Childhood is a very special time and space for everyone. When one is young the whole world is like a playground where one can explore freely and with wonderment everything that one sees, hears and touches. There is so much innocence in a child’s heart, the exploration and discovery is filled with joy and laughter.
I remember the many escapades that my brothers and sisters did to the annoyance of adults, especially my parents. But my siblings and I had so much fun together that recalling them now only makes my heart burst with song and laughter. Recalling the joys of my childhood brings nothing but happiness to my heart and a deep gratitude to God for giving me that special time and space in my growing-up years.
Old too soon
When I was a novice my pastoral ministry took me to places that were labeled poor, depressed and marginalized. The reality that I saw in those places shocked me beyond belief. I saw children malnourished, dirty, eating on top of garbage trucks, working very early in the morning until late at night selling candles, cigarettes or flowers. The children whom I saw had worn-out faces. Young as they were they were already the breadwinners of their families. They seemed to have lost that time and space called childhood.
I have been in Peru as a religious missionary for eleven years. While I was there the Columban Sisters opened a mission in Vinchos, a place situated in the high mountains of Peru where the notorious terrorist group called ‘Sendero Luminoso’ (Shining Path) used to have their headquarters for many years. They are gone now but they left broken people many of whom are mentally depressed. A good number of these mentally depressed people are children.
I was deeply touched by the reality I saw that I started sharing my concerns with some of the men and women in the town. To my surprise I found out that we had the same concerns. Some of us approached the Director of the only school in the town to help us do something for the children. With his help we were able to track down around 20 children whose ages ranged from 7 to 12. They were either passive-aggressive, low in academic output, had difficulty in concentration or escapees from school.
In the eyes of a child
Our first activity with the children was a drawing/painting contest. The results showed that they knew how to express themselves and that they knew what was going on around them. What struck me most was that a lot of them expressed the desire to die. A few of them even had details on how to do it! One painted a cemetery and when I asked him why, he said, ‘It is a peaceful place, nobody bothers me there.’ Another drew a coffin and said, ‘I want to die and be with my father.’ His father was killed during the political violence and he was living with his mother and stepfather who was violent to him and his mother. Another painted a river and put himself floating in it. He said, ‘I want to get drowned and die.’ Although the results were alarming, the good thing was we were guided in our initial approach to reach out to the children.
Not wasting time, I went to Lima to look for a child psychiatrist. Luckily I found one who was willing to make that long journey to the mountains to see the children. Together with the lady psychiatrist, I drew up a simple program starting with a once-every-two-months psychological attention given to the children. Sister Mary Nolan and I did the follow-up after her evaluation of each one of them. These individual evaluations were kept in a file so that our follow-ups were done accurately. Some received pharmacological treatment. While receiving treatment there were also activities that facilitated them to express themselves like painting, drawing, working with plastiline, workshops on emotional therapy, social activities that brought out their abilities and individual sessions with the children and home visitation. We found out that visiting the families was an effective tool as it helped us to get to know the family better and to appreciate their real situation.
After a few months of following this program, a tremendous change in the children was very noticeable. Thoughts of death and the desire to die gradually disappeared. They were more relaxed and they were able to express their emotions of fear, anxiety and anger. Their grades in school have improved and violence in the family has lessened or has disappeared.
I feel I have created a special bonding with these children. I also feel that I have bonded with the many people who are involved in this mental health program. I feel my life is connected to each one of them. Working in the area of mental health has been a very enriching experience for me. It has offered me a wider range of understanding what life is all about.
Earning back what they’ve lost
Having participated in the lived reality of the poor in Peru, I was able to see beauty beyond their sufferings. I feel that working with the children has enabled me in some little way to let them experience the joys and laughter of that special time and space called childhood.
By: Sr. Anne Carbon,SSC