Most of us can recall the moment that triggered a paradigm shift in our lives, permeating our perspectives, our relationships, and our souls. My moment came on the heels of a brand new education on the harsh reality of child abuse in the developing country of Colombia.
It’s not every day that a group of friends defy the cautions of their loved ones, ditch the creature comforts of home and travel to a city with a reputation like Medellin. That’s what happened on January 11th, when 16 brave travelers of friends and family, spent 5 days volunteering in service of child victims of abuse.
To be able to share this experience with my son was extraordinary. Together with this group we grabbed hands and plunged into the unknown in the name of paying it forward. Doing so forged strong bonds and united us around a firsthand view of the indestructible human spirit. We spent our journey South agonizing over what we could bring to these children. It wasn’t until we arrived that we came to understand what it is that they actually needed from us. While hard times are inevitable, and bumps in the road are guaranteed, it occurred to us for the first time that, with less luck in the genetic lottery, it could’ve been one of us born without the basic tools to achieve resilience.
By the time our stars aligned with the children we met, they had already been left to soothe by themselves from the damage they sustained in the lonely auspices of an orphanage, void of the support that to us, is a birthright. Until then, we took our ability to turn dark nights into light mornings for granted. Our days in Medellin were humbling, and it was exposing ourselves to the most heinous acts of humanity that catalyzed our renewed vigor for the beauty of life.
We couldn’t erase the trauma endured by the orphans or eradicate the issues that plagued their pasts. What we could do though, was offer them some of the things from which they were deprived. Like us, these children need to rely on the belief that their safety, their happiness, their health, and their success are of consequence to someone. Unlike us however, many of them experienced this notion for the first time during our visit.
While we figured we’d hand out toys and candy in exchange for smiles and pictures, it turned out that our job was much simpler yet far more important. We were called to draw from the most basic, sensitive, human depths of our hearts, in hopes of providing the one thing that’s scarce for orphans but essential to all human life: connection.
We weren’t prepared to feel so vulnerable throughout the effort. We didn’t realize that in order to connect with these kids we’d have to lay it all on the line. I’m so proud that we cultivated an environment that enabled us to do so, because it opened our eyes to the root of a major problem in our culture and changed our lives as a result.
Suffering always exists in the absence of love and belonging. While similar work is necessitated in our own backyard, going away served as an indelible reminder of the human needs that unite all of us. Our travel companions couldn’t have been more disparate in age and background, but our experiences were similar; it was the locking of eyes, the holding of hands, and the warm embrace of a hug that lifted the spirits of our new friends.
Whether at home or in Medellin, the words of Melinda Gates never rang more true, “No matter where someone lives, no matter the circumstances of their lives, they have the same hopes, the same dreams as you and I.”