Sábanas de San Angel – this past April. We pulled in with Fermín’s car loaded with food, hammocks, and clothes. The scenery was arid – this region has suffered from a profound drought for a while now, and everything is dried up. The Cañahuate trees the only bright color amidst fields of dust and ochres. In the distance, up a path, a lonely house made of decaying wood and corrugated steel. In front of the house, two skinny horses made their way slowly away from the fence. It was a picture of desolation.
Mariela had stopped by to ask how to get to our first visit, in a house nearby. Houses here are spread out, and they stand alone in the midst of fields that are now dry and devoid of vegetation. A lonely cow or a donkey or a horse are the only form of susteinance for these families. No water, no work, no food. These poor families received water once every 7 or 8 days, as they lack access to fresh water or electricity. When the rains come, things might change for them. Many work in the fields taking care of cattle. Without the rain, the cattle do not have much food to eat, no grass to graze, so there is no work. No water, no food either, as they cannot harvest their small plots of land.
It is in this area that many of the patients live.
We could easily hear the groans of pain coming from the house. After almost 20 years of fighting HD, the father of the family was starving to death. A week after we left, he died.
As I mentioned before during my review of the trip, this time I had brought toys for the children. The first time I visited this area I recall feeling like I should have brought something to the many children I met then. This time I had gone to ‘Toyr are Us’ and bought 30+ stuffed animals, metal cars and other toys. This was my first stop and had all the stuffed animals in a large black trash bag. As we were talking to the wife of the patient, a little figure appeared hiding behind a large tree in the backyard. A small kid, very small for his age of 10, was looking from behind the tree as we talked. He had very large hazel eyes which looked inquisitively at us. I called him and asked for his name. I asked the mom whether he was their son – she said ‘No’. He was family, but had been kicked out by his parents, one of whom also suffered from HD, when he was 2, and they had taken him in. Into a family that has no money, an adult HD patient, and a juvenile HD patient (who is now 24). Remarkable.
The kid -his name is Eduardo- did not have any shoes. I was told he walked to school each day for 1 hour – barefooted. His clothes were dirty, his hair and face too.
He would look at me from behind the tree, but would not answer to my attempts to engage him in conversation. I got up and I told him to follow me – he hesitated but when his ‘mother’ told him that I was going to give him a gift – he followed. I have never seen such a smile when he saw the contents of that black trash bag filled with toys. It was this smile, and the situation of this family, that made me revisit the idea of sponsoring the at-risk children living in poor HD families in Colombia. Proyecto Abrazos was born!
The reality is that most HD families in this region live in poverty – some of it extreme. The young kids lack almost everything you can think of. Shoes and clothes for school, backpacks, sneakers to play football, toys, etc. In every house we met beautiful children who are growing up with sickness all around, and with little prospects of growing up with the possibilities we would all like to give our children.
The idea of starting a ‘sponsoring’ program (‘Apadrinamiento’) for kids living in HD families was not new in my head. I had tried a couple of years ago to contact Unicef – but got no response. So after this trip I got tired and impatient (as I often do when I have made up my mind about something) and decide to just ‘do it myself’. So there we go: opened a Go Fund Me account, called all my friends, sent a few emails, and raised the money I needed to sponsor 31 children of HD families – all in 2 weeks!
Without Mariela and Doris, of course, this would not have happened. They know all the families and children and they selected them based on need.
After I collected the donations, we planned the trip – and this is the summary of the first ‘Proyecto Abrazos’ visit to Santa Marta and Juan de Acosta. From now on, we will be handing out donations and organizing ‘get-togethers’ for the sponsored children twice a year – one in summer, and one right before Christmas. The goal is not only to give them things, but to get them together, plan activities they would not otherwise experience, make sure they are healthy, and educate them about HD. We want to watch them grow up strong, happy, hopeful and proud of who they are and where they come from!
This trip was – undoubtedly- the most rewarding trip of my life. Giving is wonderful – giving to children in need has no comparison to anything else. The happiness and love one experiences is hard to describe.
Mariela and her colleagues from Funcovulc organized the first portion of the trip. In addition to the donations I raised, Mariela was able to secure some help from other local organizations. A church sponsored 2 additional kids, a bus was donated for the transport of the kids to Santa Marta and to take us around, and CajaMar, a local Santa Marta children-focused NGO, also donated food for the events. We put the children and their parents up at a hotel in Santa Marta for 3 nights, and several events were organized. These included spending 2 days at a center with soccer fields, several pools, and a restaurant. It was there we spent the first 2 days, and where a dentist, a doctor and a nutritionist evaluated the children. Even though most are healthy and doing well, aside from a few cases of cavities and skin conditions, all the kids are small for their size and underweight. The organization of the events was perfect, and the kids learned how to brush their teeth properly, had their teeth cleaned, their weight recorded and their health evaluated. Thank you to all these wonderful volunteer professionals who took time off to help us. During day 1, we also gave them the first donations from the sponsors. Their faces said it all – such happiness! School shoes, sandals, sneakers, clothes, food, toys, backpacks and other items for school…. these kids do not usually get gifts and they were beaming with excitement and gratitude. I quickly became ‘Papa Nacho’ and was surrounded with love. Few things in life compare to the feeling of helping a child in need.
Several of the mothers are already symptomatic – they were happy to see their kids so joyful. Most of the kids grow up without fathers, as they usually leave their wives to start a new family when they realize they are getting sick. It is sad to see and a reason why these families suffer so much.
Day 1 – gifts, dentist and play!
Day 2 – beach, swimming pool and aquarium day.
On day 1, a dentist volunteered her services to clean the teeth from all 24 children. Thank you so much for your kind help!!!
on Day 2, a local doctor and nutritionist helped and checked the children for parasites. The kids were examined, weighed and measured, and given nutritional supplements and vitamins. Thank you to CajaMar por organizing this wonderful event with us!
Some pictures of the sponsored kids from El Dificil, Juan de Acosta, San Angel and Santa Marta- all wonderful human beings, they changed my life forever.
Working together with the family associations, and their friends, we can make a difference.
We hope to be able to help many more children at risk for HD, and to host events like this twice a year. The next planned event is close to Christmas 2016. This year, all these children will have a very special Christmas, thanks to all the sponsors.
Thank you, and don’t forget that a little help goes a long way for these families and children. A small gift brings a huge smile and a sense of hope in life. We won’t abandon these children. Their families just got a bit bigger!
During the last day, during sunset, we watched the beaches of Santa Marta and thought about all we had achieved.
You can still donate and contribute to these efforts. Anything helps.