When we start our slow drive up the winding roads to the orphanage we will be visiting for the morning, I’m feeling slightly disheartened and anxious. Some of the activities of the past week had left me feeling uncomfortable; it was starting to seem to me that many of the activities had been created by our host organization first and foremost for our enjoyment, and secondly to serve the people whom we were assigned to “help”. This had been the case during the previous day when we had visited the residents of a local nursing home. Our lunch ran late, so we arrived about an hour after the time we were scheduled to be there. We visited with some of the residents in the noisy comedor for all of 15 minutes before being abruptly whisked off to our next activity, a presentation at la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos. Our presence at the home in the first place seemed rather questionable to me, and the whole experience seemed exploitative and problematic.
I sit with some of these unrests on our humming bus as we wind our way up the hill toward our next tico social work destination—an orphanage where we would be visiting and playing with kids. I decide that I will give myself permission to step back and not participate in the activities if they seemed remotely similar to the visits of the previous day; after all, I’m not a huge fan of kids and why would they want to hang out with a group of strange foreigners anyway? And that is how I begin my visit: cautious and quiet, letting some of my more eager classmates take the lead on volunteering to be the first group to go to play with this age group, or that age group. I join some of my less enthusiastic classmates on the concrete steps outside one of the small hogares where one group of the children lives. I am more or less minding my own business when one of the house mothers starts calling the kids and telling them to come down.
“They want to meet you but are very shy,” she tells us, pointing to the group of kids huddled behind the railing encircling the front porch of their home. After a few more encouragements, the children slowly make their way off the porch and down to the steps where we are sitting. A little girl bashfully sits down on the steps above me. Her name is Ana and she is five years old. I start talking to Ana about all the things you always talk to kids about—How old are you? What is your favorite color? What are your favorite sports and games?—until she finally decides that it’s time to go pick flowers. She grabs my hand and takes me several steps away to the grassy knoll where we collect handfuls of daisies, which we then start giving out to everyone in sight. Ana leads me around by the hand as she gives out her flowers; with every flower she hands to her peers and my classmates she is prouder and prouder. Soon we are joined by another girl, Elena (age 6), and together the three of us continue collecting and distributing out flowers. Once everyone has a flower, we play hopscotch and then swing on the small swing set beside another hogar.
After a while, it is soon time for my classmates and me to depart. The girls hug me goodbye, and then smile and wave as they continue to play on their swing set. The experience takes me by surprise. It stands in stark contrast to some of the other activities we have participated in in the past weeks. It was not engineered or uncomfortable, nor did it seem to compromise the integrity of the people with whom we were interacting or our work on the whole; it was quiet and natural. It will always be important for us to remain vigilant about the manifestations of privilege or exploitation in our field, but it was certainly a wonderful breath of fresh air to have that small instance of lightness—an incredible gift from two little girls on the outskirts of San José.