Life has become a smorgasbord of inconsistencies of late. I get up early and talk to my homestay family, meet up with the other volunteers, and take a rickety bus through the south side of Quito to one of twelve markets where we work with the organization UBECI – United to Benefit Ecuadorian Children.
The markets are loud and hot and it’s not surprising to see dead animals, live animals, half-dead animals. Indigenous people, local Ecuadorians and even the odd Gringo are all there to buy and sell, there are blankets and backpacks and shirts and fruit, handmade trinkets and guinea pigs.
But we are there for the kids.
Market children get up with their parents and work alongside them, and most of them don’t go to school. Our leader Byron has harrowing stories of too-young prostitutes, early drug use, even visits to the local morgue to collect bodies parents didn’t bother to. The work we do isn’t complicated, (as Byron affectionately tells us, he is the brain of the organization and we are the heart.) We’re amateur friends.
And what does that entail. We read to kids and teach them numbers. We sing songs and hand out toothbrushes. We help them draw and thank them when they correct our Spanish. We make them share with each other and talk out problems, and we help them wash their hands. When they pee on us we take them to the bathroom and help them get cleaned up.
But it’s not always simple. I spent a morning getting a girl to stop crying, but when I returned her to her mother she was slapped and started again. Sometimes kids leave one week, and we don’t know that they’ll be okay. When a couple of brothers are cranky it might be because they haven’t eaten in a day, but that doesn’t mean they can hit their friends. Discipline when you really just want to be sympathetic, feeling loved by children who don’t get enough, having the audacity to wonder if you can make a tiny impression in a stranger’s life – it’s all a little self-contradictory.
UBECI is starting scholarships to send some of the market kids to school. I’m proud to be a little part of a little movement that’s doing work that counts. It’s good to be here; Canada seems awfully far away when Marina climbs into my lap and asks for a story and tells me my Spanish is muy malo.