Getting orphans and children living on the streets in Lima, Peru, to kick a soccer ball around was just the start.
As an undergraduate at Tufts University, I held many jobs—from pizza delivery to construction worker, security monitor to event staff coordinator—but none was quite so influential as my work as a furniture mover, a job that I began my sophomore year.
Not your typical bunch of movers, the men and women at Gentle Giant Moving and Storage were an adventurous lot, many of them highly educated individuals who moved furniture to support their travels around the world. It was because of their stories of adventures in far off places that, after finishing college, I too decided to take time to travel. I did what many of my Giant friends had done, move furniture, doing as much overtime as possible to quickly make enough money to throw on a backpack and shoestring around the world. When the money ran out, I would return to the U.S. and lug pianos and sofas around the greater Boston area until once again there were sufficient funds to get back out on the road.
My trips were always a mixture of adventures and volunteer experiences, whether that meant building homes on a remote island in the Philippines, summiting Mount Kilimanjaro and then scuba diving with the hammerhead sharks off the coast of Tanzania, interpreting for medical teams in Ecuador, or canoeing through the Brazilian Amazon.
In early 2001 I found myself hitchhiking across the Chilean Patagonia, fly-fishing and mountain climbing along the way. When the season turned to winter, I quickly escaped north to Guatemala. There, I was immediately struck by the impressive backdrop of colors—the greens of the landscape; the rainbows of fabric woven and worn by the Quiche women; the bright yellows, oranges, and reds of cement houses that line the streets, accentuated by explosions of bougainvillea.
I was also struck by the number of children I saw, working and living on the streets. Perhaps more than in any other place that I had traveled, the street children of Guatemala stood out. They were a constant presence, asking for food or money, and above all making you feel guilty as hell for not handing over your quetzals. One could not walk peacefully down the street or enjoy a coffee in an outdoor café without the constant hassling of begging children.
Eventually you learn to ignore them. You can't keep giving away your pocket change, and you soon get tired of feeling bad about your inability to really help. It is human nature to protect ourselves emotionally, and, like most constant things, one becomes accustomed to seeing the kids and they soon become part of the normal background, much like the brightly colored houses and bougainvillea. As they become part of the normal landscape, they become less human, and it is much easier to tolerate their presence and feel OK about ourselves. So powerful was this reaction that it even happened to someone like me, who had entered medicine precisely to help such children.
And so I passed my time in Guatemala, with a backdrop of colors and street children, the one seeming just as normal as the other, until an eight-year-old boy changed my view of the world.
The unhappy meal
On the morning of Good Friday, I awoke early and with camera in hand walked through the city. I wandered the unusually quiet, cobbled streets aimlessly, meandering between the brightly painted houses. Shops were closed. People were in their homes or in church. The normally bustling city was virtually empty. Without the pandering, shoe-shining and soliciting, my pueblo took on a whole new texture.
I walked past a crying young boy in a tattered beige jacket which contrasted starkly with the bright yellow wall that he sat against. His shoeshine box lay on the ground beside him and he did not even look up to see if I needed my sneakers polished. I caught myself having walked several feet beyond him, surprised by my own indifference. At eight years old, he was crying, he told me, because he could not earn enough money to return home.
He lived in a small village an hour and 40 cents away by bus and he commuted here every day to shine shoes. At worst he would make enough money for his fare home and then back again the next day; at best he would also have money to eat. He lived with his eleven-year-old brother, somewhere on the streets of that far-off village, abandoned by a family who could not afford to raise them. On this Good Friday holiday, he had no business; there were no shoes to shine; he sat and silently wept because at eight years old he could not earn enough money to go home.
I hoisted him up and together we walked towards a nearby McDonalds. I made jokes along the way to cheer him up, but he had a sadness and a seriousness that no child should know. We made it to the restaurant and I offered to buy him anything on the menu he desired. He whispered, "Una cajita feliz." I had no idea what he meant, but the woman at the register did and promptly prepared him a Happy Meal, complete with toy inside.
The boy sat, opened his toy, and despite the fact that he had not eaten today, despite the fact that he had the outward maturity of someone forced to relinquish everything good about being a child, of someone who commuted two hours round trip a day to work in the city streets—despite all this, he unwrapped his toy and it became at that moment the most important thing in his world.
I fought back the tears and sat, silenced by what I had seen. In that instant the street kids who had become such a normal part of the landscape suddenly became children. I saw the images of every child I had allowed myself to look beyond—how easily I had succumbed to viewing their plight as normal. How quickly I became so tolerant. I was brought back, and taught such a lesson from an eight-year-old child. Their childhoods are stripped from them due to nothing more than the unfortunate circumstances in which they were born. They are forced to fend for themselves, to endure beatings, rape, hunger, and abandonment. But given something as simple as small plastic toy from a Happy Meal, a glimmer of what makes childhood good can be seen in their eyes, at least for a moment. (continued)
Profile written by Joseph Donroe (A'98, M.D./M.P.H., '07)
Photos by Karel Navarro/Getty Images for Tufts University
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of Tufts Medicine, the magazine of Tufts University School of Medicine. This story originally ran online on Jan. 8, 2007.