah’s mother had another connection with a Catholic father who manages Cottolengo, a facility outside of the city that cares for people with mental and physical disabilities.

Last Thursday, the five of us spent the afternoon meeting Padre Felipe, the Cottolengo staff, and the residents. From the moment we shook his hand, Padre Felipe sent waves of comfort and happiness through us. An infectious aura of pure compassion emanated from every part of his existence. As the man who drove us to Cottolengo said, “you can see the light of Jesus reflected in that man’s eyes.” Padre Felipe took us into his office, told us the history of Cottolengo and explained that 80% of the 340 residents had been abandoned by their families or found on the street. He also explained that all of them had mental disabilities, many of which contributed to physical deformities as well.

From there, we left the office and set off on a tour. When Padre Felipe had said he was going to show us the facility, I assumed he intended to walk down the hallways, point out the different sections, and then send us on our way. I assumed completely wrong. Padre Felipe stopped at every door, walked into every room, and kissed every single resident at Cottolengo. He knew almost all of their names and at least a little bit about their histories. What was even more amazing was to see the residents’ reactions to him. Hearing his voice echoing down the hallway, those capable of walking flocked over to hug him. I have never seen someone inspire so many smiles the instant they enter a room.

Walking through Cottolengo proved to be one of the hardest, if not the hardest, thing I have ever done. I felt so candidly uncomfortable and out-of-place. Trapped between guilt and gratitude, I did not know whether to look away out of politeness or stare. Every action felt so forced at first. As the tour finished, however, I became more and more comfortable. I gradually became desensitized to the surroundings, and accepted a new form of reality.

On Monday and Tuesday, we returned to Cottolengo and spent both days volunteering. Amazingly, the facility was unharmed by the earthquake, and no one panicked too severely. This was especially miraculous because the location of the building was surrounded by housing units and apartments that had collapsed. I spent the first day with the girls, and the second with the boys. We gave baths, dressed residents, made beds, cleaned floors, spoon fed, held hands, wiped tears, gave hugs, played games, and donated smiles all day. It was emotionally exhausting, but also invigorating. It’s difficult to put the light reflected in the eyes of a severely disabled resident as she beams up at you, throws her arms around you, buries her face in your chest, and refuses to let go. I think I perfected my hugging technique; I even earned the title mom more than once.

After we finished our volunteering, we deliberated with Padre Felipe about our experience. We talked about how fortunate working had made us feel, and how startling and awkward the work seemed at first until the discomfort is displaced by acceptance. Along with being thankful for every time I took a step, breathed unassisted, and comprehended my surroundings, I learned the importance of human contact. It didn’t matter that they didn’t speak English and we don’t really speak Spanish, or that we come from Pennsylvania and they from Chile. A smile and an embrace transcend all other modes of communication. Language and analysis merely complicate the fundamental expressions that are crucially important to existence, namely, expressions of love and compassion.

As in the case of all of my other blogs, I simply cannot adequately convey how meaningful volunteering at Cottolengo was. While we plan to do other relief work for the earthquake before we leave the country (or attempt to leave the country), we felt that going to Cottolengo instead of doing earthquake related services was a decision well made. Many times people devote a lot of attention to the problem at hand, but after time passes and the severity of the situation mitigates, they forget the reason why they volunteered their help in the first place. We found that this was the case in deciding to go to Cottolengo; although the aiding earthquake victims is crucial, donating our time to the residents who have spent their entire lives at Cottolengo is just as necessary.

I can’t believe this entry is this long and yet I still feel I have barely scratched the surface.

More later, hopefully.

Madison

A shaky start to the second week

Hola,

On Friday we finished our last day of classes and received our certificates from the school. After checking out of the apartment, the five of us drove to the Santo Domingo, a beautiful beach on the coast. We stopped at a traditional restaurant on the way, where we ate typical Chilean food, and took myriad touristy pictures. We arrived at our host family’s house in Santo Domingo Friday afternoon, which proved to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. Dark navy waves lazily slid onto the black sands of the beach, while just next door a man-made lagoon with crystal turquoise water was nestled into white sands. The view was absolutely spectacular.

We spent the evening having a barbeque with our host family and chatting about cultural differences between Chile and North America, quite the interesting conversation. After taking a nap, we all got ready to go out. Abby, Taylor, our host brother, his friends and I left to go to their favorite discotheque. We discovered that everything starts much later in Chile than in America. The discotheque was very fun, and very different from clubs at home. For one, everyone dances with a lot more respect for their bodies here.

At around 3:30 AM, the lights in the discotheque went out. Because the power had gone out early in the day at our host family’s house, we all assumed that it was normal. A few seconds later, however, the entire floor began to violently shake. With the surrounding darkness making it difficult to see, we thought that everyone in the club was jumping up and down because the music had stopped. When our eyes adjusted, we saw that no one was jumping, and everyone was screaming and running toward the door. I saw the disco ball crash to the floor, and then all of our instincts kicked in. We all made it outside, with a few cuts on our feet from the falling ceiling. From outside, we saw that the walls of the discotheque had begun to separate and the building was splitting open.

Amazingly, we reunited with all of our host brother’s friends and made it to the cars to get home. For some reason we had decided to park outside of the parking lot on the street before we had gone inside, a decision that proved crucially important now that the parking lot was a mess of people trying to get home. We made it back to the house rather quickly and saw that our entire host family and our friends, Liz, and Sarah were outside and completely fine. The house had a few broken objects, a lot of broken glass, a fallen chimney and some cracks, but it had survived very well.

Once everyone had made it back to the house (19 people total), we dragged mattresses and blankets outside and tried to sleep on the sidewalk in front of the house. More tremors shook the Earth throughout the night, but none compared to the first major one which was recorded as an 8.0 in Santo Domingo. When the sun rose, we assessed the damage to the house, cleaned up as best we could, and made plans to get back to Santiago to assess the damage there. There was no power, water, or gas in Santo Domingo, so there was no point in staying. We were also worried about a tsunami and further aftershocks. When we finally got a cell signal at around 7 am, we all emailed our parents from our friend’s blackberry to let them know we were fine.

The ride back to Santiago took over 4 hours, much longer than the ride there. We had to go a different way because the main bridge back to the city had been closed because of damage. There was a lot of damage along the road, mostly large cracks in the highway which proved a little scary to pass over. When we finally made it back, we found that our host family’s residence was almost completely intact. A few things had fallen over and part of the roof had fallen off but for the most part of the house was in great shape.

There were more tremors through the night, including one large one that had us all jumping out of bed to run outside until we were assured that it was safe to keep sleeping. In the morning, we went over to our host family’s grandmother’s house to help her clean up her apartment. She had not fared so well on the sixth floor. The windows surrounding her apartment had all shattered, most of the bookshelves had collapsed, there were broken possessions everywhere, the doors were falling off their hinges, and the ceiling and walls were cracking apart in many places. It was terrible to see but with everyone helping the clean up was not too bad.

Our entire group wanted to thank the Westtown community and all of our friends and family for their concern. I, for one, was completely shocked that so many people cared. We appreciate all of your prayers and hope that they will continue for those who are still suffering because of the Earthquake. While we are perfectly fine, many, many people were not as lucky. We were very fortunate to have been so well cared for by such wonderful people. The full implications of how this experience has and will impact my life are not clear to me yet, we are all still reflecting. I’m just happy that the sun is still shining, there are still no clouds, and my friends are all okay.

Bienvenido a Chile!

Hola from Chile!

From the moment we crawled off of the plane into the 88 degree, brilliantly sunny, crisp Chilean air, our trip has been absolutely fabulous. Liz´s aunts greeted us at the airport and immediately rushed us to their goreous farm, although gorgeous now seems an understatement. The farm resembled, for lack of a better name, Eden. The green grass and beautiful house surrounded by acres of peach, grape, plum, and almond trees created a completely surreal environment for the five of us, who, despite our sleep deprived state, could still appreciate the astounding landscape. We ate… and ate… and ate all day, in between napping by the pool in the sunshine. The farm even had german shepard puppies!

Liz´s family treated us with a genuine hospitality that could be unparrelled by any stranger I have ever encountered. They served us left and right, refused to let us help in any way, and offered us anything we could ever need. My first impression of Chilean culture, therefore, was one of complete respect for others, as well as a familial bond that revolved around cuisine. Chileans eat… SO much and SO often.

Over the past few days we have been attending classes at a Spanish language school in Santiago. The staff is all very friendly, as are our classmates. Most of them are adults from Brazil, exposing us to another cultural and linguistical barrier. I have learned so much about both Brazilian customs and cultural as well as Chilean cultural, allowing me to compare and contrast the two with the American point of view. While my class is quite difficult, I enjoy the challenge. I find myself sitting back, enthralled with the conversations taking place around me. Yesterday, for example, my class discussed and debated myraid complicated issues, including homosexuality in society, marrital customs and relationships, and the displacement of people from their land. After every discussion, even the most heated, someone will always say something clever and the tone returns to friendly agreeing to disagreeing. My Spanish is already improving.Even right now I find myself accidentally translating words and phrases into Spanish subconsciously.

After classes each day, we use the metro to explore the city. We have gone shopping at a market called Los Dominicos. Located on a beautiful hill with an expansive park and tremendous view of the looming Andes in the distance, Los Dominicos consists of myraid artisan shops selling everything from jewlery to ducks to wool.Everything was relatively inexpensive, but very fun to get.

We have been having the best time simply walking around and seeing if we end up where we intended to go. While at first we were all very timid about our lack of Spanish, we have all become more confident. I had been very intimidated by feeling so isolated and different in Chilean society, but all of my confrontations with Chileans have been nothing short of genuine. Everyone is very patient and understanding, which is quite a relief.

More adventures to come,

Madison

Anticipation of a Chilean Adventure

Hi, I’m Madison! For my Senior Project I will be spending two weeks in Chile from February 20th to March 6th. Four of my friends and I will be staying in Santiago, the capital of the country. We will take Spanish classes at a facility that offers Spanish lessons through a language program with stations in many Spanish-speaking countries all over the world. In addition to the classes, we also elected to take salsa lessons as part of our program. The language classes are four hours a day, followed by salsa instruction. It seems that even outside of the country, we still find our way into a classroom.

After class, we will be exploring Santiago and neighboring parts of Chile. In an attempt to experience a true Chilean cultural immersion, we will visit historical museums and art galleries, as well as markets, hot springs, restaurants, and everything in between. We are traveling to the beautiful beaches of San Antonio for a weekend, taking full advantage of our host family’s vacation house. We also hope to see Valparaiso, if only for the day. I know for certain that we will discover how much better Chilean Sea Bass tastes in Chile.

I have not yet had the realization that this trip is actually happening. Because we started planning in October, the whole Senior Project idea simply seems like a distant dream. We have been counting down to the 20th since November. I am elated to have the opportunity to pursue my interest in foreign cultures with my friends. For the first time, my friends and I will have independence unparalleled to that of most high school seniors. It will be the perfect time to demonstrate the responsibility, consciousness, and intelligence that we have cultivated over the past four years.

While I am extremely excited for the trip, I am also a little anxious. My primary concern is the flight. While all worthwhile things take a journey to reach, over 10 hours seems a bit extreme. Yes, I am aware that this concern is incredibly trivial. My not-so-trivial apprehension revolves around my ability to communicate accurately. I have always tried desperately to avoid embarrassment, so naturally I am afraid of using my atrociously accented Spanish. I hope to progress from this fear in order to both humble myself and expand my knowledge. Practice makes perfect?

Ciao!

Madison =]