Reflections from El Arenal, VI

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By Sarah Luke

I had finally done the thing I never wanted to do here: I turned a kid away from the toy chest. He had walked up to Liliana while she was rummaging through the box of puzzles and kicked her right on her bottom. If that’s the way he was going to treat my girls, he wasn’t getting any toys from me.

It pains me to watch these kids flip birdies at each other, smack their elbows into each others’ eye sockets as hard as they can go, spit at the ground before darting away. But I know that one child’s dad raped his sister. One child’s dad went to the States and then died. When they’re living in the Feria Libre, it’s not like these kids have top-notch role models. The only examples they have set for them are the drunkards and thieves, as Maribel once told me, and whatever innocence they bring to the foundation is hope manifested that we can work with.

In one of those rare quiet moments after lunch, I took one of the older girls to the library to see the beautiful room. She kept asking me if it was okay to be in the library, if she would get in trouble for being there. “This is for you,” I told her over and over again, “all the books and butterflies on the walls.” After settling down in the green carpet that was designed to look like grass, she asked me, “What has El Arenal taught you?”

I didn’t understand the question at first, so I returned it to her. She spoke quickly, into her lap, but I caught words like “tranquilo” and “calmados.” This was a safe space, away from the dogs that roamed the streets and unwashed pickpockets that lurked behind bus stops. This girl started coming to El Arenal five years ago when she was ten, and it changed her life. At first she was terrified—all those animated faces she didn’t know. Then she couldn’t stop coming back to the place that fed and hugged her.

In this library we’ve started a garden. We’re keeping the seeds in plastic bags in the first grade classroom until they’re ready to be planted and then we’re going to bury them in the soil in the pots on the roof. Tomatoes, peppers, carrots. This is the kids’ project. Hopefully by the time we’re done we can put something else nutritious in the salad we serve at noon. But mostly we just want the kids to watch something that’s growing. To see those little leaves start popping up out of the soil, just like they themselves have done in their time at El Arenal.

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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