Ups and Downs

Well, it’s been way, way too long since I’ve written. I figure most folks are not interested in the day to day mundane aspects of things down here. But the last year has really been all about ups and downs.
When things are going well and we think we’re making progress on getting kids, we don’t want to be misleading and get everyone excited in case it doesn’t happen. But when things are not going so well, folks don’t really want to hear about that. So I’ve been mostly silent.
Last spring we really thought we reached a break through with the government. We had an outstanding meeting with the folks in charge and they even indicated that they knew the kids that we would start with at the orphanage. That was certainly an “up!” We left the meeting thinking that we were just a couple months away at most in getting children here. Finally, it had come!
Well, then the low. They had an election here and a new party won the election. So the ENTIRE government is changed out (all the way down to our local garbage collectors). So, needless to say, the folks that we had been working with at the Senniaf office changed out. The ones we had a great working relationship were gone, and one by one (slowly, very slowly), they began to fill the new office.
Well, with any change in personnel, there is always a new way to do things. So the packet that we submitted now had to be changed and we were basically starting with the submission all over again, along with a few changes in requirements.
So towards the end of the year, we made our official submission and we were to get an answer in 30 days on the progress. Well, 30 days passed, 60 days passed, and almost 90 days passed. Time for a new low point. You begin to wonder if it is ever going to happen!
So we have a new meeting with our minds fixed that if we can’t get an answer that is sufficient to us, that’s it. It just isn’t going to happen with us here and it’s time to move on. But it was a good meeting (things are looking up!). While we didn’t get the exact answers that we wanted, we at least felt encouraged to continue on.
Next was the inspection. Canceled once, moved back twice…and you begin to wonder all over again. But during this time, the government finally placed some permanent folks in the local David office of Senniaf. They even came out for the inspection. It went AWESOME! They were very impressed with all the facilities and work that had been done here in preparation for children. One of them even indicated that we were more ready for children than many of the orphanages that were currently open! We even got a name…Casa Hogar Manos de Fe! An obvious high for us!
So that basically brings us to the present. We just had another visit from Senniaf and they are indicating that once we resolve just one issue, we will receive our certification for children. So I’m still not going to make a prediction of when children will start arriving here, but I am optimistic that it will be soon. All the time and efforts that everyone have put into Casa Hogar Manos de Fe are being recognized and rewarded.
Hang in there, kids are coming soon!

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One Year Gone

So we have been here a year now.  Sometimes I wonder if I’ve learned anything at all.  I still have first world expectations sometimes.  Like last night, I was upset because the rain was so loud on the roof that I couldn’t hear the DVD that I was trying to watch.  Meanwhile, there are people without DVD players, or televisions, or electric, or even four walls.  I was even able to play games on my iPad while I waited for the rain to subside.

We also were showing someone around the other day.  Not much going on, but their comments were not only how nice the place was, but how much food we had in the pantry.  And the pantry was mostly empty….or at least that is how I saw it.
It’s amazing how your background can influence how you see things.  This is not a “is the glass half empty or half full” thing.  This person saw a ton of food, because they typically don’t have much.  I saw only a few items knowing that we had to go to the store to restock in order to eat at my comfort level for the next few days.

There are still so many things that I get still get jealous about.  It would have been so nice to have gone to that Eagles concert, or the numerous others that I’ve missed.  I missed a couple soccer games that I would have liked to have seen.  The huge video screens at Everbank Field would be a blast to check out.  Or there have been several runs that we didn’t get to participate in.  All that easily rolls into a nice pity party of all the things we are missing, and I haven’t even begun to mention family and how much we are missing them and what they are doing.

Then you have someone come and ask for food because they are hungry.  Or someone is looking for a job doing manual labor at just over a dollar an hour so they can have a little cash.  Or can they have some baby clothes for their newborn baby because they don’t have any.  Then you beat yourself up because you’re being selfish.  Somewhere there is a fine line.  Sometimes it is just hard to find.

So as I mentioned, it’s been a little over a year for us here, and it’s been a challenging year.  We came here expecting to run an orphanage (something we have no idea on how to do, so we are relying on God’s help).  But so far we are still awaiting that somewhat elusive government approval.  We know we are getting closer, but frustrating nonetheless.  I have really come to appreciate the simplicity of life here.  No need to pretend you are something that you are not.  But the bureaucracy here puts shame to most other places I’ve been.  I could go on and on about some of the frustrations, but nobody wants to hear about electric companies, insurance companies, government holidays, a total change of all government officials down to the local level with a new elected President, and the list goes on.

Just please continue to keep Manos de Fe in your prayers.  Our intent is to deliver our final document for approval this month.  Getting excited and nervous at the same time.

Wanting To Go To School

So it’s been a while since I’ve blogged.  Not that I haven’t had things to say, just lazy I guess.  But while doing the feeding program this week, I came across a situation that just breaks my heart.  I’ve seen it before, and was aware of it in other circumstances, it was just brought back to the forefront of my mind.

I’m attaching a picture (or at least I’m trying).  The taller girl in the photo is Claudia.  She is probably ten or eleven years old.  She wants to go to school, but the family doesn’t have the money to send her.  Or they may even have the money but elect to spend it on other things.  The bottom line for Claudia is that she has no real hope of options in her life.  Without an education, she isn’t going to be able to get a job if she wishes to have one.  So more than likely, the family will give her away to a husband in the next couple of years.  Then she’ll begin having babies around the age of 13 or 14.  A baby having a baby.  It happens all too often around here.  By the time she is 20, she will likely have three or four children.  She will be tied to the house to watch the kids.  And typically the house is at best a two room cement block home, but more than likely a partial cement block home with wood or plastic to finish it off.

It has actually kept me awake the past couple nights with the frustration I feel for her.  Even if she were to go to school, she may well elect to get married and begin having children at a very young age.  But at least it is an educated decision for her.  And that is all you can hope for.  I’m not trying to push my thoughts or standards on someone, but I do believe that education is key to any child’s future.  And all too often I see the young indigenous girls here not in school.

So I’m not asking for money for the family.  I’m just really voicing my thoughts (so maybe I’ll sleep).  We would love to see some kind of a free school for all the young indigenous women so that they would be able to receive an education.  Maybe something to add to your prayer list.

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State of the Union…er…Albergue

So when everyone else back in the States was giving his/her State of the Union or State or whatever, I decided to draft up something for us. I know there are many people out there interested in what is going on here, so here we go.
First, you’ll notice that I said State of the Albergue. Yes, we are an orphanage. But down here, orphanage means foster care as we know it in the States. We want to be a new home for the children. An Albergue is another word for home.
Here is my message. It won’t flow perfectly, but hopefully it will give an idea of where we were, where we are, and where we are hoping to go. So without further adieu, here is the 2014 State of Manos de Fe address.
We saw a major change in 2013 with Mike Pearson leaving the Administrator position to return to Honduras and Jeff Schneider taking over the reins in June. The primary goal at the time was the completion of the packet for submission to SENNIAF, the governing body here in Panama for an orphanage/albergue, for approval of Manos de Fe to receive children.
As we approached the end of the year, we discovered that the current board would complete their three year obligation. So we took the opportunity to look at some new blood for the board and also an opportunity to bring the board composition up towards the orphanage.
The highlight of 2013 would be the receipt of a new four wheel drive vehicle (thanks to your donations). That has been tremendous in running errands around the countryside. Another highlight was the approval by the Bombaros for occupancy of the casitas. The final highlight was getting the draft of the SENNIAF packet forwarded to the agency. The final two points have been tremendous steps towards the overall goal of getting children.
While only a little ways into 2014, the highlight so far is undoubtedly the election of a new Board of Directors for Manos de Fe. With Nina Martinez de Dearinger as the new President, I believe we have an advocate that is going to work with us and help us move forward on our goal of approval by SENNIAF. We also made an effort to move the majority of the board members to the local Caisan area. We now have four of the six board members living in the town of Caisan. I believe they recognize the importance of Manos de Fe here and will help us run an organization that will be community friendly.
Another important step so far is the use of a new lawyer in the David area. Idis Y. Caballeros is the new lawyer that we are using. She has already been busy getting all our paperwork submitted properly to the government. Her goal is to eventually provide her services pro-bono. She is also a good friend of Nina, so I believe the two of them will work closely together to help us (I have already found this to be true).
Our overall goal for 2014 remains getting approval by SENNIAF to receive children at Manos de Fe. We just recently received some feedback from the draft packet that we sent to SENNIAF back in October of 2013. When we submitted the draft, they asked that we hold off on the official submission so that we could make any changes needed and get final approval easier. They are asking for some further definition on some of our rules and regulations and are going to be here in Caisan next month for a review of our facility. We will certainly push to get our packet complete as soon as we receive the final suggestions on our submission. I do not like to give estimates of when we might finally receive children (we’ve heard they will be here numerous times over the past years). But we are confident that it will happen.
We continue to be excited about the feeding program. We are able to help many families through this program, and have been able to add more families just recently. Kay and James Rush, along with Lynn Northup have been tremendous working this. We also have many prayer warriors back in the States that are praying for us regularly (you know who you are). And we just recently received several huge boxes of donations from a school in Louisiana. So word continues to spread.
On the opposite side of the coin, there are always things that still need to be fixed or corrected. We continue to work on ensuring we are 100% in compliance with Panamanian regulations. This is always tricky as we don’t get any advance notice of mistakes. New rules just seem to pop up out of nowhere. But we march on and think we are all caught up.
The next issue outstanding is getting electric to both the yellow and blue casitas. We had to build an extension on to our electrical box out by the side of the road. With that done, we thought we had everything we needed. However, we needed to also have a second letter of occupancy, this time from the Region. It basically shows that we paid our construction taxes. With that now in hand, we are off to get electric soon, we hope!
Other projects that will come about in 2014 will be tiling the blue house and potentially the persimmon house. We continue to deal with the wells for water. The shallow well ran out of water in the dry season last year and the deep well doesn’t always keep up with demand when the use increases. But we have already made some strides to alleviate these problems. We currently have one Tia hired. Once we get closer to receiving children, we will need to have a second Tia hired to fill in the days the first is off. Before we can open we will receive training from SENNIAF. That will be a clue we are really getting close.
With the new board members located in the Caisan area, we are excited to see where we may join forces with the local community to outreach to others. This will be a gradual process, but exciting at the same time. We will have more on this as we continue to receive input from the local community. As we continue operations here, we need to come up with a well defined plan.
We are so excited for 2014. We believe that much will happen this year. From all indications we receive, everyone is excited about us opening up and are just waiting for that final approval. I am confident that we will be able to fight through all the battles and get children here this year! Please continue to pray for us! God is strong at work here at Manos de Fe.

Merry Christmas

As a kid, I always loved Christmas (who didn’t). It meant time off from school and if we were lucky, it meant time sledding in the snow. We had some great hills where we grew up in New Jersey. (I never did get those “which exit” jokes. We lived in the country in central-western Jersey and never traveled the Turnpike nor Parkway. But I digress.) I loved going out in the cool/cold weather. Made it really feel like winter and Christmas. But then, once I graduated from college, I was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina. Little did I know, but that would be the first warm weather Christmas that would last through today, some 30 years later. The Coast Guard kept me assigned in warm weather locations, and I missed several holidays while underway or having duty. It’s taken me a long time to adjust to the warm weather Christmas. But I’ve come to enjoy spending the holiday in shorts and a t-shirt with flip-flops.
But this year is different than normal. First, I won’t get to see my parents. I went 20 Christmas’s without seeing them when I was in the Coast Guard, but since then, I’ve gotten to spend some holiday time with them each year. It’s been time that I cherish. But even more now when you recognize that you won’t be there this year. But it’s also different down here in Panama. There are very limited Christmas decorations up around here. Maybe a few lights here, some decorations there. But overall, very limited. So it’s harder to get into the Christmas spirit than normal. In fact, if you asked when Christmas was, I’d never have been able to tell you it was just around the corner. It is really business as usual here. Another family comes up and asks for food. Work is hard to find and there just isn’t enough to go around for the 20 people in their home. Still running neighbors to the doctor and waiting for the call to pick the new mother up from the hospital and give them a ride home.
Every year for the past who knows how many years, Audi and I have had a tradition where we have our own Christmas party, go out to dinner, and exchange an ornament. With a $5 limit, it’s always a competition to see who gets the best ornament each year. She was whipping my butt early on, but the past few years I’ve gotten the best of her. So when it came time to have our party down here, it kind of sneaked up on us. So much so, that we were both kind of sheepish that we hadn’t thought about the party. But then we recognized that getting an ornament for each other could be money that was better used in other places. We instead used the money to get some gifts for the folks that work for us. There are just so many people that don’t have, and we are still trying to sift through feelings of guilt for having more than most others and yet not wanting to deprive ourselves, and how do you balance the two. It’s a tough one for me.
We also found out, that while they are very religious down here, Christmas is not the biggest holiday. It is actually Mother’s Day which is celebrated on 8 December. There were huge festivals, parties, presents galore, and another day off from work. It is really nice to see the attention given to the mothers here. Much deserved. There are also parades for Christmas, so it’s not like it isn’t celebrated at all. My personal belief is that the area we are in is just so impoverished, that it is a luxury that most families can’t afford. Therefore, no big deal is given to it.
So we did get a tree up (donated by a great group of kids from TheWorldRace.com that passed through). We let some of the Ngobe children and their mothers decorate some homemade decorations. When we were home in October, I cut out some crosses that my dad had recommended to me. Then Audi went into her best pre-school days and used some egg crates to make some beautiful bells. It was a couple hours that gave us that Christmas spirit. The kids and mothers seemed to have a great time. Maybe I’ll try adding a picture. Homemade ornaments
But I really just wanted to wish you six readers out there (including mom & dad…thanks) a Merry Christmas from Panama. May God prosper you beyond your wildest dreams. And I know now that prosper isn’t necessarily in dollars, but experiences. Feliz Navidad!

The Same, But Different

Okay, so I wrote this blog about two months ago, but never published it. I wasn’t sure about it. But, I wrote it, so I figured I need to throw it out there. At least I’ll have something to think about. Enjoy…
Well, I knew coming back to the States this time was going to be a little different than most of my trips. I traveled with the Coast Guard for 20 years, visiting many places, and when you’re on a ship, you see many of the dirtier and less visited tourist locations. I’ve also been to Panama numerous times before and have come back. You knew that things were bad where you were. You see the poverty and it impacts you, but it is never long term. You are there and soon gone.
This time, I’ve been in Panama for a little over three months straight. And this time we have been working directly with the less privileged people of Caisan. We have gotten to know them. We have gotten to experience a little first hand of what they are faced with. Don’t get me wrong, we still don’t have it nearly as rough off as many of the folks there. We have a house with four solid walls and a good tin roof. We only lose electricity and water sometimes, but we do have it. We have family and friends back home who support us. So while I say we have experienced what it’s like there, we still only get a taste of the day to day issues and problems.
Recently we had a mother and young child come up one afternoon and tell us they were hungry. They hadn’t eaten since the previous morning. How many of us have gone without one meal, worse yet four straight meals? I know that I haven’t. When I fast, by nightfall I’m usually standing behind a tree or something to say I can’t see the sun anymore so it must have set so that I can squeeze in a good meal. So thankfully, we have been blessed by God and others to have some food on hand to give them something.
So where am I going with all this? Well, today we had a lunch while we were out running some errands. Nothing special, but cost a little over $15 for the two of us. Then I begin to think, as I’m stuffing my food quickly down my throat, that the same $15 could have purchased enough food to feed that small family for probably a little over a week.
Our next stop was the mall to hit the Apple Store so that I could get my iPad fixed (our main source of communication with the family back home when we are in Panama). So that was fairly important to me. But as we walk in the mall and begin to look at all the stuff in the windows at all the different stores, I begin to really shake my head at how I have so desired many of these things in the past. But now all the nice things begin to look like clutter. I wasn’t seeing these items as nice decorations for the house. Instead I saw them as a drain on my ability to help others. I’m not sure that I’m really explaining it well. It just really kind of seemed offensive to me.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging anyone. I’m still here now sitting in a very nice room enjoying a little vacation time. I certainly didn’t turn any of that away. And I’m still looking for a snack to munch on so that I can hold out until we decide what to do for dinner. And I’ll take the time to lay back and watch some TV before I go to sleep in my comfortable, over-sized bed that we have for the week. So have I really changed? Probably not. It’s probably even worse that I recognize my waste and excess and still don’t really do anything about it.
But I know that God doesn’t want to deprive me of nice things, that’s not the way He is, at least not as far as I can see. It is just that my view on things has changed a little. I need to take this time off to evaluate my true inner self and circumstances. What are my motives? What am I really going to do with this time that I have left? That will determine what I’ve really learned over the past few months.

Busy Day

The days tend to just fly by here. I sometimes wonder where the day went. Yesterday was a pretty crazy day, but a good day. It is one of those times when you go to bed tired, and it’s a good tired.
The day started off normal, getting up early to check emails for the day, check my daily devotions, and read the chapter of the Bible that we are studying. We started into our small Bible study (yesterday we were on Luke 11, lots of good stuff in there). We didn’t get quite finished when there was a knock at the door and a mother and daughter showed up. We invited them in, offered them some water and asked what they wanted. Like most people here, their need is great. They have some family members that are sleeping on the ground and don’t have a mattress. So that was the first request. Then they asked for some food, clothes, a doll, and shoes. There might have been a few more things, it’s tough to remember. The mother was working me hard. We had recently given them some mattresses, clothes, shoes, and food. So I explained that we have many other families with extreme needs and we have to spread our limited resources around. It didn’t make her happy and it didn’t make me particularly happy. In the past few days we have had ample opportunities to give or not to give. Giving is always easy and makes you feel good. But when you know you don’t have enough for all, it’s tough being in the position of deciding who gets and who doesn’t get.
Well, we didn’t quite get that finished when we see the gardeners digging up the front lawn. We are trying to adjust the parking situation a bit, but their idea of adjustment is always significantly different than what we want. When we ask to trim a tree slightly, we come back and the tree is totally pruned of all leaves and cut back to where there are just some twigs sticking out of the ground. I always find it kind of strange, but the ground here is so fertile, that the plants quickly recover and we go through the exercise all over again. So we were out trying to give them some direction when the electrician shows up. Now that is a good thing. We have been trying to get some electrical work done here for many weeks. He also brought a couple construction guys to help build a new electrical meter box. So then we divert our attention to helping them.
About that time, some of the local kids show up. They love to come here so that they can play on the little scooter we have (it’s scary watching them) or with the cars we have. But today we have told them that we will give them popcorn and movie later in exchange for some light work. We are trying to instill a little work ethic and show them that you get rewarded for work. So Lisa took them down to help clean out one of the Casitas (little houses for the orphans…when we get them). They are excited to help out. Give them a project and it is quickly done. Not like when you ask your kids at home to help out. Instead here they are fighting over who can help the most and the quickest.
At the same time, a couple of the Ngobe women came up with the kids. They live in the back fields under a plastic tarp, sleeping on wooden bamboo beds they have raised up over the dirt floors. We have many questions on their lifestyle and culture, so we figured this was a great time to try and find out. So while Audi was cooking a huge pot of rice and beans, she had some coffee with the ladies and Karis, our administrative assistant (we can’t live without her), and talked with the ladies. Many projects going on all at the same time.
At noon we recognize that we are feeding just short of 20 folks, so I help out to fry up some plantains and feed the masses. Once again, the kids are quick to help out and set the table. Afterwards, we get the kids playing for a short time, send the men back to work, Lisa cleans, and I run off with Karis and Audi to get a movie. Things settle down slightly after that, the kids are eating popcorn and watching a movie when one more family shows up. We give them popcorn and they sit and watch the movie, too.
Once the movie is over, we tell all the kids it’s time to go home. It is always tough to get them to go. So we have to take all the balls, cars, and scooter, and let them know we have mucho trabajo (much work to do). We go down to the office to kind of debrief what has transpired when another family shows up. They are in need of some food. They haven’t eaten all day. Also the wife is getting some medical attention and needs some bus money to get back to the doctor tomorrow for some follow-up. We can see that she is in some pain. So I run and get some umbrellas so that the now downpour doesn’t drench everyone as we walk back up to the big house. Audi makes them some food to eat, Lisa gets them some food to take home, and I get them a few dollars to help them out with transportation.
That is just finishing up when some of the family members from out back come back up with the grandmother carrying one of the small boys. There have been numerous machete cuts recently, so we are half expecting to see blood all over. But in this case, the four year old boy fell off the bed and landed on his shoulder. He couldn’t move his arm at all. So we try and stabilize the arm and get ready to run him to the doctor in Volcan, 45 minutes away. Lisa drives the other two folks back to their field so they can trudge back to their home. A couple hours later we return, having bought the child some medicine to help with pain. The doctor seems to think it will be okay. Just keep it stabilized for several days. I drive all of them back into the fields, as close as we can get them to their home before it gets too dark.
Finally we all get home, sit down, and wonder, “where has the day gone?” We are beginning to have more and more days like this. And there are still many projects that we want to start and accomplish. Slow and steady wins the race, or so they say. Back at it again today. Some meetings we need to have to help improve how we do things. Food to cook because we know folks will come back that are hungry. And thankful that we have been blessed by God to be able to help out. He deserves all the glory for what we are able to complete.