Not An Adventure

I’d like to preface this whole thing by saying that this is a preemptive strike, or rather, post. Why?

Well, because I’d like to clear the air of something that’s been nagging me for the past year. That way, when the time comes (very soon, I might add) that finds me back in the United States, I want to be able to have conversations with people without losing my marbles. I want to share what I have learned, what I have seen. I want to share the love I have felt. I don’t want to share my bad mood that you might set off just by saying the wrong thing.

So here’s the thing. People frequently, with their good intentions, continue to wish me success, happiness, and the like while I am here at NPH El Salvador. Something akin to “on this adventure of yours” is almost always tacked on to the end of the sentence. Adventure. My adventures. My year full of adventures.

In a word, gross.

That’s not what this is. My presence and geographical location for the last year has not been an adventure. It’s not an escapade, a voyage, or what have you. Try out most of adventure’s synonyms and try to claim that what I am doing is in fact of an adventurous nature, and I’ll find a way to disagree with you.

For me, the word adventure implies a passing fancy or some thrill-seeking…thing, as if I just decided to take a year off after finishing college before entering the “work world” to go backpacking or gallivanting through Europe kind of adventure. (Not that that is bad. It’s not! I’d love to travel through Europe, someday.)

My volunteer service, nay, my time in community with my crazy big Salvadoran family is not an adventure.

I was not blown here by the wind. I didn’t blindly place my finger on a spinning globe to see where I should go on a whim. I didn’t look up a list of international volunteer/service organizations and choose one at random from a search engine result page.

All I did was come back to a place that my bones knew and called as yet another home for me. (See the Home Series posts #1, 2, and 3 for a better understanding.) It wasn’t just that I returned home to this family, to this place where I felt and feel loved. I was called back. God planted a seed many years ago and has lovingly nurtured it. I’m blessed to say that it has grown into an awesome little tree. And you know what? Trees keep growing! Life keeps growing and twisting and turning!

God’s plan for my life brought me here. Now granted I could have said no and refused. I could have said, you know what? I’m going to get a paying job and stay. But when you come to know a place like this, when you come to know such beautiful people, and when God says, hey why don’t you go live there? It’s pretty easy to make that choice (and would be definitely mind-boggling if you did say no!)

I love hiking in the mountains or near the lake at home. Sometimes I just love walking along the river near my old apartment for no reason. There’s something about physical paths that I am drawn to, so it makes logical sense that my favorite metaphorical figure for my life is in fact, a path or the trail.

My life, the path that I am walking on and have been on since the day I was born, has climbed up up up in altitude. Sometimes it gradually descends, sometimes rapidly. Then it ascends again with tortoise or hare-like velocity. Sometimes it’s full of switchbacks; sometimes it’s full of big ol’ lazy curves. When I came to NPH El Salvador, I wasn’t switching paths. I was and am continuing on the one I initially set off on, 23 years ago.

So…to bring it all back. It’s not that I don’t like the word adventure and what it means. Will I go on adventures? You bet! Do I think every day holds the possibility of being an adventure? Of course! Have I been on adventures while serving and living in El Salvador? Absolutely. I’ve got a whole mental list of stories at the ready to tell you.

But please, please, please do not mistake my time and presence in El Salvador as a whole as being an adventure. To be quite frank, I hate it when people say, “oh it’s an adventure.” “How exciting is this adventure for you!” What you are doing to me and to my kids here is compartmentalizing our lives, our experiences. We are not some item to check off on a list of things to do in the world and in life.

This is not a philanthropic volun-tourist thing. I didn’t come down to a country rife with poverty and violence to do “good” and make myself feel better, like people often do these days in their quests to “find themselves.” To say to myself, “yeah I have these big grandiose ideas about how I’m gonna change the world and eliminate suffering…okay I did my thing down here and now I can move on with my life.” That’s pretty shallow. If you are going to do service, wherever in the world it might be, do it for the right reasons. Do it because you are serving your neighbor, not serving yourself.

After having countless cup-runneth-over days here at NPH El Salvador, I seriously cannot imagine living out such a ludicrous notion of self-before-others. I came down not to make myself feel better or to change the world. I came down to be a part of someone’s life, to tell him and to tell her, hey you know, I love you. You’re going to be someone in this world. I believe in you.

St. Vincent Palloti says, “You must be holy in the way God asks you to be holy. God does not ask you to be a Trappist monk or a hermit. He wants you to sanctify the world and your everyday life.”

That’s pretty awesome, don’t you think? I’m doing my best to do what God asks of me, my call to holiness, as it were. So, NPH El Salvador isn’t an adventure. It’s the best way I know how to live out the call to holiness.

It’s my life.

Home is Not Places

Final Part of the “Home” series

Just like the source of my blog’s name, this song perfectly pinpoints how I felt when I was making the decision about what to do after college. For the longest time, well ever since my first visit to NPH El Salvador back in 2008, I was pushed and pulled in this direction. To be a volunteer not just within the greater NPH family, but specifically El Salvador. It’s as if God said, “This is your home too. Go.”

So, I went. I came. I am living here in El Salvador.

“Home is Not Places” by The Apache Relay is one of my favorite songs. It came into my life during college, right when my concept of what home was to me began to morph into something bigger than I could have ever imagined. In comparison to the other songs in this series, this song helps me understand and explain the feeling that I had to move, to leave. Rather, it helped me understand that my life was moving forward in a slightly different direction than most of my friends and peers…and that it was okay and perfectly normal. Granted, moving to another country and culture and simultaneously giving up your settled way of life is not something everyone does, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. But it was for me.

Feel it burn in my soul.
Like a wound that is exposed.
I need to run, I need to go.
I took my time, I got no more.
So take me somewhere I don’t know
‘cause home is not places it is love.

There was this indescribable feeling within me. I’m pretty sure the decision had been made long before I was truly conscious of it, if that makes any sense. I knew that in order to be the person that God wants me to be, leaving was part of the deal. Be the person I think I should be, or be the person God calls me to be?

I would be lying if I said that it’s easy to be the God calls us to be. Sometimes that path is easy, but sometimes it is not so much a walk of cake rather that it is more like walking across hot coals (or cement that’s been baking in the sun all day, in my case ha!) However, in this particular point of my life, being the person God wants to me to be, making that step of coming to NPH El Salvador, that was easy. It isn’t often that I have those moments of clarity and know exactly what God asks of me. NPH was and is one of those things that God doesn’t have to hit me on the head to know.

Though I did take my time getting around to doing it, as the song says, I finally had no more time to keep this part of my life at bay. I have been here before, so I had a pretty good idea of what things looked like as a visitor. However, life as a truly entrenched member of this family is something completely different. So instead of coming to a place I didn’t know, in essence, I came to an unknown role.

The one thing I did and do know is that the song is right, home is not a place. It is love. I may not be back in Tennessee or Ohio with my family members and friends, but I feel their love and carry it with me. I am living in a place full of love. At first it was a few buildings and a room that looked nothing like my old apartment or parents’ house. Now, it is my big house. I’ve got a couple hundred people I love and who love me back.

And I, I don’t want no control,
‘cause home is not places it is love.
It is love.
It is love.
It is love.
It is love.

Part of our life’s journey and God’s plan may involve leaving what we think we know and are supposed to do. Take comfort in knowing that a home is not a place. A home is where there is love, where you feel it and give it in return. That can be anywhere in the world!

The time for me to leave NPH is rapidly approaching. I hate it. However, I take comfort in knowing that this will always be my home too. Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos El Salvador has become (well, has been) part of the fabric of my being. It’s not a home or an institution, but rather a place of love.

And so, there is the conclusion to the Home series. I hope it helped you in figuring what home is and means to you!

Don’t forget to go to the main page to check out the song “Home is Not Places” by the ever wonderful The Apache Relay.

Paz y bien.

*Oh! Also! I couldn’t resist the connection as this song is too great to not mention more about my experience with the band. I’ve been lucky enough to see The Apache Relay four times. Not only are they incredibly talented musicians and put on a great show, but they are very humble and wonderful people to talk to. As is my penchant at any concert or for any artist, I like to hang around after shows in the event that I have the wicked cool opportunity to meet them.

I’ve talked to Michael, the lead singer a few times. The first time I met him was after my third time seeing them. Michael gave me this big old bear hug after I told him that I still hadn’t heard them play my favorite song of theirs live, “Home is Not Places.” We then chatted about some other things, and then right before we parted, he gave me a handwritten set list…which is so awesome!

A few days before I saw them in March 2013, I sent out a tweet to the band/Michael, casually but not so subtly asking if they might have tossed Home back into the set list. I realize that any band might get a bit tired of playing certain things, but I still had to see. The evening came. My sister and I drove an hour to see them, ate overpriced Chinese food next to the venue, got front row/stage view standing positions, and the show was awesome. After playing a mix of old and new tunes, the show had ended and Home was not played. Admittedly very bummed, I still was looking forward to the encore. Then Michael came back out on stage by himself with an acoustic guitar. I thought it was odd.

Then he started playing a stripped down version of Home is Not Places, and I almost cried it was so beautiful.

After the show was really over, Ape (my sister) and I hung around. I was fortunate enough to talk to Michael again, and I profusely thanked him for playing Home. “No problem!” he said. He told me that he had seen the tweet I sent, and instead of replying, he thought he’d make a surprise of it and just played it at the end of the show. How cool and sweet and awesome is he? Very. Moral of my concert story – people are awesome.

Now, for real. Paz y bien!

April in Review

The month of April was, to say the least, awesome. A lot of fun and cool things happened here at NPH El Salvador, not least among them being Holy Week and Easter. Lent is my favorite liturgical season, but there’s something about Holy Week that I can’t explain. I love it! It was very neat to have experienced new traditions here with my NPH family.

Here is the month of April in photo review at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos El Salvador! I included a lot of pictures in this post (more than usual) because of how much went on and simply due to the fact that I cannot make a decision on which picture to use. I hope you don’t mind that (but really, why would you mind more pictures?)

Also, I should note that at some point after Easter, something happened with the inner workings of my camera, and now a black mark appears in the corner of every picture. Unfortunately I have not been able to figure out how to make it go away.

Enjoy!

Paz y bien.

The boys are working (mostly) on some drawings, but near the end of the afternoon they spent more time goofing off than working, ha!

The boys are working (mostly) on some drawings, but near the end of the afternoon they spent more time goofing off than working, ha!

On our way to see FAS play! (FAS is a professional soccer team!)

On our way to see FAS play! (FAS is a professional soccer team!)

Our special treat to the boys was going on the field. In this shot, the players are going back inside to change before the game. Those are my boys lining the tunnel. How cool!? The leading scorer in all of El Salvador is the guy in blue about to give out some high fives.

Our special treat to the boys was going on the field. In this shot, the players are going back inside to change before the game. Those are my boys lining the tunnel. How cool!? The leading scorer in all of El Salvador is the guy in blue about to give out some high fives.

The story of my life – an unsuccessful group picture, ha. I got a few of the boys and some of the players looking at my camera.

The story of my life – an unsuccessful group picture, ha. I got a few of the boys and some of the players looking at my camera.

It wasn’t actually raining, but she needed a picture with an umbrella. So we improvised!

It wasn’t actually raining, but she needed a picture with an umbrella. So we improvised!

With the boys and their homework assignment. Kudos go to the Tía who helped them make the very delicious pudín.

With the boys and their homework assignment. Kudos go to the Tía who helped them make the very delicious pudín.

With the girls while they prepare chilaquiles…

With the girls while they prepare chilaquiles…

The finished product, chilaquiles. I know it doesn’t look like much, but I promise you. IT IS AWESOME.

The finished product, chilaquiles. I know it doesn’t look like much, but I promise you. IT IS AWESOME.

How the frontlines look just before dinner time.

How the frontlines look just before dinner time.

Beans and cream for dinner, one of my favs.

Beans and cream for dinner, one of my favs.

The life of that beheaded piñata was short. There was still candy inside!

The life of that beheaded piñata was short. There was still candy inside!

April birthdays!

April birthdays!

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Going for a spin on the track! I gave some of the girls a ride later on because they don’t know how to ride a bike, but they still wanted to experience it.

Going for a spin on the track! I gave some of the girls a ride later on because they don’t know how to ride a bike, but they still wanted to experience it.

Palm Sunday procession!

Palm Sunday procession!

An NPH El Salvador Holy Week tradition is to go to the Lempa River. It’s a 2 hour walk from the foundation. This is a bridge you have to cross. Really. Haha. I opted to walk through the stream. On the way home, I walked across. It was mildly terrifying as you’d imagine.

An NPH El Salvador Holy Week tradition is to go to the Lempa River. It’s a 2 hour walk from the foundation. This is a bridge you have to cross. Really. Haha. I opted to walk through the stream. On the way home, I walked across. It was mildly terrifying as you’d imagine.

She needed to borrow my shoes, but I wouldn’t let her until I took a picture documenting the stark difference between our feet, ha.

She needed to borrow my shoes, but I wouldn’t let her until I took a picture documenting the stark difference between our feet, ha.

All 3 of the gallinas at the river.  Gallina means hen in Spanish. Our nickname for each other happened because of a misunderstanding between the word for flip flop and the word for hen. The silliness will never go away, and the nickname stuck.

All 3 of the gallinas at the river. Gallina means hen in Spanish. Our nickname for each other happened because of a misunderstanding between the word for flip flop and the word for hen. The silliness will never go away, and the nickname stuck.

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In order to cross the strong current to get to the other side, you had to use the rope that the year of service boys somehow managed to string across. They’re awesome.

In order to cross the strong current to get to the other side, you had to use the rope that the year of service boys somehow managed to string across. They’re awesome.

I kept walking around making kissy faces with my algae mustache. The girls hated it, I loved it.

I kept walking around making kissy faces with my algae mustache. The girls hated it, I loved it.

The boy in the middle had just basically fallen off his seat, which happens to be a water jug that caved in on itself. Haha.

The boy in the middle had just basically fallen off his seat, which happens to be a water jug that caved in on itself. Haha.

Walking home

Walking home

Enjoying a lovely sunset. I walked home with 3 girls in less than 2 hours! We were very proud of ourselves.

Enjoying a lovely sunset. I walked home with 3 girls in less than 2 hours! We were very proud of ourselves.

Holy Thursday is my favorite! Washing of the feet.

Holy Thursday is my favorite! Washing of the feet.

On Good Friday, the year of service youth put on their production of the Stations of the Cross. We all lined the field to watch.

On Good Friday, the year of service youth put on their production of the Stations of the Cross. We all lined the field to watch.

I love Pilate’s outfit. It makes me giggle, especially since this guy is always so serious!

I love Pilate’s outfit. It makes me giggle, especially since this guy is always so serious!

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It was awesome watching the guys put the crosses up, so very smooth and skilled.

It was awesome watching the guys put the crosses up, so very smooth and skilled.

This is the thief who defended Jesus and asked Jesus to remember him when he arrived in the Kingdom…well that guy happens to be my little brother, E, who said those words. Although Holy Thursday is my favorite of the Triduum, Good Friday ALWAYS gets me and makes me cry. I lost it, internally, when E said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” This time it wasn’t just words I heard from a lector. It was my brother, hanging from a cross, who said them.

This is the thief who defended Jesus and asked Jesus to remember him when he arrived in the Kingdom…well that guy happens to be my little brother, E, who said those words. Although Holy Thursday is my favorite of the Triduum, Good Friday ALWAYS gets me and makes me cry. I lost it, internally, when E said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” This time it wasn’t just words I heard from a lector. It was my brother, hanging from a cross, who said them.

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Good Friday was…good...to say the least.

Good Friday was…good…to say the least.

Veneration of the Cross

Veneration of the Cross

All of the year of service youth and Padre Ron being silly!

All of the year of service youth and Padre Ron being silly!

Blessing of the fire on Easter Vigil

Blessing of the fire on Easter Vigil

I could make an album just from pictures from that night, titled “Boys who squint because of the flash.”

I could make an album just from pictures from that night, titled “Boys who squint because of the flash.”

Easter morning’s only light at 4:30am was a path lined with these votive candles in sand.

Easter morning’s only light at 4:30am was a path lined with these votive candles in sand.

Padre and the guys before Mass started

Padre and the guys before Mass started

Happy Easter! The sun has risen, Christ has risen! Alleluia.

Happy Easter! The sun has risen, Christ has risen! Alleluia.

With my friend! He studies on the other side of the country, so we rarely see him.

With my friend! He studies on the other side of the country, so we rarely see him.

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Hahaha. This is a beautiful and silly picture.

Hahaha. This is a beautiful and silly picture.

The week’s other Peter Parker.

The week’s other Peter Parker.

“This is my beloved family, with whom I am well pleased.”

“This is my beloved family, with whom I am well pleased.”

One of the tías and her girls

One of the tías and her girls

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Easter Sunday activities…I promise, she clears it and makes a big ol’ splash.

Easter Sunday activities…I promise, she clears it and makes a big ol’ splash.

This kid is awesome. He asked to see the picture, and when he saw it he yelled, “WOW I LOOK SOOOOO COOL!”

This kid is awesome. He asked to see the picture, and when he saw it he yelled, “WOW I LOOK SOOOOO COOL!”

Even the year of service girls got in on the fun.

Even the year of service girls got in on the fun.

I love the smiles.

I love the smiles.

I spent part of my Easter afternoon in the clinic because of a gnarly blister I got on our hike to the river.

I spent part of my Easter afternoon in the clinic because of a gnarly blister I got on our hike to the river.

More homework time in the kitchen, this time it was sopes! Delicious.

More homework time in the kitchen, this time it was sopes! Delicious.

This year of service guy, who is not assigned to work in the kitchen, randomly stopped by and started helping the tía prepare beans without being asked. I love it! Yet another reason why my kids are way cool.

This year of service guy, who is not assigned to work in the kitchen, randomly stopped by and started helping the tía prepare beans without being asked. I love it! Yet another reason why my kids are way cool.

“Haciendo la paja” is what the boys told me (doing the lie, literally). The boys didn’t actually make the tortillas, the girls helped them ha. So I took a picture of them pretending to work.

“Haciendo la paja” is what the boys told me (doing the lie, literally). The boys didn’t actually make the tortillas, the girls helped them ha. So I took a picture of them pretending to work.

Their final product was chilaquilas (though the name is only one letter different from what the girls made – see the earlier picture – it is in fact much different but still just as delicious!).

Their final product was chilaquilas (though the name is only one letter different from what the girls made – see the earlier picture – it is in fact much different but still just as delicious!).

My best friend Katie Ann came to visit me for a little over a week. She’s so cool!

My best friend Katie Ann came to visit me for a little over a week. She’s so cool!

She made friends in the clinic too, haha.

She made friends in the clinic too, haha.

Photographic evidence that I do in fact wash my clothes by hand…

Photographic evidence that I do in fact wash my clothes by hand…

…and then almost cry because the sun is shining in my eyes when I hang them up to dry. Ha.

…and then almost cry because the sun is shining in my eyes when I hang them up to dry. Ha.

Friends making friendship bracelets

Friends making friendship bracelets

After a few days at NPH, Katie Ann and I went to the beach!!! This is looking at the tide pool area at high tide!

After a few days at NPH, Katie Ann and I went to the beach!!! This is looking at the tide pool area at high tide!

First time for me swimming in an ocean, ever. First time for Katie Ann seeing the Pacific Ocean (I’ve seen it before but had only gotten my feet wet.)

First time for me swimming in an ocean, ever. First time for Katie Ann seeing the Pacific Ocean (I’ve seen it before but had only gotten my feet wet.)

Low tide! Such awesome views.

Low tide! Such awesome views.

The tide pool when you can actually swim in it.

The tide pool when you can actually swim in it.

Let’s just say, I was nerding out after witnessing the tides come and go and what is left behind.

Let’s just say, I was nerding out after witnessing the tides come and go and what is left behind.

Lens kept fogging up, which annoyed me, but I did get some cool pictures.

Lens kept fogging up, which annoyed me, but I did get some cool pictures.

Ah, if only that pesky black spot weren’t there.

Ah, if only that pesky black spot weren’t there.

March in Review

Well hey there! I’m not so late this time in posting these. March was a very full and fun month, with a bit of adventure in and around the property along with some normalcy. Haha, the kind of normalcy that comes with living with 300+ kids/teenagers/young adults…

Good life is oh so good.

So, here is the month of March at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos El Salvador in photo review.

We’ve got a lot of land. I’m not sure how much in terms of acreage, but suffice to say that we’ve got enough room for the houses, clinic, school, and soccer field in addition to crop fields. We also happen to have an estimated 100 year old hacienda! How cool is that?

We’ve got a lot of land. I’m not sure how much in terms of acreage, but suffice to say that we’ve got enough room for the houses, clinic, school, and soccer field in addition to crop fields. We also happen to have an estimated 100 year old hacienda! How cool is that?

This was my second time at the hacienda. We had some visitors come through who wanted photos, so I volunteered to take them one Sunday morning. It was a tough job, let me tell you (that’s full of sarcasm by the way…it was awesome roaming around!)

This was my second time at the hacienda. We had some visitors come through who wanted photos, so I volunteered to take them one Sunday morning. It was a tough job, let me tell you (that’s full of sarcasm by the way…it was awesome roaming around!)

You can see the boys’ home and some of the workshops in the background. There’s an old corn field that separates the hacienda from the fenced off part of our property.

You can see the boys’ home and some of the workshops in the background. There’s an old corn field that separates the hacienda from the fenced off part of our property.

This is the second house inside the hacienda.

This is the second house inside the hacienda.

Old kitchen

Old kitchen

The entrance! The hand-painted orange words say, “Entrance prohibited.” The hacienda has some old, dilapidated structures on it, but there are also a few buildings that were constructed within the last decade or so.

The entrance! The hand-painted orange words say, “Entrance prohibited.” The hacienda has some old, dilapidated structures on it, but there are also a few buildings that were constructed within the last decade or so.

All the girls went out to the base of the “hill-mountain” for an afternoon of little games and snacks.

All the girls went out to the base of the “hill-mountain” for an afternoon of little games and snacks.

I chose not to participate in the “run up the hill to find a hidden flag” game. Haha.

I chose not to participate in the “run up the hill to find a hidden flag” game. Haha.

Love them!

Love them!

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“Let’s take a picture with the ‘desert of El Salvador’ in the background.” Haha. It’s not a desert climate, but when you’re in the dry season it kinda feels that way. At the time of this picture, it hadn’t rained in 5 months.

“Let’s take a picture with the ‘desert of El Salvador’ in the background.” Haha. It’s not a desert climate, but when you’re in the dry season it kinda feels that way. At the time of this picture, it hadn’t rained in 5 months.

“Who likes rabbits?” Almost everyone does, it seems.

“Who likes rabbits?” Almost everyone does, it seems.

Just being cool in the office…we wore essentially the same outfit one day. That happens a lot, and we never plan it!

Just being cool in the office…we wore essentially the same outfit one day. That happens a lot, and we never plan it!

Our friends from FAS (the professional, division one soccer team) came again for practice and a little something extra. They threw a little party for our youngest kids! This guy is the main goalie, and the whole city loves him!

Our friends from FAS (the professional, division one soccer team) came again for practice and a little something extra. They threw a little party for our youngest kids! This guy is the main goalie, and the whole city loves him!

I promise they all had fun, even though it doesn’t seem like it here…haha.

I promise they all had fun, even though it doesn’t seem like it here…haha.

Blah! This is adorable.

Blah! This is adorable.

Thanking the team for their visit and support of the NPH family. They are an awesome group of guys.

Thanking the team for their visit and support of the NPH family. They are an awesome group of guys.

With our national director, Tío Olegario. He’s wonderful!

With our national director, Tío Olegario. He’s wonderful!

On the morning of the high school graduation, with all the girls and the girls’ house sub-director. They are all so beautiful! Some of them are graduates while the others are escorts/sponsors. One cool tradition I like here in El Salvador is that at graduations, there is always someone who accompanies you. In a way , it is acknowledging that throughout not only your education but your life’s journey, there are people who help you along the way. So each graduate chooses an “acompañante” or escort for the big day.

On the morning of the high school graduation, with all the girls and the girls’ house sub-director. They are all so beautiful! Some of them are graduates while the others are escorts/sponsors. One cool tradition I like here in El Salvador is that at graduations, there is always someone who accompanies you. In a way , it is acknowledging that throughout not only your education but your life’s journey, there are people who help you along the way. So each graduate chooses an “acompañante” or escort for the big day.

And now for the boys, the boys’ house director, and some of their acompañantes. Such a handsome and sharp-looking group!

And now for the boys, the boys’ house director, and some of their acompañantes. Such a handsome and sharp-looking group!

With my brother on his big day!

With my brother on his big day!

I was asked to go buy one of the boys, my friend R. Here we are in the procession (another tradition) going to the church for Mass. In total, from the school to the church and then back again, we walked about 8 blocks!

I was asked to go buy one of the boys, my friend R. Here we are in the procession (another tradition) going to the church for Mass. In total, from the school to the church and then back again, we walked about 8 blocks!

Leaving the church. The sun was in my eyes, and I can’t take a picture, as usual. This is also one of the few pictures when R is smiling. He’s not much of a smiler in pictures, and I had to ruin the only one where he’s really smiling! Of course.

Leaving the church. The sun was in my eyes, and I can’t take a picture, as usual. This is also one of the few pictures when R is smiling. He’s not much of a smiler in pictures, and I had to ruin the only one where he’s really smiling! Of course.

:)

🙂

With 4 of the graduates who have been with NPH since kindergarten, along with two of the teachers who have been with us from the beginning. So cool!

With 4 of the graduates who have been with NPH since kindergarten, along with two of the teachers who have been with us from the beginning. So cool!

Siblings joined us all at the special luncheon!

Siblings joined us all at the special luncheon!

Such a beautiful family.

Such a beautiful family.

Haha. The March birthday celebration was full of laughter.

Haha. The March birthday celebration was full of laughter.

And accidentally beheading and dismembering piñatas…

And accidentally beheading and dismembering piñatas…

This boy took the arms and legs of the poor piñata, put them on, and walked around like this for a little while. Haha.

This boy took the arms and legs of the poor piñata, put them on, and walked around like this for a little while. Haha.

Birthday girls!

Birthday girls!

The 3 of us tried to take a picture, but it didn’t really work. This is my favorite one out of all the failed attempts haha.

The 3 of us tried to take a picture, but it didn’t really work. This is my favorite one out of all the failed attempts haha.

The boy in green (my “brother”) is teaching the other 3 to be altar servers! Brings back many a memory for me. I altar served for years and then became the coordinator for the ministry at my parish for a few years during college.

The boy in green (my “brother”) is teaching the other 3 to be altar servers! Brings back many a memory for me. I altar served for years and then became the coordinator for the ministry at my parish for a few years during college.

A nice Sunday morning with one of my good pals.

A nice Sunday morning with one of my good pals.

Caught the boys monkeying around on the playground…get it?

Caught the boys monkeying around on the playground…get it?

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With some of the girls from “chicas” before the big game!

With some of the girls from “chicas” before the big game!

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It’s so hard to take group pictures, apparently. As the next few pictures will show…here is the chicas team with Tía Silvia (so the youngest girls from my house. They’re also my hogar.)

It’s so hard to take group pictures, apparently. As the next few pictures will show…here is the chicas team with Tía Silvia (so the youngest girls from my house. They’re also my hogar.)

The chicos (the oldest boys from the babies’ house) with their year of service caregiver and my friend/tía/nurse Luz de María.

The chicos (the oldest boys from the babies’ house) with their year of service caregiver and my friend/tía/nurse Luz de María.

With my girls, hahaha. The front row is the best.

With my girls, hahaha. The front row is the best.

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I took a small turn at being the boys’ team goalie. Didn’t do so bad actually. Fortunately for the boys they’re good defensive players so the ball didn’t really come near me save for one unlucky shot!

I took a small turn at being the boys’ team goalie. Didn’t do so bad actually. Fortunately for the boys they’re good defensive players so the ball didn’t really come near me save for one unlucky shot!

After the game, the toddlers hit the field.

After the game, the toddlers hit the field.

Home (Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes)

Part 1 of the “Home” series

I got the idea one day when I was scrolling through the song list in my iPhone. Three of my favorite songs happen to be right in a row because of the alphabet. It amazes me how even the tiniest things grab my attention. I often listen to them, without putting my phone on shuffle. They all have the word “home” in the title, and obviously the concept of home is a huge theme of the song. One day, many moons ago, the idea for the “Home” series occurred. Of course I’m just now getting around to it…

The definition of home has changed for me these last few years, but it has especially been sharply defined since I moved to El Salvador and became a volunteer with Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos.

I remember redefining what home was when I first moved into Clement Hall my freshman year of college at the University of Tennessee. Of course, I still went home often to visit or do laundry. My room stayed the same, minus the few things I took with me to the dorm. However, I remember the first moments of confusion when I would talk with my parents about having to run home for something while I was out and about, etc. “Oh I’m on my way home.” “What, you’re coming by the house?” “No, I mean, I’m going back to the dorm. To my room.” That kind of stuff. Naturally, my dorm room and campus life became a home to me because I did live there.

Of course being accepted into college and then graduating high school months later was a humongous sign of growing up. For some reason though, it became clearer to me once I started having the “what is home” issue when I moved to campus. At first it was just about a physical place, but then it grew to my identity. Where was it rooted? Is it allowed to grow and change? Can my identity take on new colors and shapes and schemes or am I bound by the past and by my foundations? How do you learn and grow without losing who you are? How do I become my own person, an individual, without forsaking my family and friends?

I didn’t have a sheltered life, so I’m not too fond of this next cliché for what it implies, but it works for what I’m trying to say, which is…how do I cease being a caterpillar, break out of the cocoon, and become a butterfly? How can I be something different while still knowing my roots and acknowledging history and loving every moment and person along the way?

All of that started because of a seemingly simple problem of rationalizing my physical location because let’s face it, a lot of your identity can potentially be wrapped up in something physical, like a house.

I moved back to my parents for the summer after freshman year, then back to the dorms for sophomore year. However, the big change really took place when I didn’t move home pretty much at all the summer after sophomore year in 2011. I had a mini-term class which began the day after the spring semester officially ended. It was also 4 hours long, every day for 2 weeks. That’s a lot of driving from Lenoir City to campus for just one thing. Then, the day after the mini-term class ended, my summer class started. Fortunately for me, it only lasted for the first half of the summer term. The point is, when faced with such an odd class schedule and a new job that was only a few miles from campus, I couldn’t really bring myself to move home, to justify all that driving if I was presented with a more economical opportunity.

So for most of that summer, I camped out in my friend’s room at Tyson House, which is the Episcopal-Lutheran campus ministry house at UT. I had spent a lot of time there the first few years as a student. While Katie Ann was away being a camp counselor, her room became my new home for the summer. It was great. I lived with a few other Tyson House residents who were taking summer classes. (Fun fact – I was the only female resident for a few weeks until the other girl moved in. That was a new and neat experience as well!) I went back to my parents’ house almost every weekend though. After classes were over, I spent a week visiting family up in Ohio, and then I technically lived at my parents’ house for about week until I moved into my apartment right before the fall semester started.

I hadn’t spent that much time away from home in a long time. (Haha, well, until I moved out of the country. But we’re not there yet.) So what was home? While I still called the house in Lenoir City my home, I also frequently referred to it as “my parents’ house” and not just simply “home.” The change in my vocabulary was an indicator of the shift in my perception of what home was to me. Then, when my family entered a particularly difficult time during my last 2 years of college, we were faced with the possibility of not calling our home, home, anymore.

I remember the sense of panic, of what it would be like to not go back to the place that I call home. Now, I’ll admit to you that I put a lot of stock into physical things as ways of holding onto memories. That is, I keep things and hold onto them tightly because I think they serve as a valuable connection. Even though I wasn’t born in Tennessee, we’ve lived there the longest. I feel like I’ve mostly grown up there, especially in that house. So I found the possibility of saying goodbye to it very challenging.

Then one day, a thought occurred to me. If I can but for one moment lay aside my attachment to the house, what then do I define a home as, if it isn’t in fact a tangible object?

Suddenly, my worries seemed rather trite when I thought about that question. You know why? Because as Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes sing,

Oh home, let me come home. Home is whenever I’m with you. Oh home, let me come home. Home is when I’m alone with you.

At least, that’s what they sing in the studio version of this song. I’ve got a live version from a Daytrotter session where they change things up a bit and instead sing,

Oh home, yes we are home. Home is wherever there is you. Oh home, yeah we are home. Home you are me and I am you.

Either as stand-alone verses or in thinking of them together, the message is clear to me. Home is being with the ones that we love. Home in this sense is not a place but instead is a gathering of or a union of the people that we love. Our family and our friends. Whenever we are with each other, we are home.

Now I know that I haven’t been with my family and friends for quite some time, almost 10 months as of this writing in fact. I miss them all very much. I’ve had very small bouts of homesickness. These tiny bouts don’t occur that often, actually. In the beginning I struggled with that feeling. Shouldn’t I feel weird that I’m not dying to go home? Well, the honest truth is no, I don’t have to feel weird. It all gradually became clear to me. I’ve always considered the pequeños of NPH El Salvador as family, so in a way when I came down, I just came back to a very big family. NPH isn’t the one that raised me, but it’s my family nonetheless.

One night, one of the high school girls and I were talking about when I was leaving and why. Though I didn’t have time to explain everything, I mentioned that I would like to see my family and friends. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them. She thought about that for a few seconds, and without missing a beat responded with, “Well, you don’t have to go back to the United States for that. Your family and your friends are right here.”

She’s right.

So if I’m in the US, El Salvador, or somewhere else entirely, what I do know is that whenever I am with the people that I love, I am home. Day by day, I am forming my identity outside of the physical house that I grew up in. I know for a fact that I am not the same person that I was when I started college, nor am I the same person that I was when I left the US. And that is such a good thing.

Change and growth are so beautiful when we allow ourselves to be open and vulnerable to it. So I acknowledge my roots and that physical home I grew up in, but I also now count an entirely different country and group of people as home and as family. That’s awesome.

So, there’s Part 1 of the “Home” series. In keeping with the original idea, the posts are in order of how the songs appear in my iPhone. Stay tuned for the next post.

Don’t forget to give “Home” by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes a listen on the main page! It just might change your life!

February in Review

Not too late this time…here is the month of February in photo review. It was a very full month and lots of cool things happened here at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos El Salvador.

Paz y bien.

Acto civico is a short program the school does every Monday morning, in which the kids sing the national anthem and focus on civics and being a good citizen as well as human being.

Acto civico is a short program the school does every Monday morning, in which the kids sing the national anthem and focus on civics and being a good citizen as well as human being.

There is always a skit of some sort in which the whole school learns about a new theme or topic. For example, the month of February was all about friendship and values related to that. The skit was very good and funny, as you can tell…

There is always a skit of some sort in which the whole school learns about a new theme or topic. For example, the month of February was all about friendship and values related to that. The skit was very good and funny, as you can tell…

That same day there was no power in the office, so my friend and I went and took pictures everywhere. We started with the school.

That same day there was no power in the office, so my friend and I went and took pictures everywhere. We started with the school.

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Making piñatas!

Making piñatas!

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“Faith and works have to be united together.” – Father William Wasson (the founder of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos)

“Faith and works have to be united together.” – Father William Wasson (the founder of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos)

Our walkabout continued to the old fields. As you can see, it’s a little…dry. Tis the season here, as we haven’t had rain in 4 months.

Our walkabout continued to the old fields. As you can see, it’s a little…dry. Tis the season here, as we haven’t had rain in 4 months.

We both had never been to the milpa (the crop fields) across the river, and we both really wanted to go…so we went.

We both had never been to the milpa (the crop fields) across the river, and we both really wanted to go…so we went.

Can you spot the year of service boy through the sorghum? I can.

Can you spot the year of service boy through the sorghum? I can.

Best walkabout ever. This is a beautiful view, but I want to come back once the rains return and get a shot when everything is green again.

Best walkabout ever. This is a beautiful view, but I want to come back once the rains return and get a shot when everything is green again.

Our little river is a little sad.

Our little river is a little sad.

Cows!

Cows!

Since we still didn’t have power, we decided to have our special lunch at the office in the city. Here, my coworkers are cracking up about something while we wait for transportation.

Since we still didn’t have power, we decided to have our special lunch at the office in the city. Here, my coworkers are cracking up about something while we wait for transportation.

One really cool thing that happened was the visit of FAS (Club Deportivo Futbolistas Asociados Santanecos), which is a regional soccer team that plays in the best professional soccer league in all of El Salvador. They came to host their practice on our field, then they held a short scrimmage with our boys’ team. Just to reiterate the awesomeness, it’s like going to an NFL practice or having an NBA team come to your gym to just hang out. That’s a pretty big stinkin’ deal!

One really cool thing that happened was the visit of FAS (Club Deportivo Futbolistas Asociados Santanecos), which is a regional soccer team that plays in the best professional soccer league in all of El Salvador. They came to host their practice on our field, then they held a short scrimmage with our boys’ team. Just to reiterate the awesomeness, it’s like going to an NFL practice or having an NBA team come to your gym to just hang out. That’s a pretty big stinkin’ deal!

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Coach giving the boys a pep talk before their scrimmage.

Coach giving the boys a pep talk before their scrimmage.

One of our boys (orange shoes) had the chance to run some drills with FAS during practice. They asked for the best player to come participate. HOW COOL IS THAT, YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW.

One of our boys (orange shoes) had the chance to run some drills with FAS during practice. They asked for the best player to come participate. HOW COOL IS THAT, YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW.

The scrimmage

The scrimmage

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The kids were pretty excited to meet the players afterwards. It cracked me up how shy some of the kids were.

The kids were pretty excited to meet the players afterwards. It cracked me up how shy some of the kids were.

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I went to the workshops one afternoon. Look at what the girls made in the bakery workshop. I really wanted one!

I went to the workshops one afternoon. Look at what the girls made in the bakery workshop. I really wanted one!

Sewing workshop

Sewing workshop

“Ashley, are you STILL eating that mango?!” Haha.

“Ashley, are you STILL eating that mango?!” Haha.

I went out for the weekend and spent it with my Salvadoran family!

I went out for the weekend and spent it with my Salvadoran family!

My friend and coworker. She’s the best.

My friend and coworker. She’s the best.

Since I hadn’t been able to visit them since October, we celebrated my November birthday super late in February! It was a great surprise.

Since I hadn’t been able to visit them since October, we celebrated my November birthday super late in February! It was a great surprise.

FAS came again! The kids got to cut class, with their teachers of course, to watch a few minutes of the practice.

FAS came again! The kids got to cut class, with their teachers of course, to watch a few minutes of the practice.

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I love this!

I love this!

St. Valentine’s Day celebration, games, and fun in the girls’ house.

St. Valentine’s Day celebration, games, and fun in the girls’ house.

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A cool view of the backyard.

A cool view of the backyard.

My girls and me right before we played “Amiga Secreta” (which is the same idea as Secret Santa)

My girls and me right before we played “Amiga Secreta” (which is the same idea as Secret Santa)

They had a hard time guessing who her secret friend was.

They had a hard time guessing who her secret friend was.

My nice haul after playing “Amiga Secreta”

My nice haul after playing “Amiga Secreta”

Later that night all the tíos and tías celebrated with our own little party.

Later that night all the tíos and tías celebrated with our own little party.

Couldn’t resist the cheese-opportunity

Couldn’t resist the cheese-opportunity

Haha. Pointing at “love”

Haha. Pointing at “love”

This is my friend and I goofing off per usual. He is one of the drivers and has accompanied me on many of my journeys to immigration as well as the 2 trips to Guatemala. We were having a little fun at our special lunch at the office.

This is my friend and I goofing off per usual. He is one of the drivers and has accompanied me on many of my journeys to immigration as well as the 2 trips to Guatemala. We were having a little fun at our special lunch at the office.

We had a special activity for the younger kids one afternoon.

We had a special activity for the younger kids one afternoon.

He’s so cute!

He’s so cute!

I gave my camera to a friend (one of the older boys is very interested in photography) one afternoon, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the pictures he took. These are awesome! Here’s just a bit of the flora we have around campus.

I gave my camera to a friend (one of the older boys is very interested in photography) one afternoon, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the pictures he took. These are awesome! Here’s just a bit of the flora we have around campus.

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Haha I love these two sisters. One always smiles in pictures, the other one, not so much!

Haha I love these two sisters. One always smiles in pictures, the other one, not so much!

He’s got a Knoxville, Tennessee shirt on! Wicked cool!

He’s got a Knoxville, Tennessee shirt on! Wicked cool!

Caught the boys hanging around and playing after a soccer game one Friday

Caught the boys hanging around and playing after a soccer game one Friday

Talking with my brother

Talking with my brother

Choir practice, getting ready for Mass later in the day.

Choir practice, getting ready for Mass later in the day.

Cutest birthday girl yet.

Cutest birthday girl yet.

The piñata was, well, decapitated. It made good fun for the rest of us!

The piñata was, well, decapitated. It made good fun for the rest of us!

January in Review

As usual, I am forgetful and late and even a little bit lazy…but here is the month of January in photo review. I was able to ring in the New Year and celebrate in the coolest place ever, Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos El Salvador!

Paz y bien.

We celebrated 3 Kings Day by going to a waterpark!

We celebrated 3 Kings Day by going to a waterpark!

Everyone, young or old(er), enjoyed the day.

Everyone, young or old(er), enjoyed the day.

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Sitting on the back of a larger than life giraffe statue, looking cool.

Sitting on the back of a larger than life giraffe statue, looking cool.

He kept teasing her, and then threw her shoes in the pool. So she answered back by shoving him in to retrieve the shoes!

He kept teasing her, and then threw her shoes in the pool. So she answered back by shoving him in to retrieve the shoes!

It was Tío Ole’s (our national director) birthday, so we celebrated with some songs and a sweet treat for everyone. Each house took turns giving him a nice card and saying a little something.

It was Tío Ole’s (our national director) birthday, so we celebrated with some songs and a sweet treat for everyone. Each house took turns giving him a nice card and saying a little something.

They look THRILLED to be eating lunch.

They look THRILLED to be eating lunch.

It’s the story of my life, always ruining pictures with my squinty eye syndrome. So I overcompensated in this one, haha.

It’s the story of my life, always ruining pictures with my squinty eye syndrome. So I overcompensated in this one, haha.

Sweet sisters

Sweet sisters

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January birthday party shenanigans!

January birthday party shenanigans!

Improvisation at its best. When there’s no ladder, use a high chair haha.

Improvisation at its best. When there’s no ladder, use a high chair haha.

That was the toughest piñata to break. Ever.

That was the toughest piñata to break. Ever.

The girls getting pumped for the marathon. We opened the school year and welcomed each other back with a nice little run around the community. It’s also part of one of several events we’ve got planned as a way to build up to our 15th anniversary celebration in June!

The girls getting pumped for the marathon. We opened the school year and welcomed each other back with a nice little run around the community. It’s also part of one of several events we’ve got planned as a way to build up to our 15th anniversary celebration in June!

Twins. These guys are just awesome, even when they’re not matching.

Twins. These guys are just awesome, even when they’re not matching.

…aaaand they’re off!

…aaaand they’re off!

First place winner for the 2 kilometer race! Her older sister would later win the 8 kilometer distance.

First place winner for the 2 kilometer race! Her older sister would later win the 8 kilometer distance.

Our university students helping the younger kids make their way to the finish line.

Our university students helping the younger kids make their way to the finish line.

The boy in white had long finished his 8km race when he saw the boy in the striped shirt come in, struggling to finish. So he came and helped him finish! That’s just one reason why I love it here.

The boy in white had long finished his 8km race when he saw the boy in the striped shirt come in, struggling to finish. So he came and helped him finish! That’s just one reason why I love it here.

Caught off guard, being silly, as usual.

Caught off guard, being silly, as usual.

Beautiful!

Beautiful!

December in Review

While I shared a lot of pictures in my Christmas-related post, I just couldn’t leave these gems behind! Oh and there are some events/activities pictured here that I didn’t mention in the previous post.

So here is a glimpse of my time at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos El Salvador in the month of December, in photo review…

Coloring some neat Christmas drawings with the girls one afternoon

Coloring some neat Christmas drawings with the girls one afternoon

With 2 of my dear friends from the office at the employee Christmas party

With 2 of my dear friends from the office at the employee Christmas party

Almost all of the employees (caregivers, office staff, clinic staff, cafeteria staff, teachers, psychologists, and directors – we’re missing some of the maintenance and farm employees as well as a few nurses) …I think we’re around 100 people or so.

Almost all of the employees (caregivers, office staff, clinic staff, cafeteria staff, teachers, psychologists, and directors – we’re missing some of the maintenance and farm employees as well as a few nurses) …I think we’re around 100 people or so.

Blah! Love it.

Blah! Love it.

This picture makes me smile. Every month our national director hands out candy to the kids who are celebrating birthdays. He was teasing these boys and said they shouldn’t get any since we lost the international fútbol tournament the month before, haha!

This picture makes me smile. Every month our national director hands out candy to the kids who are celebrating birthdays. He was teasing these boys and said they shouldn’t get any since we lost the international fútbol tournament the month before, haha!

We didn’t plan to dress alike (even our hair was done the same!), but what we enjoyed more than that was discovering that we have the same tan lines on our feet…haha.

We didn’t plan to dress alike (even our hair was done the same!), but what we enjoyed more than that was discovering that we have the same tan lines on our feet…haha.

The 3 amigas!

The 3 amigas!

Tío/Tía Christmas party, complete with embarrassing games! We refer to all the caregivers as Tío or Tía.

Tío/Tía Christmas party, complete with embarrassing games! We refer to all the caregivers as Tío or Tía.

All of us minus the one taking the picture!

All of us minus the one taking the picture!

They're so much fun. The 2 on the left are former pequeñas who are now employees. The one on the right is a university student who also works at our home. They’re all so wonderful!

They’re so much fun. The 2 on the left are former pequeñas who are now employees. The one on the right is a university student who also works at our home. They’re all so wonderful!

Me with all of the tías of Casa Santa María

Me with all of the tías of Casa Santa María

I made this one day while I sharpened a humongous box of colored pencils. I learned the coloring trick after watching the kids decorate so many letters. It’s quite nifty and cool!

I made this one day while I sharpened a humongous box of colored pencils. I learned the coloring trick after watching the kids decorate so many letters. It’s quite nifty and cool!

Goofing around in the cafeteria while doing letters…

Goofing around in the cafeteria while doing letters…

Waiting around for an activity to begin

Waiting around for an activity to begin

We went to the river a lot in December. This is the first time I went with all of the kids (that other time was at a different location farther upstream with just the youth group), so it was a lot more fun because all of the girls who couldn’t swim well or who just wanted me to cart them around kept me occupied the entire time. In this photo, there are 3 girls attached to me.

We went to the river a lot in December. This is the first time I went with all of the kids (that other time was at a different location farther upstream with just the youth group), so it was a lot more fun because all of the girls who couldn’t swim well or who just wanted me to cart them around kept me occupied the entire time. In this photo, there are 3 girls attached to me.

This picture is misleading, as there is a 5th girl attached, you just can’t see her! But oh how much fun I had. I was really sore for the next few days though, haha.

This picture is misleading, as there is a 5th girl attached, you just can’t see her! But oh how much fun I had. I was really sore for the next few days though, haha.

The older girls wanted me to jump off the bank with them, but first I had to climb up…with their help and way too much laughter.

The older girls wanted me to jump off the bank with them, but first I had to climb up…with their help and way too much laughter.

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Our choir went to a local hospital to sing at Mass and then go caroling in different locations within the hospital.

Our choir went to a local hospital to sing at Mass and then go caroling in different locations within the hospital.

They were so good and everyone was rather impressed!

They were so good and everyone was rather impressed!

At the end of every set, they sang “Feliz Navidad and Prospero Año” and threw their Santa hats in the air.

At the end of every set, they sang “Feliz Navidad and Prospero Año” and threw their Santa hats in the air.

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Love it.

Love it.

Every year on Fr. Wasson’s birthday, we have Mass and then remember him in a special and fun way by eating his favorite treat afterward…donuts!

Every year on Fr. Wasson’s birthday, we have Mass and then remember him in a special and fun way by eating his favorite treat afterward…donuts!

The girls being silly (and strong)

The girls being silly (and strong)

With my most favorite little one! I love her smile.

With my most favorite little one! I love her smile.

Christmas decorations at work!

Christmas decorations at work!

Last day of work before Christmas! We even matched (not on purpose – that’s how cool we are)

Last day of work before Christmas! We even matched (not on purpose – that’s how cool we are)

The next few photos are from dinner on Christmas Eve. Almost all the younger girls wore pink, fuchsia, or purple!

The next few photos are from dinner on Christmas Eve. Almost all the younger girls wore pink, fuchsia, or purple!

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Second trip to the river. This time the boys came.

Second trip to the river. This time the boys came.

My brother and me. He said, “hey Ashley climb up the bank and jump with me! Right now!!!” Of course, he had to help me climb up the bank haha. The picture isn’t very good, but it’s still a nice reminder of the fun we all had that afternoon.

My brother and me. He said, “hey Ashley climb up the bank and jump with me! Right now!!!” Of course, he had to help me climb up the bank haha. The picture isn’t very good, but it’s still a nice reminder of the fun we all had that afternoon.

With my friend and favorite tía!

With my friend and favorite tía!

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot (Not) Like Christmas – In a Good Way

The Christmas season and experience here in El Salvador was excellent, awesome, and at some points it seemed altogether unreal. So why did I paint my Christmas experience with such terms? One would think Christmas is Christmas…right?

Wrong.

Sure, the feast day itself is the same. It is the recognition of, remembrance of, and opening of our hearts to the coming of and birth of Christ.

Unfortunately, this world-altering day isn’t celebrated the way it ought to be in many places, and I’ll come right out and say that the United States is one of those places. For quite some time now, I’ve felt that the US is a little too commercialized in its celebration of Christmas. From my perspective, too much is placed on the value and quantity of things that one receives (or even gives) during the season. The center and focus is not the Church and Jesus, but instead is a store and a sweet deal.

This sentiment was confirmed after experiencing Christmas here in El Salvador at NPH.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love my family’s traditions, and I still believe in the magic of Santa Claus. I’m blessed to have the family that I do because we value the time we have with each other; my grandparents come over to our house in the morning and then we go to theirs later in the day. We celebrate my Grandpa’s birthday, since he’s so cool that his birthday falls on Christmas. We open presents, but we also go to Mass. We also have a terrible tradition of at least one person being miserably sick each year. I think I started that tradition, haha.

Anyway, I think what I’ve been hungering for is a culture that places more emphasis where it rightly belongs, on Christ. I found that culture here in El Salvador and especially here at NPH.

The quite beautiful and large nativity scene just outside of the cafeteria

The quite beautiful and large nativity scene just outside of the cafeteria

We began the season with the novena for Our Lady of Guadalupe, which started on December 4th.  Every night, a different house or group of employees was in charge of leading the novena. A novena is a special prayer and devotion that lasts for nine days; in this case, the novena was for Our Lady of Guadalupe, asking for her intercession for us. So we all gathered and prayed the rosary together, and afterwards we had a little snack. What I particularly enjoyed witnessing was the community novena, in which we invited those who live along the road outside of our home to come in and pray with us. We then served them dinner.

With boys before the novena, waiting for the others to arrive.

With boys before the novena, waiting for the others to arrive.

Our Lady of Guadalupe outside of the boys’ home – Casa San José

Our Lady of Guadalupe outside of the boys’ home – Casa San José

With the boys who led the rosary on the first night of the novena (and the house director too)

With the boys who led the rosary on the first night of the novena (and the house director too)

Second day of the novena, this time held at the girls’ house – Casa Santa María. Here’s my living room!

Second day of the novena, this time held at the girls’ house – Casa Santa María. Here’s my living room!

With the girls who led the rosary

With the girls who led the rosary

Third day of the novena, held at the babies’ house – Casa Niño Jesús

Third day of the novena, held at the babies’ house – Casa Niño Jesús

You see! Father Wasson’s practice of unconditional love isn’t just within the confines of NPH, but instead extends itself into the practice of loving your neighbors.

On the night of the community novena, serving food to the community members who came

On the night of the community novena, serving food to the community members who came

I’m pretty sure this is from the night the novena was held by the year of service pequeños. Every night the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was place in a different area and decorated differently.

I’m pretty sure this is from the night the novena was held by the year of service pequeños. Every night the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was place in a different area and decorated differently.

The novena finished on December 12th, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day, and in addition to the rosary, a mixture of high school students and year of service pequeños did a nice dramatization of the story of St. Juan Diego and Our Lady’s appearances to him.

The final night of the novena, held by the cafeteria staff. Here are some photos from the production of the story of St. Juan Diego

The final night of the novena, held by the cafeteria staff. Here are some photos from the production of the story of St. Juan Diego

DSC_1565 DSC_1578Another really cool thing that we did was the posadas. A posada is an activity in which we remember the journey Joseph and Mary took just before Jesus was born. A group seeking a place to stay goes house to house, asking for a room. The occupants deny the travelers, and this is all done in song. The different parties sing a number of stanzas back and forth (the ask, then the refusal), until the traveling party moves on to the final home. When the group is finally granted room and received into the home, there is usually some kind of fun activity or party and of course, food. Posadas are usually done in the week leading up to Christmas, with the last posada falling on Christmas Eve.

So in our case here at NPH, the different houses took turns hosting the posada and being the traveling party. For example, our first posada was done by Casa San José, which is our boys’ house. They went singing to Casa Niño Jesús (the babies’ house) and then to Casa Santa María (the girls’ house). After they were refused entrance, they traveled to la cancha (the playing courts) where everyone was waiting for them. At la cancha, they were finally welcomed and given a room.

The boys arriving at the babies’ house to begin the posada

The boys arriving at the babies’ house to begin the posada

The babies, year of service girls, and tías on the other side waiting to refuse the traveler’s request

The babies, year of service girls, and tías on the other side waiting to refuse the traveler’s request

The boys on their way to the girls’ house, with images of Joseph and Mary up front

The boys on their way to the girls’ house, with images of Joseph and Mary up front

Attempt #2 at lodging

Attempt #2 at lodging

Yay! They finally found a place to stay…

Yay! They finally found a place to stay…

After everyone took a seat in la cancha, some of the boys put on a little skit and dance. It was great! Their creativity always surprises me, and as always, they made the crowd laugh. After the presentation, we began with the piñatas! Every section of boys and girls got their own piñata, so breaking those took some time. Once they were all done, we had dinner outside (it hasn’t rained in 2 months, so we’ve been able to eat outside almost every night.)

Their skit was about the value of Christmas and about a young boy who learned the value of giving rather than receiving

Their skit was about the value of Christmas and about a young boy who learned the value of giving rather than receiving

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And now, for the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer dance!

And now, for the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer dance!

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With the boys after their skit and dance

With the boys after their skit and dance

Only the beginning of a week full of piñatas and lots of candy…

Only the beginning of a week full of piñatas and lots of candy…

One of the year of service boys really enjoying his job of working the piñata

One of the year of service boys really enjoying his job of working the piñata

In total, we had 5 posadas. And again, displaying that wonderful NPH spirit and love, we had a posada for the community one night. I missed the girls’ posada because I was quite ill one afternoon/night, but I was fortunate to see their dance during the last posada a few days later. The last one was held in honor of the Hermanos Mayores (big/older brothers and sisters), who are former pequeños. We had about 25 come for Mass and then the posada, and because it was the last one, all of the houses performed their dramas/skits/dances.

The community posada

The community posada

More chaos and candy!

More chaos and candy!

The posada for “Hermanos Mayores”

The posada for “Hermanos Mayores”

Inside the babies house, waiting to refuse the traveler’s request for a room

Inside the babies house, waiting to refuse the traveler’s request for a room

Piñatas, piñatas, and more piñatas

Piñatas, piñatas, and more piñatas

The babies’ house did a dance about the 3 Kings

The babies’ house did a dance about the 3 Kings

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The girls’ did a fun and comical dance with Santa as the star

The girls’ did a fun and comical dance with Santa as the star

So beautiful!

So beautiful!

I never tire of watching kids snatch up candy after a piñata breaks.

I never tire of watching kids snatch up candy after a piñata breaks.

The boys taking care of business and demolishing the piñata in record time.

The boys taking care of business and demolishing the piñata in record time.

On Christmas Eve morning, all of the children assembled in our multipurpose room to receive their gifts. It took less than an hour to hand them all out, especially because many of our children are not here right now and are instead on vacation with any family members they may have (who are capable of hosting them for a short time.) I was expecting Christmastime to be a bit sad, what with us missing almost half the population, but it was far from being sad. I was also unsure about their reactions…admittedly, I’m used to multiple presents under the tree, not just one item (although their bags had tons of cool stuff inside!) From my perspective, it seemed quite joyful and full of laughter.

Handing out gifts on Christmas Eve morning

Handing out gifts on Christmas Eve morning

DSC_3866 DSC_3873 DSC_3959Later that night, we had Mass in near darkness, with just a few candles to illuminate the altar and the choir. It was unimaginably beautiful. I returned to my seat after serving as a Eucharistic minister and closed my eyes. The children were singing and it seemed as if I were in the largest cathedral ever built with the biggest choir in the world. The sound lifted us up into the night sky.

Our manger scene in front of the altar

Our manger scene in front of the altar

The church just before the kids came

The church just before the kids came

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The church just before the last lights were turned off and Mass began

The church just before the last lights were turned off and Mass began

After Mass, our walk to la cancha was lit up by a few hundred candles. We prayed and then ate a traditional dinner. After dessert, we all piled onto one side of the court to watch the fireworks.

These 2 university students saved me a spot and grabbed a plate of food for me at dinner since I was walking around taking pictures. So sweet!

These 2 university students saved me a spot and grabbed a plate of food for me at dinner since I was walking around taking pictures. So sweet!

Fireworks!

Fireworks!

Yes! Fireworks. That’s a Christmas tradition I’ll take to the bank, and I think the United States should definitely adopt it, of course! What’s better than fireworks on the eve of Christ’s birthday?

We were all out later than usual that night, but I stayed out even later and hung out with two of my friends, watching a movie (one is a nurse/tía who was a former pequeña here and the other is a university student/pequeña who also works at the home.) I didn’t go to bed until around 12:30am.

For me, our Christmas Eve celebration felt more like Christmas Day back in the United States. Christmas Day was actually like a normal day here, the only exception being that we woke up and ate breakfast much later than usual.

The many traditions I experienced truly lengthened the Christmas season and celebration for me. Instead of just one thing or a singular event with many parts, like Mass on Christmas Eve/Day and then the opening of presents, the entire month of December seemed like one big long celebration interwoven with various events and activities that combined the Divine with the rich cultural and secular festivities.

And I really, really love that.

Paz y bien.

Update and A Slice of Happy

Well, this is embarrassing.

The whole point of this blog was to help in sharing my experiences. What have I done? I’ve been quiet for the last 2 months. My sincerest apologies!

I know it’s an easy way out, but it’s the truth when I say that I have been busy. There has been soooo much going on, it’s great! At times, it’s an exhausting kind of day when I get back to my room, so I tell myself, oh I’ll write tomorrow. Then I don’t.

My only disclaimer is that my Facebook friends have been kept up to speed…it’s way easier for me to post updates there. Though I also have more constraints with that medium. Here on the blog, it feels like the world is my oyster, so to speak. And I tend to go more in-depth with my experiences here (which requires more time than a quick Facebook status takes), few and far between though they may be.

Anyway…here’s a quick recap. Then I’ll start posting posts with some more meat to them, as they say.

I realized I never told you this, but back in the middle of October, I went to NPH Guatemala/Antigua/Panajachel, Guatemala for 6 days (note: got a post coming up that’s sort of related to the trip). A family that has been instrumental in supporting and fundraising for NPH, practically since its inception back in 1954, came for a visit. They have worked with NPH for what seems like forever, so it was a wonderful opportunity to have met them. It was almost like meeting Fr. Wasson himself with the stories that I heard. Anyway, the family’s original travel plans changed right before they left NPH El Salvador, so they “borrowed” me for a few days to help translate while they visited at NPH Guatemala and went to do a few tourist-y things. You could say that it was an awesome working vacation. It was great!

November came. I ceased working at the school because classes were over, so I went full time in the office. We had a lot of visitors for various reasons, and I had roommates for practically the entire month. We hosted a spiritual workshop for 5 of the NPH homes, a large group of sponsors from the US came to visit; we celebrated kindergarten and 9th grade graduations and quinceañeras for 12 of our beautiful girls. In the middle of all of those activities – which happened within the same week – I turned 23. It was the best birthday that I have ever had, seriously. I’ve never received so many surprises in one day. Who knew that 23 could be so awesome?

The last week of November, 25 of our kids went to NPH Guatemala to participate in the 7th annual NPH International Soccer Tournament. I was fortunate enough to go along and document the experience and be a caregiver for our girls’ team. For me, November was the month that was and wasn’t. It flew by so fast and there was so much going on, I sometimes don’t remember that it happened, though I have the photographic evidence to prove otherwise. In one November week alone, I took almost 4,000 pictures, and I’ve been here 6 months!

The majority of December has also been incredibly busy and packed full of many fun things. Of course, we’re still in December so more on those experiences and happenings later on.

As many of my friends who have visited and become a part of the NPH family can attest, NPH is a wonderful place and is creating positive change in the world one child at a time. In speaking with a friend, our mutual discovery was that you really can’t find this kind of happiness anywhere else outside of NPH. It’s almost unreal. Recently I’ve come across two magnificent quotes, and I’d like to share them with you. The first comes from this season’s Little Blue Book (daily reflections and prayer for the Advent season; they also make books for Lent and Easter – check it out!):

“Whatever God wants me to be is the happiest life I could ever have.”

This next quote is from Vicki L. Kucia:

“Life is too short not to do something you love every day.”

My challenge to you is (if you haven’t found it already) go find that something that makes you happy. Find that something that you love and invest yourself in it, heart and soul. I think it’s safe to say that I’m doing what God wants me to do, and I couldn’t be happier. I also can’t imagine not being here at NPH.

At NPH, we always say that our doors and our hearts are always open to you. So come visit! Perhaps being a part of the NPH family is just the “thing” for you.

Paz y bien, Ashley.