By Jessica Wilcox
VE Volunteer from Nebraska, USA
I arrived in Santiago, Chile in September 2011. Having made the minimum four month commitment with VE, I planned to stay until the middle of January. When that date was approaching, I decided to stay until the end of February. And when February came and went, I was sure I’d be home by the end of March. Sometime during the month of April I told my family I’d be back in the US, at the latest, by the end of May.
As I boarded the plane to move back to the US in June, nine months after I arrived in Chile, my mind was filled with thoughts of “How can I be leaving already?” I gave people plenty of reasons for why I decided to stay in Chile longer than I originally intended – I wanted to travel more, my Spanish wasn’t good enough, I didn’t want to move back home and look for a job, etc. – but really, what kept me in Chile was Promesa (the hogar where I worked) and the 18 boys who live there.
Previous volunteers had told me time with VE goes by incredibly quickly. It didn’t take long for me to realize they were not lying and that leaving, after only having spent a few months with the boys at Promesa, would not be an option. For me, the first four months were a whirlwind of adjusting to the culture, trying to understand Chilean Spanish, forming relationships with the boys and trying to figure out my role in the hogar. I don’t think there was an exact moment, but rather a gradual change, when I realized that walking into the hogar was no longer just walking into their home, but was like walking into my own home.
That’s certainly not to say I always got treated so warmly by the boys. Even during my final months at the hogar, I still faced some of the struggles I faced my first month at Promesa: getting punched and bitten, getting called ‘tía tonta’ or having one of the boys stare straight into my eyes as he did exactly what I asked him not to. However, those moments were nothing compared to the moments of having a boy crawl into my lap, asking me to read him a book. Or the shouts of joy that came from yet another game of fútbol or ‘pacos y ladrones.’ Or the proud face of a boy showing me something he did in school or a good mark on a homework assignment. The laughs and giggles of an inside joke or a silly game, and the hugs and kisses I received upon arriving and leaving for the day.
I guess the frustrating times made the good moments all the more special, and those special moments kept me wanting to continue to stick around. As more months passed, I felt the boys’ trust in me a little more. I felt bonds and relationships growing deeper as I learned more about each boy and spent more time with them. Boys that didn’t talk to me much the first couple months were greeting me with kisses on my cheek and asking me to play games with them. A boy who didn’t seem to notice me at all in the beginning would kick around the fútbol with me, telling me all about his day.
Having to say goodbye to the boys, and to the family I formed in Chile, through VE and Promesa, was incredibly difficult. As I left I was reminded of a saying: “How lucky I am to have had something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” My goodbyes were hard, because I was fortunate enough to spend four months forming bonds, that after nine months developed into friendships and relationships that I will hold onto forever.