Take 350 kids, add shelter and water, sprinkle in a team of adult caretakers and you have a happy place for kids to live and attend school. That’s Casa Guatemala, the local orphanage on the Rio Dulce.
Orphanage probably is a misnomer. Currently adoptions are prohibited in Guatemala as the government develops new laws for transferring the care of children with no known living relatives. During the country’s 36 years of civil war, many adoptions took place that were driven by greed, not compassion, with officials accepting bribes to push through the necessary paperwork. Some children were removed from their homeland without the consent or knowledge of existing family members. When peace finally came to Guatemala, the government suspended adoptions until new, improved regulations could be put into place.
The children at Casa Guatemala come in all ages, sizes and shapes. About 225 children live full-time in dormitories. Another 125 come from surrounding villages to attend school. It starts with kindergarten and lasts through 6th grade, the final step for many students. Others may continue with their education by attending high school in the town of Fronteras or another facility down the river. A college education is rare.
A small group of cruisers accepted the director’s invitation to attend a performance of “Pocahontas.” The actors’ lines sounded barely audible due to their own nervousness and the whisperings of the children seated in the concrete bleachers. Yet the actors persevered against a series of well-conceived backdrops and paced the floor in their fringed costumes. One pint-sized boy won everyone’s heart by tumbling across the stage during the finale.
Alex took another cruising family and the Lezovi, plus Gina Gardner, on a tour of Casa Guatemala. It wasn’t part of his daily routine as a volunteer, and I sensed that many activities at the orphanage take place haphazardly.
The hydroponic greenhouse appeared a failure as its last volunteers either lost energy or enthusiasm for looking after a 600-square-foot facility. Likewise, the pond that collected manure from the pigs raised on-site no longer produced a biodegradable product. The computer lab furnished with electronics donated by a large corporation was awaiting solar panels to power the computers.
Yet to look at the kids, they seemed happy and content. They politely greeted Alex, a native of Kansas City, and chattered excitedly with one another because the school day had ended.
If one had some extra quetzals lying around and wanted to help Casa Guatemala, a pair of shoes or a couple hundred would go far. Donations to the Vegetable Fund also would help. The children, like most Guatemalans, stick to the traditional fare of beans and rice. Fruits and vegetables are as rare as filet mignon. Send your donations to the attention of Alex and he’ll see that the kids eat a little better.