Reflections from El Arenal, II

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By Sarah Luke

This week at La Fundación El Arenal we introduced a toy chest. All the toys were donated: plastic dolls with blond and brown and black hair, puzzles, yo-yos, soccer balls, tiny child-sized games of chess and checkers, and much more. The energy about the toy chest was striking. A lot of the excitement stemmed from the stark contrast between these brand new toys, still sitting in the boxes and plastic wrap they came in, and the knotted shoelaces and torn pieces of paper they usually use for games of jump rope and hop-scotch outside. All day long the children ask for the toys. Starting at 12:00pm when they arrive, the little ones are asking what time it is, knowing that in three and a half hours, Irvin will open the lock to the toy chest and they can file in line at the door—one by one, or it’s to the back of the line again—to put their names on my scribbled list and borrow a toy.

These are the children who come to El Arenal with their shoes half broken open from wear, who tear the other side of their sweaters wrestling brother by the fence and act like it didn’t matter anyway, who flip birdies at the ones who didn’t get called out for kicking in the hallway too. They disappear for short periods of time during free time and return around the corner holding five-cent popsicles from the tienda down the street. How is it that they navigate the Feria Libre better than I do? I don’t know, but they love the toys better than I ever could. They know that if they don’t take care of it they don’t get it back, and they hover over my list when I’m writing to make sure I mark their names off, just to prove that they returned everything they said they did.

Every day before he leaves, Justin pulls the sleeve of my shirt. “Will you save the Transformers toys for me?” he asks. And every day he’s late to the toy chest because he couldn’t finish his homework in time, and someone else has already borrowed them out. I’m worried that by the time he actually gets to them they won’t look new anymore. Their cardboard box is already getting beat up, and the children who borrow them are putting them back in upside down. Promising to get those Transformers to him feels like the biggest commitment I’ve ever made.

These children’s days consist half of the toy chest and half of the shoestrings. They leave El Arenal with marbles for playing in their pockets, sometimes with a plastic bag of hotdogs for their mothers to cook at home. They show each other to the door, fingers interlaced with the smaller ones, the little adults that they are. And they race back to the snack room the next day, downing soup in metal bowls, pleading, “Señorita, what time is it? Are you going to give me a toy today?”

Sarah Luke is a Hearts of Gold Intern and Volunteer at the El Arenal Foundation. Sarah is a visiting scholar from Furman University in South Carolina where she studies Spanish and Poverty Studies. Read more of Sarah’s series on El Arenal here.

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