Las Chavaladas was a bit of a slap in the face for me, because the kids we play with on Fridays come from the underbelly of Leon; they are kids who don’t believe they have a future and therefore have a lot of issues. All of them are addicted to sniffing glue. I was really nervous about how I would react to this before I left, and my fears were realized- it’s difficult to see what’s going on with these kids and accept the reality of the situation.
Every Friday, a couple Quetzaltrekkers volunteers walk the 10 or so blocks to the organization’s house, join up with one of the leaders, pick up as many street kids as we can at the market (where they hang out), and then spend the day at the baseball stadium, playing baseball and soccer with the kids. It was simultaneously fun depressing. I was useless at baseball but had an awesome time playing soccer, and got really into it. I miss soccer! The Friday sports program caters to boys who don’t spend a lot of time at the Las Chavaladas House, which is why we go to them.
While playing sports, the boys get their glue bottles taken away and put in the leader’s backpack. If they don’t surrender their drug, they don’t get a popsicle at the end of the day. The hope is that we can build trust with these kids over time and eventually convince them to spend more time sober, and more time at the Las Chavaladas house (obviously they can’t bring their glue in).
The majority of the boys who came to play willingly handed over their glue, but there were several who spent the entire time sitting on the bleachers, glass coca cola bottles filled with a sticky bright orange sludge tucked down their t-shirts. They keep the bottles hidden that way because it is an illegal activity, so they have to be discreet in public and especially around the police. When the majority of us had gone off to play and there were a couple of boys with noses still buried in toxic fumes, I surprised myself by getting pretty angry and marching over to demand they give me their glue and play. I managed to convince one boy, but a couple wouldn’t budge. Julia had to come over and convince me to drop it- if we’re too demanding and force these boys to sober up harshly, we will never build up trust and they’ll stop coming at all on Friday mornings.
Not all of the kids at Las Chavaladas sniff glue. The organization acts as a sort of daycare community center and isn’t limited to kids with drug problems. Las Chavaladas caters to kids with bad family lives. The idea of the organization is that kids with problems such as glue sniffing addictions run-ins with the law, running away from home etc., stem from unhealthy home situations. Las Chavaladas serves as an intermediary between an unhealthy home and a healthy home. Whether that home is the same or a new home depends on if the problems can be fixed through counseling, and if the organization is able to find a new suitable home.
Kids in Nicaragua only go to school for half of the day, either in the morning or the afternoon. So for half the day, a lot o kids have nowhere to go and end up on the streets, getting in trouble or going hungry. At Las Chavaladas they get a free lunch, showers, a basketball court, and even a place to sleep if they don’t want to go back to their families at night. Las Chavaladas isn’t an orphanage though; when kids stay there, the goal is to limit their stay to a week or so, and then make efforts to integrate them back into their families or if there are serious problems at home, to find a family member such as an aunt or uncle to serve as a guardian.
The kids who spend almost every day at Las Chavaladas are in pretty good shape. We had lunch there, and they were surprisingly polite and almost anal about the organization’s rules. First, I was reminded about 5 times to wash my hands before lunch. Then, I was wearing a cowboy hat that one of the little boys had given me, and the boys told me very sweetly that I had to remove it at the table. At that point I started really concentrating on behaving myself, but then my juice glass was in the wrong place- it needs to be in front of your plate, NOT beside it.
One of the glue sniffers from baseball and soccer was there, high, and he was the only one not following every rule; he could barely sit up on his own and spent a lot of time shouting nonsensical things and telling me all about my madrina- his mom- because I was his girlfriend for the day, and madrina is the word for mother in law.
The workers at Las Chavaladas are great, and each one serves a particular purpose. There’s the “fun guy”, who spends his time at the center goofing off with the kids. He’s literally a clown- that’s his occupation. There’s the “sports guy”, who went with us to play baseball and soccer. Then there’s the cook, the loving maternal type, the directora… I was impressed by how everything was run.
Quetzaltrekkers isn’t currently funding anything at the Las Chavaladas house, but we are funding the teacher’s salary for a “mobile school”. The idea is that since a lot of kids in Leon don’t go to school, the school will come to them. A certified teacher will take a cart around the barrios of Leon and give lessons on the move. In the past, there was a dump that became the home for much of the homeless kids in the area, but recently the dump was converted into a recycling center, and the kids were displaced again. Now they’re scattered all around Leon.
After we got back, I was pretty upset for the rest of the day, and haven’t completely gotten these kids off my mind. It’s easy to get lost in the exhilaration of hiking volcanoes and the fun of the more privileged life in Leon, and inadvertently turn a blind eye to what’s really going on all around us, and what we’re really working for.
Yesterday I visited Las Barilettes and had a bit more of a positive experience. Las Barilettes is also a day care, but the purpose is simply to provide activities for kids, both boys and girls, while they’re not in school. They also get lunch there; they might otherwise not eat at all. Quetzaltrekkers bought the house for Las Barilettes and sends volunteers on Tuesdays to tutor. I was supposed to tutor math- a partially successful endeavor, but short lived. We couldn’t figure out what the kids had previously been studying in their math classes because they just couldn’t remember. So, I experimented by showing them different types of problems until we found something we could work with. My proudest moment was successfully explaining equations to one girl and having her correctly sole a whole string of simple equations. After an hour or so, we all burnt out on math and chatted for the rest of the time. I was really happy about that because I haven’t been practicing my Spanish as much as I would like.
One kid said he was learning German. Impressed, I asked him to tell me what he knew. What he said sounded like gibberish, so I asked him to repeat it again and again. When I still couldn’t understand, I asked him to write it down. After about 10 minutes I figured out he was trying to say “Gutentag.” I spent the next half an hour going through his severely misspelled German numbers and correcting them. Somehow I’m managing to speak almost more German in Nicaragua than Spanish; it’s very strange.