Reflections from El Arenal, IV

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By Sarah Luke

The infrastructure of the building on Calle Trinidad and of the pattern of donations that flutter in and out in waves has nothing to do with the kids but affects them in every way. The situation is that we have a library shelved with books like the 1980 copy of “How to Build a Guitar” and a crumbling copy of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” in German and donated movies like “Mama” and “Game of Thrones” that are explicit for vulnerable populations and we can never use. What we lack is picture books for four year olds, beginner novels for middle schoolers, and moderate level young adult novels for those who are long past ready to graduate from the same shelf as their five year old siblings.

The reality is that when we loan the children donations of soccer balls to play with during afternoon play time, the children have nowhere to take them except to the public park, and the soccer balls don’t always come back. Sometimes they roll into the front yard of strangers’ houses and the kids are nervous to retrieve them alone. When we loan them donations of chess and other board games from the toy chest, we have to note the name of each child playing the game. If the game comes back with fewer parts than it had before we loaned it out, we think we might have to take the game away. Growing up in the States, if the marble pieces to a game rolled beneath the computers where we couldn’t find them, my mother took my siblings and me to Wal-Mart where there were more spare parts. Here, it’s not okay. No more marbles. That’s it. It’s done. It was all a donation, and when it runs out, there’s no more.

Please understand that the toy donations you give to us at El Arenal get passed throughout all eighty-four hands of the children that think that they have finally touched the greatest treasure in all of Ecuador. Please know that every day before I lock the toy chest, Marco* presses his palms to every toy in the box before saying, “This puzzle, this is the toy I’m going to use tomorrow, okay?” The Transformers are missing a few parts, but Sebastian* still plays with them every day, sitting for the whole play hour at the table in the room that doesn’t have light, putting together new shapes.

Yesterday the ceiling fell through into the only hallway in the building. We fixed it while the kids were still playing with puzzles in the homework salon, sweeping the dust and tightly pushing the tiles back in where we don’t think it will happen again.

If there is one thing I could request after my experience with El Arenal I would say: Please continue to give. Don’t give up on us. Some problems, like books, we can fix now, but others, like the building, especially in a tight-knit city, may be a long time coming. It was the generous donations through Hearts of Gold that made it possible to move from the old building in 2016. If there’s one thing that’s clear to me after a month at the center of the action, it’s that El Arenal is filled with resilient souls who are not standing still. We’re still moving forward.

*Names changed to protect identity

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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