As the school year was beginning in January 2010, I was approached by a woman who asked me if I could help her son, Carlos. She explained that Carlos needed speech therapy, and she showed me a letter of recommendation confirming his acceptance into a special program in town.
The program was basically free but the family lives far enough away that bus fare would cost mother and son about $2 each day, an expense they could not afford. Doña Santos was simply seeking a grant to cover their transportation costs so that Carlos would be able to take advantage of this hard-to-come-by resource. It was such a simple, yet very important request, and I told her that we were happy to be in a position to offer our help. I brought her into the office and our staff took care of the remaining details. In October, I was told that Doña Santos had stopped by with Carlos, hoping to thank me personally for our support. I instinctively took a deep breath, knowing from experience how emotional expressions of gratitude from our families can be. Upon meeting me for the first time, Carlos’s face wrinkled with excitement and he nervously hid behind his mother’s arm. Doña Santos held both of my hands and told me how thrilled she was that her son was finally learning to talk. On cue, with both pride and glee, Carlos attempted to recite vowel sounds. Tears filled my eyes as I realized that there was much more to this story. I quickly excused myself to the office to look at his folder, read a report from the new school and saw the bigger picture.
What his mother understood to be only a speech impediment had now been diagnosed as severe developmental disability. In the two years prior to coming to the new school, Carlos had been attending a kindergarten program. The teacher was not capable of meeting or even understanding his needs, and many days Carlos was left to languish unattended in a corner, ridiculed by his classmates. Frustrated by this unacceptable treatment, his mother finally withdrew him from the school. Somehow grace intervened and Doña Santos not only found out about the special program, but was guided to ask us for our assistance as well. Now, by some small miracle, standing before me was a nine year-old boy who for the very first time was learning to speak. Doña Santos says that the only dream she ever had for her son was that one day he would be able to study and learn new things. She is astounded by his progress and says that both of their lives have changed dramatically as a result. Carlos is finally getting the special care and attention he deserves, all because we were able to offer his mother $2 a day to transport them back and forth into the city.
It’s not very often that we have scholarship recipients that are so peripherally involved that I don’t know them personally. But Carlos’s case was special and while he did occasionally come by the program, our paths never managed to cross directly. I was so happy to meet Carlos and to feel the power of his story that I was anxious to spend a little more time with him. Our November/December birthday celebration was the following Friday and I thought to invite him. “What day was Carlos born,” I asked his mother. “December 24th,” she replied. This information fit perfectly within the miracle of his story, this unassuming child who was the symbol of so much hope, born on Christmas Eve. The tears came again and I invented another reason to excuse myself. After four or five times that I had been overwhelmed by emotion and unable to suppress the tears, even though I kept excusing myself to not make a spectacle, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Dona Santos would now think that all American women wore their hearts on their sleeves!
The day of the party arrived and Dona Santos arrived with Carlos an hour before the party began, but both sat contentedly in a corner, watching the staff and students decorate the lunchroom. When I announced the names of those with birthdays, I made a special introduction for Carlos, explaining that he was a new member of our family with a very auspicious birthday, and everyone gave him a round of applause as he stepped up to receive his gift and birthday cupcake. And you might expect by now that every time I looked down at him clutching his present and cupcake with such joy and excitement I would start crying again!
After the cupcakes I was busy taking photos of our recent graduates and came back to the party to find Carlos still clutching his gift. He jumped when he saw me, came to show me his gift again and motioned for me to join him while he opened it. I don’t think I can describe the glow on his face as he took in the sight of the plastic red race car that we had given him, and he immediately began zooming it across the floor. It always fills my heart and gives me hope when simple things can bring so much joy!
I bent down with him so that we could take a photo together and just as we did, Shakira’s song that was so popular during the World Cup came on, and Carlos started shaking his hips and bouncing up and down! “Do you like to dance?” I asked him. He just nodded an emphatic yes, so I said, “Let’s go!” The first day we met Carlos was so shy, could still barely meet my eyes after 20 minutes, so I didn’t have high expectations of him coming too far out of his shell at this party. Now he had taken my hand and the two of us were bouncing up and down to Shakira in the middle of the patio. Thankfully, two other teachers and a small group of our younger students joined us so that the spotlight wasn’t on us alone. What absolute joy. He would turn and look into my eyes and it seemed that his face was exploding with joy. He would tilt his head back and laugh, and as our circle would come around, he would always glance over his shoulder to look at his mom who was watching lovingly from the table.
I was unbelievably happy to soak in all of the emotion he was sharing, happy to be lost in the simple joy of it all, jumping around with this little boy completely absorbed in the wonder of feeling so special. It was one of the most amazing afternoons that I could remember. Once again I felt incredibly blessed to feel my life grow deeper with the people of Guatemala, to have the opportunity to work as I do. What a gift to remember that joy can be so easily found in the simplest of things (a cupcake, a plastic race car, dancing to a favorite song).
When I think about Carlos or contemplate what his future might have held without our support, I feel the power of this transformation ripple through me. Carlos’s story continues to move me deeply, reminding me that we can never really know how even the smallest of our actions might impact the life of another. Please know that your continued consideration of the needs of these children manifests in ways beyond all of our imaginations. On behalf of all of the lives touched by your great generosity, I extend my deepest gratitude for all that you share with us to help make miracles happen. We are greatly blessed by your loving hearts and by your steadfast commitment to make this world a better place.
(Photos and video by Julie Coyne, Oscar Diaz and Juan Diego Alvarado, text by Julie Coyne)