Why Hogar Belen is My Happy Place
…in 5 words:
#Love. #Acceptance. #Results. #Unplugged. #Real.
After traveling across the dusty, pockmarked, rough roads of Moquegua, Peru, we find our destination marked with the simplest of signs. Taking the turn into the “driveway” of rocks and water, we drive down this narrow path, overgrown with vegetation, that seems more appropriate for a couple of cows than a vehicle.
But this well-worn, dusty path leads to a very special place: the Hogar Belen Orphanage. I visited Hogar Belen for just one day in 2015. There was something compelling about the children, the setting and the caretakers’ ability to thrive in such dire circumstances (no running water, insufficient electricity and housing, etc), that their struggles became inscribed on my heart. I knew I wanted to help and I would be back.
So, in May, I returned with a group of 4 other-similarly inclined people: Neale Bayly, motorcycle journalist and founder of Wellspring International Outreach (WIO); Jim Miller, biker, photographer and WIO board member; Manny Pandya, biker, photographer and WIO volunteer and Michael Lust, biker and WIO volunteer. Upon arriving, we were greeting by smiling faces and excited dogs, just as I had remembered in 2015. But this time was different. Instead of just a 10-hour stay, we were here for 10 days. And instead of just lifting spirits, we were here to lift hammers, paint brushes, rakes and anything else that was needed to improve the living conditions at Hogar Belen.
At this point, it may seem that our team of 5 was comprised of selfless, do-gooders. I assure you, that is not the case. I know my reasons were purely selfish, as I needed to step away from my own life, my most recent dramas, and recalibrate. And that is what I was able to do.
From the moment we arrived, everyone – young, old and in between – greeted our group of gringos with hugs, laughter and an occasional slap on the back. I scanned the group for “my Maria,” a girl I had met in 2015, who was the same age as my daughter, with similar career aspirations. However, through the accident of birth, my daughter was attending university and fulfilling her potential and Maria was destined not to fulfill hers. When I finally saw her, we hugged for several minutes, quietly weeping and savoring our reunion.
From our initial moments at Hogar until we left, each arrival and departure was punctuated by hugs. “Never miss an opportunity for a hug,” became the unwritten rule. And as amazing as that was, we soon learned that the bonds of love go far deeper than hugs.
While we were at Hogar Belen, we saw young adults, who had grown up in the orphanage come back day after day to help with the renovation projects we initiated. What we later learned was that these young adults come back to the orphanage ALL THE TIME, the young women to help out with the care and feeding of the remaining children and staff, and the young men to help out as handymen.
It should be obvious at this point that Hogar Belen isn’t a typical orphanage. Hogar Belen is and remains a family to those who need it most. Hogar Belen is love.
A Jew, an atheist, and a half-Hindu walk into an orphanage . . . It sounds like the beginning of a joke, right? But in fact, that was the case of our merry band of volunteers.
It’s probably important to tell you at this point, that the orphanage is run by an order of nuns. However, our eclectic group was welcomed with open arms, regardless of our faith, or lack thereof. But these nuns are not typical nuns. Not only do they wear street clothes, but they operate the orphanage like an extended family, with love, discipline and most of all, acceptance of everyone. In addition to the children, there are handicapped adults and single mothers living without judgement under the wings of these living angels.
During our stay, Padre Carlos also came for a brief visit and to lead mass. Upon meeting him, he immediately blessed me (cross and all). When I divulged my Jewish faith, we all had a good laugh. When it was time for mass, I opted to stay outside the church, within earshot of the service, without participating. No one – neither Padre Carlos or Sisters Fabiola, Maria and Elise – treated me any differently or made me feel badly for not attending the service.
This was a level of acceptance that was so meaningful to me, as I’ve had more than my share of well-meaning proselytizers cross my path. Hogar Belen is acceptance.
During our 10-days of work at Hogar Belen, we:
- Renovate 2 of the rooms, one for Andrea, a 14-year-old girl and one Kathleen, a handicapped girl who is somewhere between 13-15 years old
- Install 3 new hot water heaters
- Almost fixed the tractor (although both radiators we purchased had leaks)
- Improve the grounds with some gardening around the rooms
- Started the renovation of Michael’s’ room, a severely handicapped man (finished days after our visit and also home now to Amando another disabled man)
- Took Kathleen to get measured for her new wheelchair (a 3-hour ordeal) and get her started on medical evaluation and treatment.
- Spent an entire day finding just the right one for her in neighboring Tacna
- Secured the funding for a new wheelchair for Michael, which is being sent there now
- Fixed the clutch in the Hogar work truck.
- Improved a number of minor electrical issue.
While we didn’t change the world in 10 days, these improvements are significant for the Hogar Belen family. And in a world where I spend my working hours on a computer, not producing anything tangible, seeing results like this is so meaningful, especially when you get to see the excitement in a child’s eyes because you accomplished something they never dreamed of. Hogar Belen needs results.
As I’ve mentioned, I spend my working hours on a computer. In my off hours, I also find myself tethered to my devices. But for 10 whole days, I was disconnected from the Internet except for the occasional connection at the hotel in the evenings. It was truly a vacation from the constant chatter of Facebook and Twitter and also gave me a break from the burden of my numerous work and personal email accounts.
In the course of saving precious data usage on my smartphone, I turned off all of my notifications, except texts. No constant chimes or vibrations, no constant checking my phone for something I may have missed. And guess what? I’ve not turned them back on. This is trip – and the days of disconnectedness – has reminded me that the people in the room are far more important than the people in cyberspace. I hope to stay semi-unplugged to keep people in perspective. Hogar Belen reminded me of the beauty of being unplugged and fully present.
Our 30-hour odyssey home, began in Moquegua, where we drove for 4 hours to Arequipa to pick up our first flight. With each leg of our trip, Arequipa to Lima, Lima to Miami and Miami to Charlotte, we came closer to the familiar trappings of home. And frankly, we should all be grateful everyday for the style in which we live. In just over a day, I went from seeing people struggle for basic necessities like hot water, drinking water, consistent and safe electricity and nutritional food to hearing people complain about slow wi-fi and improperly prepared steak.
The struggle for many is real, in this country, in Peru and numerous other places across the globe. I have been given the opportunity to make a small difference in the lives of a few dozen people in Moquegua, Peru. And I will go back and continue to try to raise the standard of living for those warm, wonderful, hard-working people.
Perhaps you’d like to join me, either in person or in spirit. Contact Neale Bayly
- Put in a concrete path for Michael’s wheelchair to get to the shower more smoothly
- Remodel Merlene’s (Kathleen’s caregiver) room for her and her two boys, and the two rooms next to her (the same program as we did with Kathleen’s room)
- Upgrade the electrical system for the entire Hogar Belen campus
- Tear down the old rooms out by the boys shower room as they are dangerous and too badly run down to repair
Photo credits: Manny Pandya Photography, Neale Bayly, Sally Frank