The other day on Facebook, one of my friends posted a story which claimed to “call bull” on service humanitarian trips; I don’t remember the exact wording. It talked about so-called “service trips” taken by people who parade around and take glamorous selfies while pretending to do humanitarian work; these trips, the article claims, end up exploiting the people and further damaging children who already have abandonment issues.
I absolutely agree with this. I can’t tell you how many Facebook posts I’ve seen of college-age girls taking a gap year trip no longer than one or two weeks, posting a picture holding a baby (preferably of a different race) and saying something about how rewarding the experience has been. Basically, they come just long enough for a photo op, and then leave. It’s got a certain “white savior” feel to it that I find distasteful.
I’m not worried about this as far as the program I am here with goes; the orphanage psychologist, Teo, told us that once we pick a group of children, we will be with them the entire four months, to try and help offset the abandonment issues many of them already come with. She wants us to bond with these children, to become part of their lives. She considers their needs first, always.
I also thought I was set with my own personal preparation: I spent almost a year learning Romanian on my own; I read as many books about Romanian history and culture as I could, and I packed enough toys and coloring books to keep an armada of children entertained.
But after reading that article, I took a step back. I noticed that I was thinking a whole lot about the trips I would take while in Romania, instead of the children I was there to serve. When I did think about the orphanage, most of my thoughts were “I” or “me” statements: This will be the best room for me, I like these kids the most, if I worked in this area, I think I would really like it.
I talked to my father about how to approach this situation. He has been an alternative educator all my life in one way or another-working with the remedials, the dropouts, the drug addicts, the kids nobody else wants to teach, or even waste a second thought on. He knows what it means to do good.
“You have to go in there with your A game,” he told me. “A B game isn’t good enough. The moment you step in that door, it becomes about them, not you.”
So yesterday, I made the decision to work in the room of the orphanage that houses the most severely disabled children. It’s a bit different from the other rooms. The other volunteers work in pairs; they only need one person in my wing, because I’m not holding or playing with the children as much. It’s a room suffused with quiet except for the constant mumble of an old radio. The children don’t cry; many of them can’t. The full-time nurse who works with me speaks no English (though she is ever patient with my fumbling attempts to understand her).
I determined to follow my father’s advice and changed my outlook from “Where will be the best place for me?” to “Where do the kids need me most?” I’ve spent two days here so far, and I can already tell that these heartbreaking, precious children will teach me far more than I could ever teach them. Because they are technically wards of the state, I’m not allowed to post pictures of them or mention names. But I can describe the light in one little boy’s eyes, his close-cropped curls bouncing as he bobs his head to the beat of a song I sing to him. I can describe the wide, joyful smile of another boy who can’t see me approach because he’s blind, but who knows I’m there when I rub my fingers against his cheek. And I can describe a baby girl who laughs, even around her feeding tube, when I tickle her back. I am awed and humbled by their absolute purity and goodness, even in the face of a world that has turned its back on them.
I’m ashamed at the selfish way I’ve been thinking. I can do a lot of things while I’m in Romania. But none of them matter much. The only things that are important about this trip are these children and the help I can give them.