If “home is where the heart is”, Ecuador became my second home nearly 7 years ago. I planned a 3 month trip when I was 20, and naively thought I was going to change the world. I had no idea what was in store for me. I had no idea I would fill my passport with stamps to Ecuador. I had no idea the life that would change the most was my own.
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself visiting an orphanage in Ecuador. We were outside on a sunny afternoon playing in the yard with the children. By this time, I had lived a couple of years in Ecuador doing volunteer work in orphanages. I had become accustomed to the nature of orphanages, and most things didn’t surprise me. However, that afternoon I’ll never forget. A little boy was asked to pray, and I listened to his genuine plea, “God, give us a mamá and papá” then 35 children chimed in unison “amen”.
As humans we long to belong, and the essence of belonging is felt in family. Each child at the orphanage is uniquely different, just like siblings in a family. However, something I repeatedly saw in common was their innate desire for a mother.
From the seemingly menial moments to the unforgettable joyous occasions, I will forever be grateful to the children who trustingly let me into their life. Some audibly called me “mommy” and others simply gave me the blessing to fill that role in one small way or another.
I think of the 2 ½ year old toddler in the nursery, who was the first child to call me and many volunteers “mommy”.
I think of attending a meeting with my group of volunteers and a diaper company. The diaper company had agreed to give free diapers to the orphanage, in exchange to research the quality of diapers. They opened the meeting, “You are the parents of the children in the orphanage. Tell us your input how to improve the diapers.”
I think of my overwhelming inadequacy as I was assigned to care for an orphan at the children’s hospital in Quito. The nurse announced for all mothers to bring their babies to the other room to be weighed. I remember standing in line with all the other mothers as I held him in my arms.
I remember leaving the casa at the orphanage after a particularly draining afternoon. I had spent the afternoon with a little boy throwing tantrums and trying to explain “we don’t hit our friends”. Emotionally exhausted, I opened the door to leave as I heard, “Espera mami! Un beso?” “Wait Mommy! A kiss?” as he ran to the door and planted a kiss on my cheek.
I think of sneaking into an ICU room in the hospital. I remember the nurse immediately telling me visitors were prohibited, and only family could enter the room. I still remember the look of apologetic humiliation from the nurse when I replied, “This little girl has no family. I work for her orphanage.” She kindly gave me a few minutes alone with her.
I think of attending the school play for 3 of the children at the orphanage, and hearing them announce “Will all mothers please come behind the curtains to help their children prepare?” I remember crying during that rendition of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. My heart couldn’t have been prouder that night.
I think of handing a baby girl to the nurse and watching her scream and reach for me as the operation doors slowly closed. I remember lying in the hospital bed with her, because she wanted no one else.
I think of staying up late Christmas Eve with other volunteers to make sure the stockings were filled by Papa Noel. Although simple, the children were greeted with a bit of magic Christmas morning.
I’ve now returned to the United States and began to work for the same organization in their U.S. office. My days are now filled with office details, rather than beautiful children. One day I went to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for a few children at the orphanage. The situation had already been explained to the pharmacist, so I was legally covered. However there were only 2 options to choose from when I was asked to check a box:
I am the patient receiving the prescription
I am the parent of the patient.
As I checked the box, I had the familiar feeling “I would be honored to be called their mother”.
My experiences are not my own. I couldn’t have these experiences without the loving trust of each precious child who let me into their life. I’m not the first to have these experiences; a decade of volunteers paved the way before me. And I pray for a century of future volunteers to choose this experience. I won’t promise it’s easy, but I can promise whether symbolically or audibly they will call you mommy.