Finding a sense of home in a most unlikely setting

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Finding a sense of home in a most unlikely setting
Finding a sense of home in a most unlikely setting

I recently got more acquainted with the work you do each day. And I now have a better sense of why you can't seem to stay away, despite all your daily aggravations.

For one week in August, I volunteered for Cross-Cultural Solutions, a nonprofit organization, in Salvador, a city two hours north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. My placement was Madre Tereza, a home for children and the elderly founded by the now beatified nun Mother Teresa. Jacqueline, a fellow volunteer from Brooklyn, NY, and I spent our time working with the facility's 10 abandoned older women, some of whom, it seemed, suffered from dementia.

Our task? To give the ladies some TLC. This was not hard. It took only a day to figure out that this was a group longing for hugs and kisses, a manicure or a pretty bracelet with lots of colorful beads to admire. Such attention apparently was a rarity in a place where chores, prayer and charity ate up nearly all of the sisters' time.

Each day after morning prayers we did an art project – jewelry making, coloring, painting, collages and, on the last day, party hats. An amateur manicure always was part of the routine. During two hours of activities, most didn't break pace. As soon as we laid out the materials on the worktable, the women were enthralled, eager to receive a paintbrush to dip into the vibrant colors, or string beads to their liking on a piece of lanyard.

After the project, we helped feed the ladies lunch – typically a meal of rice, beans and chicken (some dishes sprinkled with fiber).

Despite the language barrier (I don't speak Portuguese) and the short time period, I felt I got to know some of the women. Maria do Carmo, a short, wiry lady with a bandana in her hair, was industrious. Sometimes opting out of daily activities, she could be found making beds or washing the breakfast dishes. Maria Aparecida, with a missing front tooth and a mega-watt smile , somehow knew the words to every Brazilian song – be it the genre of samba or spiritual – on the radio. Creuza liked to slow dance.

Madre Teresa was a simple place. The sisters performed nearly all the work of the large building themselves – washing the clothes by hand, making the meals and scrubbing the floors. There was no TV to be found and all the residents slept in one room – on non-electric beds, of course.

This was home for the ladies.

And for one week, I'm glad to say, it was for me too.

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