The air is difficult to see through because there’s so much dust. Enough chemicals in the air exist that plants will not grow on the sharp hills ascending up from the valley and the constant foot, animal, and car traffic make for a permanent cloud of dust. People, dogs, and cars are everywhere. Without lanes and people walking amongst the traffic to sell candies and offer window washing, the streets are full of life. Garbage piles to the size of garden sheds.
The NGO is one of the only remaining in the area from before the multi-decade long Marxist guerrilla warfare that ended in 2000. The violence from both the guerrilla fighters and State army was so extreme that all other NGOs, and there were many in the 80s, fled the area. But the NGO we are at has remained for over 40 years in the exact spot it is in.
The organization was founded by a 22-year-old woman who had been traveling to the area for volunteer work had two experiences act as catalysts for the opening of her organization. First, she got sick and ended up in a hospital, experiencing firsthand a young mother give birth to twins and abandon them at the hospital. The second catalyst occurred after she got out of the hospital, when a house fire started and two young children, whom had been locked inside so their parents could work, burned to death in the fire.
So many of us, myself included, dream of changing the world. Of taking action against the social and environmental justice we read about and hear about (that many of us don’t get to see firsthand). But this woman just did it. She just started an organization, no questions asked.
Today the organization provides services for 3 major concerns surrounding children and parents in this particular area. Firstly, there is a focus on physical and mental healthcare, as well as parenting coaching, childcare, and education and vocational training for the young mothers and fathers. Services include healthcare for newborns and their entire families, lactation and nursing consultation, nutrition counseling, and mental health services. Additionally, the organization provides a childcare and early education center for nearly 200 kids, up to age 5. The kids are fed 2-3 meals a day and are taught everything from math and reading to healthy habits such as brushing teeth after meals. They are served hot food by the staff, but for cold food they serve themselves, so that they acquire life skills early on. Parents who enroll their children are required to hold jobs and required to join their child(ren) for breakfast so that they can see what a nutritious meal is, as well as how to interact with their child(ren). Next to the shelf of tiny backpacks there are shelves with cubbies, each filled with a cup labeled with the child’s name and containing his or her toothbrush. On top of the childcare center there are 4 classrooms – 2 house teaching that will provide young mothers and fathers the opportunity to complete their high school education (or equivalency). The other 2 house various vocational training programs.
Another program trains moms in the area to be able to provide child care for up to 10 other children aged 3 and under within their own homes. Nurses and psychologists visit regularly and work with these mothers, and they get a stipend for their work, allowing them to provide more and more robust childcare centers for the children.
The third program covers the needs of teenage mothers up in the hills. 12 nurses, psychologists, and social workers cover a case load of 6-700 teenage mothers for the first 2 years of a baby’s life. These professionals travel up into the hills so that each mother and child is visited every month or every other month (depending on pre-determined risk factors of the mother – postpartum depression, health concerns of the baby, mental or physical health concerns of the mother) to work with the mother and baby, including helping the mother find work or complete her education. Water, plumbing, and electricity are non-existent. Crime and violence are rampant and dogs run up to you as you walk through, barking to warn you away. Many of them just had litters of puppies, it appears, and I wonder if this explains the territorial behavior. The psychologist, a young woman who works long hours and never stops smiling, carries a plastic bag of dog food, tossing it with soothing sounds at the emaciated animals as they run up to us. I want to pet all the dogs, to give them food, but I’ve been warned by my healthcare provider in the States that rabies shots do not exists, and even a lick could equate transmission to me.
Abortion is illegal in the country and 98% of the babies in the center are unwanted, some are the result of pregnancies where the mother tried to self-abort by taking herbs, pills, throwing herself down the (very) steep hills, or jumping in front of a bus. We walk through and the newborns are everywhere – babies so tiny and helpless I want to pick up every one and love on him or her. The first stop is the hospital where nurses work tirelessly to diagnose babies and educate parents on treatment protocols. The next stop is a lactation room where women learn the importance of breastfeeding and are given advice on how to do it, on how to not give up, how to produce more milk, since culturally many woman will not try or try once, it doesn’t work, and give up. Mothers all around us nurse their tiny infants, as nurses and social workers walk around coaching and providing support and encouragement.
Another room provides training for mothers and fathers to talk to and play with their baby, as many are unaware of the importance of talking to baby. This room is overwhelming, watching the mental health professional take turns with babies, talking to them as she holds them up one at a time, and says their name and speaks to them, as the mothers then follow suit. The psychologist sings, shakes maracas, and talks to the babies, and the smiling mothers follow.
Piel sobre piel. Skin on skin. The room where, for 3 hours a day, mothers and fathers learn how to practice skin-on-skin with their newborns. Setting tiny humans up for their best chance at life, something I care so deeply, so viscerally about. Overwhelming emotion and human connection. We are all human.
Mothers here give birth in rooms with 3-5 other women and are turned out of the hospital as quickly as possible. Obstetric violence is rampant and the birthing process is highly traumatizing. Coupled with the fact that 98% of these women did not plan or want these babies, mental health concerns are significant. OB/GYNS discourage breastfeeding because they mark up and make a profit by writing prescriptions for formula. Sex education for children does not exist, nor does access to contraceptives. Most of (if not all) the women, were unaware they could get pregnant by having sex.
Yet these mothers, all they want is to know they did not “ruin” their lives, that they will live on despite having an unexpected baby. They want forgiveness for not wanting their babies, for perhaps trying to harm him/her. They want a social network (many have none) and advice on how to best give their baby a different life than their own. They want the tools and social capital to be independent and complete an education. This organization does all of that and so much more.
Travel for so many is to go to the beautiful parts of a country. The beautiful beaches, mountains, rainforests. I’m that person, too. But I chose to pursue my doctorate in international psychology to get out of my comfort zone. To find myself in a van, surrounded by cars, people, and stray dogs and feel afraid to get out while concurrently wanting out so badly so that I can begin to interact with the people. To hear their stories. To learn how they live, and understand what hurts them, and how it can be fixed, to hear what they love, and determine how it can be realized. But I still get to leave. I get to back to my safe drinking water. To my safe house. To my plumbing and electricity. I get to access education and healthcare. I get to follow my own version of the American dream and just get a small window into the pervasive poverty, poverty so extreme I will never imagine it, no matter how much I read about it, write about, and visit it.
But the emotions, the dreams we have for ourselves and our children, the dreams for our community – those transcend cultures and experiences. The fear and anxiety, the guilt and shame, the love and hope. These emotions are the human experience. They are the common thread that bind us, that keep us moving forward. People everywhere want to feel connected to one another, accepted by one another. People want to feel like they are not alone, like they are not the only person who has ever experienced this.
I will never save the world, as much as I would like to. I am aware of the tremendous amount of unearned privilege I have, for no other reason than the family I grew up in, the community and country I grew up in. But I will forever seek to get outside of my comfort zone, to understand how other people live, to face my own emotions that are a cocktail of guilt and shame, sadness, hope, inspiration, and gratitude when I see how others live, knowing I get to go back to my life, and sit with that discomfort. We might not be able to change the world from our seat of privilege, but we can strive to understand others, to acknowledge that, all over the world, we are, after all, humans.