So I have survived the past week with no major mishaps! Seriously though, this island is absolutely stunning, and a post about its beauty will be coming soon. That post will have to wait, since something much more personal and recent has happened. This past weekend I had the opportunity to volunteer with AUC medical students at Safe Haven, the only women's shelter on the entire island. It was a humbling experience, to say the least.
This issue hits close to home for me in so many different ways. My mother is a social worker, and I grew up listening to the stories of pain and abuse that she had witnessed. Some of them would end up in the newspapers, with my mother's name championing the rights of her children. She went to court often, and I even sneaked a peek at some of her documents; the horror of domestic abuse sounded painfully cold. I have volunteered in her office too, though I had little contact with any of her clients.
As an adult I've worked with students who have been abused, even filed a report on a case. Part of my career as a teacher is to be a mandatory reporter-if I think a child is in danger, I have to react or I could lose my job. I listened to more stories, this time from the victims themselves. It's hard to hear the suffering of someone that you care about, but if they did want to talk, I had to let them work through it. Part of me wants to take them all home and take care of them like they are my own children. I worry about them over the summer, worry that they will be okay until fall.
The volunteer experience here on the island was unlike any other. One thing to keep in mind is that St. Maarten has such a gap in the quality of life of its people. Right now I type in a comfortable, air-conditioned room with the promise of delicious dinner in a few hours. Many people on the island live in 3rd world conditions, just a few miles from where I am. I feel like a spoiled brat when I complain about the bugs or heat (but seriously, those spiky plants are downright dangerous!).
We left early in the morning to a secret location on the island. Thirteen of us piled into the van wearing painting clothing-we were given the task of painting the walls of Safe Haven. We traveled down the winding roads to a place I couldn't find again with a map. I don't want to say much about the location, because the possibility of an abusive husband looking for his wife has already happened. Let's just say I had no idea where I was.
Nearly everyone started to prepare the rooms for painting, though I found myself drawn to the children. A few tagged along, following us and getting underfoot. I grabbed the one nearest to me and took her up to the play room, with the rest of them following soon after. Two other AUC students and I entertained the children for the better part of the day. We painted faces, cleaned off toys, and sat and listened to them speak. I found myself holding the two youngest as they fussed; I held one at a time as I rocked them to sleep.
Perhaps the hardest part about being with the children was noticing the signs of abuse. Burns, cuts, and scars are the easiest to spot, as they are a physical manifestation of the pain. The emotional signs are much worse, as they show a deeper connection to abuse. Thumb sucking, outbursts, and clinginess are just a few that I saw. Remember those babies that fell asleep in my arms? They clutched at me as hard as they could, with a desperation I never want to see in a child again. I can't imagine the cruel person that would hurt an infant, as it makes me too angry to think.
I did get a chance to do some painting, though eventually we had to leave. My fiancee had coordinated the painting effort, and they nearly finished a number of rooms. The women that volunteer at Safe Haven shared their plans for upcoming renovations, as it was badly needed in some parts of the house. They are such amazing individuals! Sherwin Williams helped sponsor the event, and we all received t-shirts. We were both exhausted when this picture was taken, can you tell?
Before we left, the women made each of us a little grab bag of food, and I had my first taste of authentic island cooking. The potato salad was amazing; the rice rivaled my grandmother's recipe. And the cooked chicken could not have been real, it was that good. In my family, food is a representation of love. I can see it is no different here!
I was so wiped out from the day-the physical and emotional work was astounding. If you're interested in donating to Safe Haven, you can do so here online. They also have the address in the website if you're looking to donate tangible goods. I can say that every bit will be used for basic necessities; food, clothing, and shelter for the women and their children. I'm going to put together something for the children before I leave because there were so few toys or art supplies. Of all the things on this earth, they should be able to play!
Let's just say this vacation is turning into something more!