The neighbor’s rooster is confused. Muy confundido. At 1:30 in the god-forsaken morning, he begins notifying all within earshot that dawn is at hand—a full 3.5 hours before the first rays of sun make their timid appearance. Soon after, the neighborhood’s dogs join in the fray and a night of restful sleep is lost to the cacophony. Earplugs help, but not much. I’m surprised that the rooster hasn’t found himself in a pot. I might be the one to do it if only I knew more about the legalities of throttling a neighbor’s rooster.
After a fitful night of sleep, I peel myself out of bed to start my day. There’s no water in the house. An inconsistent supply of water is a reminder that I’m not at home. I have coffee from water I filtered the night before, and then begin the three-mile journey to the school. With Quito being over 9000 feet in altitude, three miles feels more like thirteen—but it gets a little easier each day. And did I mention the walk is uphill? Oh yes, the walk is most certainly uphill.
When I arrive at the school, I help the staff unload the students from two old minibuses that say “Niños Especiales” in white stickered letters on the back. They really are special children. Hernan is thrilled to see me and gives me a big hug and high-five, and then Dario gives me a kiss. Many of the students are generous with their affection, and the one good thing about being the only volunteer is that I don’t have to share my hugs and kisses. After the kids get situated, they all disperse to their respective classes or therapy. I usually assist in therapy because that’s where they seem to need the most help. Chubby little Marlo, who is one of our youngest, is crying alone in one of the therapy rooms. Since I arrived, Marlo spends each day crying or asleep—the therapist tells me it’s a part of his condition. Marlo makes me sad. Imagine spending each day that way, not really understanding the world around you (or perhaps understanding too well), and crying until you are relieved by your slumber. I can only hope that his dreams make him happy. Hugs and affection only make him cry harder, so I usually wait until he’s nearly exhausted himself before I try to rub his back. This seems to soothe him a little before he falls asleep.
I am rounding up the students for therapy and see the new nameless boy (whose name, we discovered, is Francisco) by the railing and I begin talking to him. An identical boy comes up to join us. Turns out Francisco has a twin and I had been talking to his brother, Sebastian. The two of them are perfectly identical, right down to the same mental disability—they’re both in their own little world. So far, I haven’t seen them speak to anyone, but they do seem to have their own language. Now that I know who’s who, I can tell which one is Franciso because he often says “camishu” and makes little hand gestures to go with it. Sebastian has his own special word and hand gestures. I asked if the words they say mean anything and was told they don’t. Francisco and Sebastian happily wander about and will mimic anything you do with their handsome little half smile. At different points throughout the day, Francisco and I play a little game in which he stares at me and I pretend not to notice. Then, I catch him looking and make a face at him. He smiles broadly, then looks away quickly as though it never happened. And then it starts all over again.
After therapy is lunch and I help the staff feed the students who can’t feed themselves. I feed Mateo spoonfuls of eggs and rice. Mateo seems perpetually happy, despite having cerebral palsy. Many of the students have special dietary needs, so eat different meals. Next to me is tiny Roni, who must be fed from a tube. I met his mother yesterday and was heartened to see her obvious affection for her son. That’s one thing I love about this assignment: last year I worked with disabled kids that were abandoned at an orphanage, while this year I get to work with disabled kids that are cared for by their families. A few of them don’t get quite the care they need at home, but at least they’re in a school that can help them.
After lunch is another 90 minutes of class and therapy. I help Lisbeth with her balance on the parallel bars and encourage two other students to keep pedaling on their stationary bicycles. After Lisbeth finishes each “lap” on the bars, she gets excited and gives me a big hug. And then the school day ends. Feeling exhausted but content by a day’s work, I help roll the wheelchair-bound students to the entrance to be loaded on to their buses. In a show of farewell, Hernan reaches for my hand and gives me a huge smile. Javel hands me a flower that he´s picked for me. Francisco, with his hands stuffed in his pockets, steals a few more playful glances at me and quickly looks away. I affectionately rub his shoulders, bid him ‘hasta manana,’ and then depart through the heavy steel gate.