A Sanctuary for Children

When I imagined the word “orphanage,” I pictured something very different than what now stood before me. I’m not sure where my image of an orphanage had come from, maybe the movies, as I had never seen one back home in America. I wasn’t quite sure what to imagine, but the beautiful, strangely out-of-place building that seemed to be plopped in the middle of the city, crowded by other buildings, was not what I had originally envisioned. As I entered, I realized the building smelled busy, as various scents of baby formula, soap, cleaning supplies, and food filled my nostrils. It sounded busy too, as I could hear the screaming of a cacophony of infants coming from the loft upstairs, along with the yelling and laughter of the staff. Within a few minutes, a woman had descended the grand marble staircase in front of us and beckoned for us to follow. So, one by one, we went up the stairs after her.

We followed the worker down the hall to a room full of screaming infants, and after standing in the hallway for a while, the woman pointed to a room full of crying babies and told us in broken English to attempt to comfort them. At this point, I remembered a potential weakness that would make my first day at La Creche all the more challenging. I hadn’t held a baby since I was around two years old when my younger sister was born. I carefully approached one of the cradles and looked at the child lying inside. She screamed her head off, and my heart immediately shattered. I turned to my friend, Sophie, and she explained that she had grown up with a lot of younger siblings, and she would show me how to hold the babies the right way. She effortlessly scooped the infant up in her arms, and the tiny baby instantly ceased her crying. As Sophie placed the baby in my arms, I felt my world change. Her skin was incredibly soft, and her face was stained with tear marks. Her nose ran, and her little fingers had small marks on them from a source I did not know. I held her close to me and spoke to her, and her face began to light up with a smile that melted me into a puddle on the floor. After only a few moments with the infants, a nurse came into the room and signaled to me to come out into the hallway.

“We have a child here who is, um, not normal,” the nurse told me.

The language struck me, but I figured that it was a translation error that made her come across harshly.

“We need someone to walk with him up and down the halls, and he cannot walk very well.”

I nodded and agreed to take on the task. I walked with the woman down the hall and entered a room with only one crib inside. A little boy was in the crib, no more than six or seven years old, smiling up at the nurse.

“Bonjour Omar!” she greeted him, and that was when I learned his name.

She lifted him out of the crib and he instantly collapsed to the floor with a huge smile, a game I would later learn is one of his favorites. One of the nurses placed Omar’s hand in mine, and another nurse took his other hand. We left the room and as soon as we entered the hallways, the other nurse pulled her hand away, leaving only my hand for Omar’s stability. I stepped away from the nurse, Omar’s hand tightening around mine to stabilize himself. He cried out as the nurse stepped away from us, pulling on my arm as hard as he could back toward her. She smiled and waved goodbye, disappearing into an office room, surely happy to have someone else help with the child. I called Omar’s name to him, attempting to direct him away from the nurses, earning a small glance upward from him and a little smile that melted me. Every nurse who passed us greeted Omar with a happy “Bonjour Omar!” and held his hand to walk with me for a short time before letting go. His response was the same each time they left: collapsing to the ground in tears. I felt bad each time I picked him up and put him back on his feet, as I knew I was the last person he wanted to be with, and that he would rather feel the comfort of the familiar hand of one of the nurses.

Omar seemed distressed as we walked together, back and forth down the hall of the second floor of La Creche, but as the first nurse returned to scoop him back up and carry him back to bed, a massive smile appeared on his face. Omar loved and trusted each of these women so deeply, and they had become a comfort to him. This is not his story, but the story of every other child under the care of La Creche, each one depending on and trusting the nurses to love and care for them.

I waved goodbye to Omar and went back to the playroom to help my friends gather up the children and bring them back to their cribs. As we brought the babies back, their cries and reaching arms shattered my heart. I knew that this time of day would be the hardest in my returning visits to La Creche and that the cries of the children would shatter me every single time I visited. My friends and I called a cab, and I walked out the doors of the orphanage a different person than when I had walked in. I felt more grown up, more emotional, and grateful for the life that I have been blessed with.

Growing up, I have always been surrounded by love. I have been able to trust my parents very deeply since I was a little girl, and I have felt supported in everything I do for as long as I can remember. My parents were not perfect, but they were as close to it as one could get, and always allowed me the ideal level of independence and protection. They supported me in transferring schools numerous times, in my preteen and teenage friendship struggles, and through the mental health challenges I have dealt with. I feel as though I take some parts of my life for granted, and this feeling was only amplified as I left La Creche after my first day as a volunteer. On the cab ride home, I began to hope that with my short time with the children, I could impart some of my parents’ love and joy upon those children, and somehow share what I had been given. It makes me sad that all I can provide for them is love and not the security of parental support and a plan, but it is still something that I can do, so I continued to get in the cabs and travel to La Creche.

One day, the familiar nurse approached me with Omar’s hand and explained to me in broken English that I was to walk around downstairs with the child. Omar and I stepped into the elevator, and before I knew it, we were moving through the downstairs hallway just as we did upstairs weeks prior. As we walked back and forth, a chorus of cries caught my attention. As I jumped, ready to run to the nurses and grab them, I realized that the cries were in celebration. As I turned around, I noticed an ocean of children moving toward me. No, not me, I realized, but Omar. The children were crying out his name, and I realized that since he was kept on the second floor, they rarely got to see him. They took turns hugging him and giving me quick, nervous glances. I eventually kept walking, and some of the children took turns holding Omar’s hand and walking with us.

While watching the children walking with Omar, I couldn’t help but think about my relationship with my sister. My sister and I are two years apart in age, and we have been best friends since the moment she was born. I started to imagine my sister and I in the children’s places. These children are each other’s only family, and they are each other’s support systems. They love and fight and protect and play with each other the same way I do with my sister. After I left that day, I called my sister and told her how much I love and miss her.

Every time I leave La Creche, climbing into a car with my friends and looking back at the massive building, I find myself asking whatever higher being may be out there that Omar and the rest of the children can have a happy and safe life after our time together. I know that one day I must leave La Creche, but for now, I will do everything in my power to make a difference in these children’s lives.

* Omar is not the real name of the child.

Grace Sprague is a Psychology major at the University of New England.

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