By Katie Nykanen, VE Global Volunteer, January 2015
My last theatre production in college was about as close as you can get to creative, artistic bliss. Cast as Celia in As You Like It, I was a senior in an elite theatre department working with an award-winning director, surrounded and supported by a talented cast and crew of ambitious and motivated classmates. We had a beautiful space, a lavish budget, the words and characters of Shakespeare to inspire us and the world of the Forest of Arden to play in.
In my first theatre production post-graduation, I was writer, director, prop master, costume seamstress and scenic designer. With a budget of spend-as-little-as-you-can, two other volunteers and I put together a ten-minute play I had written, in a language I was still learning, about a group of astronaut-girls who meet an alien family on a newly discovered planet. Our cast consisted of six girls living at Hogar San Francisco de Regis a children’s shelter in Santiago, Chile for girls who have had their rights violated. We had three weeks to prepare for our debut at Festival de Arte. (¡Qué emoción!)
I spent rehearsals begging the astronaut-cook and astronaut-explorer to stop fighting while drying the tears of the alien-dog. I laughed, praised, begged, prodded, and pleaded with “Speak louder!” (“Más alta!”) and “Don’t show your butts to the audience!” (“¡No mostren sus potos al público!”) We practiced lines until I could say the script in my sleep, and still somehow the right words and order of events evaded the memories of my little space cadets. We struggled with taking turns talking, with fighting and yelling, with staying in our seats, with not climbing on the table, and with containing our urges to dance at inappropriate times. Sometimes I screamed and was ashamed; then I’d take a deep breath and start again with a smile and a compliment. I have probably never been more frustrated or challenged in my life. Yet, this too was a strange artistic bliss.
The day of the show came and I watched as little astronauts with Coke bottle jet packs and paper mache helmets and aliens with googley-eye glasses and blue-painted lips marched around the stage in a cardboard spaceship (whose construction was our greatest artistic ambition and achievement). I watched as they forgot lines, whispered the ones they remembered, and turned their butts to the audience: I beamed. I beamed at their wry grins and their embarrassed, contented eyes and I bore witness as the stage bug bit those little butts that were facing the audience. We cheered them on silently, holding our breaths and triumphing in every half-step in the right direction. As the play concluded we cheered, clapped, hugged, kissed, and stated over and over how wonderful they had been. They smiled and basked in their glory. One girl decided she wants to be an astronaut when she grows up; another, an actress.
I’ve been back in the States now for a few months reflecting on my time in Chile. I learned a new language, made a lot of new friends, went on adventures, was challenged, and grew as I fell in love with a new culture, a new place, new people, and a new experience totally different from any sort I’ve had before. But the faces that flash through my mind most frequently are those of these girls: these little love warriors. They have left their little fingerprints all over my heart. I dream of their sense of fun and mischief and their defiant drive to love and be loved.
During my time at Hogar San Francisco I was a drama teacher, babysitter, entertainer, diplomat, secret-keeper, teddy bear, coach, police officer, pushover, detective, playmate, clown, fool, English teacher, Spanish student, and comedian. But, more than any of these I was a friend: a pal. I was Tía (Aunt) Katie, who never understood anything unless you spoke really, really slowly. Tia Katie, who had strict rules about holding hands while crossing the street, but would let it slide if she caught you sneaking a stuffed animal off to your room. Tia Katie, who would dance like a loon if Taylor Swift came on the radio and would sing goofy operatic ballads. Tia Katie, who made faces that caused giggles and smiles and always had an art project up her sleeve. Tia Katie, who kept her hands and arms free for holds and hugs and would jump in the pool screaming again and again and again. I learned to become a version of myself that was a little more loving and a little more patient.
As humans we talk about this desire to have the attribute of love: to be caring, compassionate and loving—to live that way and walk it. I think we have the tendency to abstract this concept and romanticize it, without realizing that it is hard. Love is work: often, in the moment it is thankless and frustrating. Love is an action verb that we must do and practice over and over to gain it as something essential of us. I think very few people naturally love fiercely and selflessly. It is a choice that we must make. God knows I was far from a perfect Tía with the girls, often too impatient and too quick to anger, but I started learning to make the choice. To learn something emotionally is so different from learning something intelligently—and my time at Hogar San Francisco marks the beginning of an emotional education to make the choice of selfless love. I have made steps in the direction of becoming a warrior of love myself: my most precious lessons from Chile and my girls.
I spent this past winter working full-time for VE Global, an organization whose mission is to foster the development of children at social risk in Chile by training and empowering volunteers to serve as positive role models, educators and advocates of social justice. VE opens doors and opportunities for volunteers who feel the call to love, but may not know the second step to take to action. They are helping to provide the support and love necessary to create happy, healthy childhoods for children who at one time were in danger of never getting one. They combat some of the hardest social problems of our time, like poverty, by investing in our greatest hope: children. They are creating better human beings through both their volunteer network and the children they serve, and I am honored and proud to be a small part of their vision.