The Prodigal

 
Tonight, during the hour and a half each night between dinner and prayer circle where everyone hangs out outside, I played for a long time with a little boy who is new to the hogar. He is eight years old and has a smile that spreads in a long line across his face, lighting up big brown eyes, a high-pitched, excitable voice and a babyish laugh. He called me over to a corner of the porch to sit on the ground so I could watch him proudly assemble a tiny plastic top. He spun it as fast as he could a few times - "Mira! Mira!" - and then handed it to me to try. He was completely content in that moment, spinning his tiny top or watching me spin it, shrieking when it got too close to the edge of the porch, giggling every time it fell over. I could hardly believe that it was only a few days ago that I had sat with the same boy while he sobbed miserably into a plate of pancakes. 
I was one of the group who went to pick him up from one of the state-run children's homes four days ago. We picked up three new children from the home that day and he had been then one I had gotten to know the least on our trip. In contrast to the other two boys, he had been calm and unimpressed during the ride back to Amigos, half-smiling at times, but mostly quietly looking out the window. I don't remember once seeing the wide smile that has come to define his face for me now.
We arrived to the hogar as everyone does here: to the applause of the entire home gathered at the front gate. All three timidly got out of the car and walked through the crowd where they were introduced to the padrinos and madrinas, the caretakers of the boys and girls who live on-site and are with the children full-time.
I didn't see the littlest boy much that evening or the next day. At dinner in the comedor I made a point to sit with him, but he gave me a cold shoulder. At breakfast and lunch the next day I looked around to find him sitting sullenly, not speaking to the other boys around him. 
Late that afternoon, we, the new volunteers were in the midst of an orientation session when we learned that the boy had run away. It was 4:30 and we learned he had been gone about half an hour. We came out of the session to see search parties assembling. Two of the trucks full of people went out to drive in separate directions and a large group of boys and a few padrinos went out on foot. After night had fallen, the search parties began to return one by one. Staff members assembled a description of the child with photos and dropped them off at local police stations. We had to go to sleep that night not knowing where he was sleeping.
The next day, the whole home was to spend the day at a nearby water-park. Several trips with truck-fulls of kids had to be taken to get everyone there starting at 8 in the morning. I wasn't with the group that found him, but I heard later that it was wild. The whole truck full of children seemed to spot him at the same time and began screaming and pointing. He had been walking towards them down the road; when he spotted them, he darted away and one of the older boys ran after him. When they put him in the car, he was already sobbing.
Amy, our co-director, called me over to the comedor to sit with him while he ate some breakfast. I listened while she told him that he had woried us so much because he is very important to us, because we love him. Waves of sadness poured over the little guy; he didn't know where to put his face. Every time the crying slowed for a bit, a fresh wave seemed to overtake him. He had his little bundle of clothes the hogar had given him in a plastic bag (when he arrived he had nothing with him but the clothes he wore), and he took them all out, refolding them, and putting them away again. He told us he had spent the night in a nearby town, he said, and had been trying to get back to the city to his younger brother. (The younger brother is set to move to Amigos in a few days).
Amy told him that the group was going to a water-park that day and that it would be really fun. Gradually he warmed to the idea. He agreed to leave his bundle at the home and go to the water-park with the last group. While we waited for the truck to arrive, I showed him around the home. We walked up the hill to the big white cross that overlooks the whole campus, and he agreed with me that the view of the mountains was beautiful. We looked at the wide green soccer field with its rows of half-tire "stands." We slid together down Amigos' big tube slide. I realized he hadn't let himself really look around at the home, hadn't let himself begin to like it.
That day at the water-park, I watched a version of this child emerge that I had never seen before as he shrieked and played and acted like the little kid he is, instead of like a mini-adult alone in the world. Since he's been at the hogar I've loved watching him run and play with the other boys and eat good meals with that big smile on his face. That's how his face is supposed to look.

As I begin to understand a little more how important Amigos is and what it does for these kids, this little guy will always come to the forefront of my mind. He always runs up to me now at meals or out on the field after dinner, and I look for him, too. The relationships built with the kids here are what everyone says make it so special. I've got a few I'm working on, but I know this one will always be very special to me. Because he was lost, and I watched him be found.
 
 

 Joanna Gardner
Volunteer 2013-2014