I was a senior in high school in January 1961 when John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural speech that included the phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Those words resonated with me. That same year, and in the same spirit, Kennedy established the United States Peace Corps. The Peace Corps is an arm of the U. S. State Department that recruits and sends volunteers to other countries that request assistance in development. Some 30 years later, I joined the Peace Corps and went to Chile as a marketing advisor to small businesses in the Chilean equivalent of the U. S. Small Business Administration. In the Peace Corps, you are encouraged to find secondary projects to help in the community where you are assigned. I had two secondary projects. Teaching English at the Chilean-North American institute in Concepcion, Chile, was one. By far, the most rewarding part of my service in the Peace Corps was my other project, which was helping at a home for street children (CERSO) in Concepcion. The story that follows comes out of that experience.
One of my favorite possessions is a lump of coal. To understand why it is precious to me I have to take you back to the day I met Cristian.
Juliane and I were walking down the little side street that goes by the Arbolada Hotel and empties out directly in front of the Las Brisas Supermarket. It’s a short narrow little street with several interesting nooks and crannies that make it a picturesque short cut to the supermarket. Juliane is a young blond Dutch girl who is spending six months volunteering at CERSO, the home for street children where I also volunteer two or three days a week.
As we passed a doorway we noticed two boys, about 10 or 12 years old, with paper bags over their mouth and nose. They were sniffing Neoprene, the glue to which many of the street kids are addicted. It gives them a high, “se vuelan” as they say .It also irreparably damages their brain cells and causes respiratory and other systemic problems. But from their viewpoint it takes the edge off of the hunger and temporarily helps them forget about how miserable and abandoned they feel.
One of the boys looked up at us with dazed eyes that seemed to beg to us. His hair had been recently shaved, usually a sign he had been in jail. His clothes were scruffy and mismatched. He wore rubber flip flops for shoes. He looked miserable. We stopped and said “Hi, what’s your name?”
“Why ?” He looked at us suspiciously. I’ll admit it wasn’t a great opening line but then neither of us had experience with recruiting kids to the home. We worked with them once they were there, but this was our first time contacting them in the street. We explained to him that we worked at a home where there were other children like him who had been addicted to sniffing glue. Now they were going to school and living together in the six houses we had for them. We suggested maybe he and his friend would like to come and see what that was like.
“They sleep and eat there too?” he questioned. He looked like he hadn’t eaten for a few days.
“Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat?”
“Papas fritas o una empanada ( fries or a pasty)”, he suggested. His friend was too gone on his Neoprene to respond or probably to care. I left Juliane talking to the boy who finally responded to our first question telling us his name was Cristian. I walked back a couple of doors to a restaurant we had just passed and bought two empanadas and two Cokes to bring back to Cristian and his nameless friend. In the meantime Juliane had been talking to them about CERSO and had given Cristian a rough map of how to get there as well as the phone number.
Cristian grabbed both empanadas and Cokes explaining he’d give the other to his friend later. We left them with another invitation to come and see what CERSO was like and walked on to the supermarket where Juliane and I split up. She boarded a bus going somewhere else and I went in to do my grocery shopping. Neither of us thought we would see the boys again.
When I finished shopping I went back by the doorway where we had met them. The empty drink cups were there , but no boys. I continued home thinking about street children, glue sniffing, what caused it and what might be done about it. CERSO has nearly 50 children, more girls than boys, between the ages of 5 and 17, who come from situations like Cristian’s and worse. But this was Friday and I was determined not to let the episode ruin my weekend.
I was truly surprised when on Monday, my next day at CERSO, I was greeted on arrival by a clear eyed Cristian who ran up to shake my hand saying “Hola tio!” Juliane explained he had shown up Saturday on his own. We were both astounded by our success.
Later in the day Luis Soto, the Assistant Director of the home, and I went with Cristian to Lota to get his birth certificate so he could be enrolled in school and let his family know his whereabouts. Lota is one of the poorest communities in Chile. It’s a coal minning town and coal minning is a dying industry in Chile. Several of the mines have closed down, and all of them have laid off workers. Poverty, hunger, alcoholism, and the specters of all the social ills they engender hang over Lota like the black coal dust that covers the buildings and gives the town a dingy look.
Cristian guided us down the dirt back streets to a place where we would have to leave the car and continue on foot. As we locked the car and started to follow Cristian down the trail that led to his house, two little barefoot and runny nosed tots about three or four years old came running up calling his name and hugging his legs. “My brothers”, he explained.
“How long since you haven’t seen them?” Luis asked.
“About two months.” For the last month Cristian had been sleeping in the park and before that he spent a week in jail for vagrancy. We continued down the trail and Cristian explained that at twelve he was the oldest child in the family. He also had another brother of nine, a sister who was eight, another sister six, and his mother was pregnant with her seventh child now. When we reached the clapboard shack where they lived it seemed impossible that nine or ten people could live in the structure. The door was padlocked from the outside so obviously no one was home. The toddlers went running over to a neighbor’s house and soon the oldest sister came out dressed in her blue school jumper and blue knee socks. “Well at least she’s in school.” I thought.
Cristian explained that he was in a home and he needed to get his birth certificate in order to enroll in school. “Mama’s working down at the shore.” she said. After a short exchange between the two of them giving Cristian directions to find her, we proceeded back up the hill to the car and another part of Lota.
Cristian explained that his mother was a “chinchorrera.” Ever since his father lost his job at the mine he had been helping her. Chinchorreras are women and children mostly who wade out into the icy surf near where the coal is loaded onto boats and recover lumps of coal that fall in the sea from the loading belts or that wash out to sea from the piles of discarded coal near the shore. They do this year-round in all kinds of weather. Using nets with long handles that look like large butterfly nets, they spend hours waist-deep in the frigid waters scavenging for small pieces of coal. When they have enough to fill a large burlap bag called a “perro,” they sell it for 400 pesos (less than one dollar). Since Cristian’s father lost his job, this activity was the sole support of this family of nine. I was beginning to see what may have driven Cristian to live on the street and beg and even sniff Neoprene.
When we found Cristian’s mother, her youngest daughter was also wading into the water with a net scooping bits of coal. His mother came to us hesitantly. She was barefoot and her two upper front teeth were missing. Her arms and legs looked strong. They would have to be to do this work. She looked at us with apprehension.
“What trouble is Cristian in now?” she asked.
“No trouble senora>” Luis answered as he explained who we were and why we were there. You could see relief sweep over the woman’s face and her eyes teared up as she told us she had been so worried about Cristian and was so glad he was in a home where he would be taken care of. It was difficult for them and now with another on the way…. She was obviously about seven months pregnant and relieved to learn her son was in good hands and not in trouble.
She gave Cristian the key and told him where his birth certificate was kept, asking him to give the key back to his sister after he locked up. Luis gave her a card with the address and phone number where Cristian would be.
We were preparing to leave when she reached into the wheelbarrow she had brought with her when she came to meet us and removed the two largest lumps of coal. As she handed them to us she said, “We are poor people, but I want you to have this so that you know we appreciate what you are doing for our son. Maybe this will help to keep you warm in the winter.”
I keep mine in a special place and it warms me every time I look at it.