12 December 2014
Every year around this time my thoughts go back to a very special Christmas day back in 1988. At the time I’d been working for a year as a volunteer in a home for street kids called Chicuchas Wasi, in Cusco Peru. My friend Rae had founded the project and I had offered to help her set it up, not really understanding that I would be playing Dad to eight orphaned and abandoned children aged 6-14.
It had been a challenging but successful twelve months. We’d waded through Peruvian bureaucracy to register the project. With the $11,000 Rae had raised in California, and donations that continued to trickle in, we’d bought a house, fitted it out, and recruited Peruvian staff and volunteers.
With the guidance of a Peruvian social worker we’d taken eight kids into the house, treated them for headlice, intestinal parasites and tuberculosis and enrolled them all in a local primary school. One girl, Santusa, had a bowed spine from TB. Somehow Rae had persuaded a local surgeon to perform a spinal fusion free of charge to prevent her becoming paralysed. If this had been all we’d achieved it would have been enough.
These were the easy challenges. Responding to kids’ emotional needs was more difficult. They came to us with varying degrees of trauma, some having lost parents to alcoholism and tuberculosis, others having been abandoned for reasons that weren’t altogether clear. Some required professional help, but unfortunately the psychologist we found was more interested in Rae than the kids.
So we made do with patience and love. For me it was a constant struggle to find enough of either. I was often troubled by the realisation that I didn’t have nearly enough to give these kids. And what I did have I would take with me the day I left the project. That troubled me more.
The desperate situation in Peru at the time certainly didn’t help. Mid way through the year the economy collapsed, leading to runaway inflation, riots, looting, hoarding, and queues for staples such as rice, flour, sugar and cooking oil snaking 800 metres down the main streets of Cusco. The Shining Path had taken their violent revolution to most part parts of the country, except Cusco it seemed, and stories of kidnappings, killings and massacres – the military were equally responsible – filled the daily news, contributing to an atmosphere of tension, suspicion and negativity.
Amidst all this Christmas had come. The time of goodwill, peace, and in Catholic Cusco, despite everything, elaborate nativity scenes in houses and shop fronts.
We needed a bit of Christmas cheer so we decided to do something special and invite as many street kids as we could find to a celebration at the house. On Christmas Day we walked through the streets giving out invitations. One very raggedy little girl with a snail trail of snot down her face grabbed her ticket and timidly asked if her two even more raggedy and snotty nosed little brothers could come. How could we refuse?
By mid morning a stream of neglected looking kids, some as young as 3 or 4, started arriving at the house. Most wore clothes that were either too big or too small. They had grimy faces and mattered hair, some with slugs hanging out of their noses. But they came with angelic smiles and were instantly loveable.
By midday eighty people had packed into the living and dining rooms of the house, which was only comfortable enough for half that number. With no room to move and so many sweaty, unwashed bodies squashed together the atmosphere was fruity. But we sang Jingle Bells in Spanish with gusto and the Chicuchas Wasi kids managed to distribute a piece of panatone and a cup of hot chocolate to everyone without major spillage.
When our Quechua Santa appeared dressed in the full gear some of the kids looked perplexed. They’d probably never seen Papa Noel before.
Matilde, one of the local staff in the house, drew my attention to three very solid Quechua women in bowler hats squashed against one wall, grinning from ear to ear.
‘Are they Mums of some of the kids?’ I asked.
‘No,’ Matilde said.
‘Do you know them?’
‘Then who are they?’
‘I don’t know.’
We burst out laughing. The women had gatecrashed the party and were having fun.
The kids queued up to receive their plastic toys as they left, most accepting them with shy grins. Some were too amazed to respond at all. When the three women with the bowler hats showed up we looked at them with bemusement. But it was clear they weren’t leaving without a toy.
‘Gracias, Papay,’ they said as they accepted their gifts, gave big, toothy, black coca stained smiles and left.
My abiding memory of that day is the joy in the house and the smiles on the faces of the kids, particularly the three big kids with the bowler hats. As Christmases go it was perfect.
If you have a favourite Xmas story please share it. And have a Xmas filled with generosity, love and joy.