We were going to be in Puerto Vallarta on a house sit for over a month so I wanted to find a place to volunteer. I contacted several organizations but my only positive response came from Pasitos de Luz which translates roughly as “Passageway of Light”. I learned from their website that “Pasitos de Luz provides vital services to disabled children and their families living in extreme poverty in Puerto Vallarta and the surrounding communities. All of these services are provided 100% free of charge.” Sounded perfect!
I got instructions on how to take the bus, a 40-minute trip from El Centro where we were staying – take a blue bus with a sign “Bobadilla Magisterio”, or a Green Bus with a sign – “Bobadilla Floresta.”
The first day I got there without a hitch. I had google maps on my iPad so I could make sure my little blue dot was heading in the right direction.
As soon as I walked in, I knew I was in a special place. There were kids and people everywhere. Within this very small space there were children eating, receiving physical therapy, studying, getting massages and, most of all, being hugged and kissed repeatedly by all who passed. Arturo Ayala, whose family started the organization, showed me around and I spent some time doing physical therapy with two of the boys. I was excited to be in such a powerful and loving place and I assured everyone that I would be back the next day.
After walking Oxsana early the following day, I got to the bus stop and once again tried to read the lists of destinations scrawled across the front windows of the buses as they wooshed past me in the dark (sunrise in Puerto Vallarta was at 8 AM).
Finally I saw a bus that said Bobadilla Magisterio. Feeling rather proud of myself, I paid my fare and sat down firmly as the bus lurched away from the curb. Since this was not the same route as the bus I had caught the day before, I again pulled out my iPad to follow the blue dot. Bus routes in Puerto Vallarta are non-linear to say the least so I wasn’t very concerned when my bus turned slightly away from where I was heading, however, when it continued going beyond where I wanted and I realized that I was the only person left on the bus, I decided that it was time to take my little blue dot up to the driver. It turned out that I was on a green Bobadilla Magisterio, not a blue one – who knew? Luckily, I was close enough that I could walk back down to Positas.
Feeling Rather Useless
The next couple of days I worked in the room with the most disabled children, none of whom could walk and all of whom needed assistance with eating. As a nurse you would think that I could do something as simple as feeding oatmeal to a small child, but no. I really wasn’t sure if Laila had actually eaten anything or if we were wearing all of it. My frustration and humiliation were compounded by the fact that everyone else had fed three kids in the same length of time. Once I finished with Laila, I was assigned Geraldine to feed but Geraldine had obviously been watching me with Laila and was not going to put up with the same incompetence. Her mouth was firmly shut and if that wasn’t enough of a clue her eyes clearly said, “No way!”. After a couple of days of this, I was beginning to doubt if my presence was really of any benefit but I had committed to volunteering for a month so I would continue to do so.
The next week, I went out to the bus stop and began my perusal. Finally, I saw the right bus coming up the street and began waving madly only to have it whiz past me. This occurred 2 more times and I was just about to give up and go home when a bus got stopped by the red light long enough for me to get on it. Needless to say I was a little put out and disgruntled. When I got to Pasitos I expressed my displeasure in my halting, error-filled Spanish finishing with a self-pitying, “Obviously they don’t like gringos here.” I was hastily assured that my being passed by was probably because the bus I was taking was not a tourist bus so they were probably just trying to protect me from my own stupidity. Still feeling grumpy, I walked in and headed back to change into scrubs. On the way I ran into a small train of kids going from breakfast to their classroom. The first girl in line looked up at me, smiled, and hugged my legs. Each of the five kids following repeated her hug leaving me with my heart melting and my crabbiness forgotten.
After changing, my ears were met with howls of anguish that even my hardened, psychiatric-nurse self found heart wrenching. Upon entering the room of lights and music where I customarily “worked”, I saw the other aides trying to put a new boy into one of the chairs. His tears shot from his empty eye sockets and his absolute terror was visceral. I immediately asked if I could pick him up and hold him for awhile. With looks of relief and gratitude, I was handed Alexis Paul. He immediately wrapped his legs around my waist and his arms around my neck but continued to wail heartbroken and petrified. For the next two hours the two of us clung together until eventually his sobbing subsided. Eventually I needed to sit down despite his grasping and renewed crying whenever I tried to move. I found a chair big enough to allow for his legs to still wrap around me as he sat on my lap. I whispered encouragement in his ears in my fragmented Spanish: This is a great place…There are lots of wonderful children here for you to play with…. You are incredible… I want to be your friend…You are safe here…There are other children here who can’t see either… And on…and on…while stroking his back and head and wiping the sweat and tears from his face. Several people stopped by to discuss ways to help Alexis Paul adjust to being away from his grandparents and in a completely new environment by himself. Some people advocated making him stand up and walk around while holding on to me. Others suggested that I get him used to being in a chair by himself so he wouldn’t become accustomed to being held all the time. I figured that Alexis Paul would let me know what was best.
After sitting together for awhile, Alexis Paul grabbed my thumbs and began throwing himself back and forth on my lap in a rocking motion. It instantly reminded me of some of the disabled children I had worked with as a teenager who used rocking to self-sooth. Sure enough, his frenetic careening gradually lessened until he fell against my chest exhausted but calmer. When it was time for me to leave, he placidly let me transfer him to someone else’s arms.
Alexis Paul Discovers Pasitos de Luz
The next morning I was there when Alexis Paul arrived once again crying as his grandmother left him in this horrible place. I immediately took him in my arms: Remember me? I’m Theresa. I’m your friend. I’m the one that speaks Spanish really badly. You are going to be safe here with me because this is an excellent place with only very kind people allowed inside. We went and sat on the mats in the physical therapy room. Once he had quieted down a little bit, I lay back, gave him my thumbs and cooed to him as he began rocking back and forth. I saw one of the staff lead his grandmother over to observe us and was happy to see her worried expression lighten. At the end of the day, Alexis Paul allowed me to place his feet on the floor without crying as long as he had a good grasp of my legs. Over the next couple of days, Alexis Paul learned to trust me enough to begin exploring his physical environment. We would walk across the small room from the bed to the desk with me singing his praises and him exploring each new object with his tongue.
One day as I was preparing to leave, I noticed that Eliseo, the blind massuer, did not have a child on his table. I walked over with Alexis Paul, explained the situation and introduced them to each other. After changing, I walked past the two of them and heard Alexis Paul giggling wildly under the healing, and possibly tickling, hands of Eliseo.
Saying Good Bye
I stopped by again before leaving Puerto Vallarta and was heart-warmed to see Alexis Paul sitting in a special chair in a circle with the other children – SMILING.