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.