Team member Sarah K. from Upstate New York enjoys a sweet hug from one of the young girls who participates in the Cruz Blanca Learning Center.
This past month, I had the honor of serving at the Cruz Blanca Learning Center in Guatemala with a wonderful team of folks from Upstate New York. On the first day in the village, the VisionTrust Guatemala Director, Rut Chamalé, shared something that resonated with me in a profound way. She explained to the team that she had read some research about the importance of appropriate, physical touch for a child’s development. This information was shared with the staff of the Learning Center, along with the challenge of being intentional to work together as a team to help the children experience this during their daily time at the Learning Center. As Americans, this might seem strange or perhaps even inappropriate. However, Rut knew that in the children’s home lives, many of them were experiencing very limited physical affection, and sadly, that many were being subjected to negative physical touch, including physical and sexual abuse. She coached her staff on how to start incorporating this into their daily interactions with the students — ensuring that the contact was always appropriate and respectful. For the staff and children, this certainly was a change. Culturally, they are quite reserved, and physical affection is not given publicly. With great respect and intentionality, her staff tried something new. They started giving pats on the head and on the shoulder, coupled with genuine smiles. At times it was challenging – one staff member had children recoil when she patted their shoulders, which led to the discovery that they had stripes down their backs from where they had been beaten earlier by another adult, presumably a teacher at the public school. Despite these difficult moments, the staff has stayed committed to including appropriate physical touch in their interactions with the children. It took some time for the impact to begin to show, but the effect has been profound. Rut told the team: “If all you do this week is join us in giving pats on the head or shoulder, then you will have accomplished a great work during your visit.”
Since 2010, I’ve been serving in Cruz Blanca, and I’ve always coached visiting team members to expect the children to be friendly, but that many will be shy, serious, and a little wary, or even fearful, of the visitors. As I spent time serving along the teaching staff this past month, I was blown away by the change in demeanor of the children. There was a new openness, joy, and level of trust. Our days were inundated with children reaching out for hugs and high fives. Rarely a child passed without reaching out his or her hand to a team member to make contact. An intangible, yet undeniable sense of love is present amongst the children and the staff, and I am certain it is rooted in this routine of physical affection that centers on expressing the love of Christ. The apostle John wrote in I John 4:18 the following words, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” By the grace of God, His love is being made complete through the faithfulness of a teaching staff who went out on a limb to try something new and invited visiting short term team members to come along.