By Sarah Luke
A typical student at El Arenal is the child of a market vendor. Her mother sells piñas at a stand. Sometimes she is found selling piñas too, learning at a young age how to support the family. A typical student knows how to throw a good punch but he doesn’t use it, not at El Arenal, not when la Maribel, who has been the director and daytime mother of eighty-four children for eight years, is eating her soup in the comedor too, and both of them are talking about the good and the bad things that happened that day.
What the volunteers give the children, which they may not realize at the time, is a space to share a story, to share a good-bye embrace even when they’re fifteen and long past the age of hand-holding and wrapping arms around volunteers’ legs to say don’t go. In the morning, the older children gather in the work “salon” to finish homework before the school day starts at one in the afternoon. They might have math and science and English homework, and if anyone in the salon speaks English, she usually draws a crowd at the homework table. The kids might have so much homework they won’t even finish before leaving for school, but they might not have any at all. They might have come just to see if someone wanted to play a puzzle by the computers. They might have come just because that’s where their friends are. When you’re fifteen, no one says you have to go to El Arenal in the mornings. That’s when you decide on your own you’re going to come, there’s something there that makes you begin to think you can make it, you’re hungry, and everyone there wants to give you the biggest bowl of soup you can eat.
In the afternoon the children look forward to the end-of-the-day games. If they finish their homework in time they get to select a toy from the toy chest in the big kids’ classroom. Even if they don’t, they still snack with their friends and dash into the park in between activities. The real fun is the games they create within the structure of the day: hand stands against the wall, finding new ways to braid each other’s hair, raising several voices at once in the hallway in long drawn-out song. In the park the teachers show them how to succeed in three-legged races—arms interlocked for good luck—and it doesn’t matter that the only thing holding one girl’s shoe in place is duct tape; what matters is the movement, the amistad, of the race. As she walks out the gate to go home the little girl shouts at the top of her lungs, “Hasta mañana!” and everyone shouts back to her. The activities at El Arenal are not just a way to pass the time; they are a way of forming a life, a way of finding a vision for tomorrow.
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.