Looking back on first impressions

By Brad Coley

Drawn by girl living in Our Little Roses home.

The guard assured me they weren't bullet holes. "Rocas. Chicos," he explained. Boys throwing rocks. Wow, I thought, wondering if major league scouts had ventured down here. 10 days ago I watched the green gate of the orphanage slide open for the first time and saw deep impressions in the steel. Like most of my own first impressions, these seemed deceptive.

Driving through town the next morning, into the churning industrial heart of Honduras, you see every sign of a city that has grown explosively on a diet of cheap gasoline and even cheaper labor. The population has gone from 400,000 to a million in less than a decade. Textile and electronics factories pepper the verdant landscape. Apart from the people, there's little beauty to be seen in the car jammed streets. A magisterial mountain range looms in the distance, lush and green except for a large neon Coca Cola up on the largest slope.

But if this is a boom town, very few of the inhabitants are feeling the uplift. Multinational corporations started moving down here decades ago. The huge city shopping center, a clone of Anymall, USA, was built entirely by US contractors using local labor. Stores are filled with traditional US brands but I saw few actual transactions take place, even though it was crowded and the week before Xmas. I asked Jose our driver how a place like this could exist in such a poor country. Who would invest so much money in what was basically a gigantic hang-out joint. "Drogas," he shrugged, making a gesture of someone washing their clothes. Drug money.

Drawn by girl living in Our Little Roses
Chapel at Our Little Roses
In contrast to the everyday reality of the city, the moment our small crew passed through the green gate, we realize we have arrived in a very unique pocket of humanity. There are 61 girls at OLR, ranging from ages 1-18. As we enter the inner courtyard of the home (first rule- the girls don't like the word orphanage) playful voices ring out from every corner. Three young toddlers sit in the near corner of the quad playing with their dolls. They glance up at us, their small faces strikingly full of character, then return their focus to several half dressed Barbies. A slightly older girl comes up and takes my hand, pulling me further inside. She is friendly but insistent, speaking rapid Spanish which I struggle to comprehend. An adolescent girl crosses the grass, scolding her gently to stop pestering me. The younger girl protests for a moment but releases me and darts off. The older girl smiles shyly as I introduce myself. She tells me her name and several more older girls walk over join us. Names are exchanged and soon the whole crew is surrounded by girls of all ages. The whole vibe is so incredibly open and welcoming I'm in a state of shock.

The girls are comfortable with outsiders because a steady stream of church groups have been coming to the home for years. Because its the week before Xmas, with the exception of one 20 year old American woman, we are the only current guests. Sara, who is taking a tri-mester break from Dartmouth, tells me she's come down with her family several times before, but this month long stay is her first time alone. Its her first real Spanish intensive. Because so many of the girls are bi-lingual, its an ideal learning environment. I notice Sara's ease around the girls and their familiarity with her. This is one first impression that will only strengthen as the week progresses. This is truly an extended family.

Drawn by girl living in Our Little Roses
Bus parked at edge of Our Little Roses compound
I struggle with my rusty Spanish, a language I now deeply regret dropping after high school. At best, I'm comprehending less than half of what is said to me. After an hour of meeting girls and speaking with a few Tia's, the women who attend the home, I sit down with some of the older girls. They graciously mix their Spanish with English for my benefit. Most are shy at first but there's a forthcomingness in their manner that puts me at ease . I'm again struck by the poise and individuality they exhibit. I'd been bracing myself for with excuse myself to take a break. I go back to the dorm adjoining the home where our crew is staying. I clearly have a lot to learn here myself.

Each one is more compelling than the next. And not just their backgrounds which run the range from pathetically sad to tragic to straight up horror. But what's so striking isn't that they've survived and escaped what would have been abysmal fates, but the intactness of their humanity. I've never seen such a collection of soulful beings in my life. The littlest ones are already fully themselves Its beyond category. And each day that we know them, the deeper we feel it.