Back in the day, I’d talk about not wanting to ‘lose’ kids. When I said that, I meant that I didn’t want to lose track of them, to lose the connection that I had to them. And then I started ‘losing’ kids that I love ‘to the street’. This means that too many years have passed and the drugs have done too much damage and the child has most likely lost the ability to ever fully leave the street.
And then the first child that I loved died.
But…he was hit by a car. It was an accident that can happen to any child. This was a fluke, right?
And then it was Chon and Jose Luis and Jose Alfredo and Angel David and now when I plead with a child not to run away because I don’t want to ‘lose’ him it’s the horribly permanent type of loss that I’m talking about.
(Stick with me a minute while I make an abrupt transition.)
One year ago today, we lost a building. Really, half a building. An inanimate object. One year ago today, I sat on my couch in Phoenix and sobbed as I watched a video stream of Nueva Vida burning. No kids were in the building and no one was hurt and yet I cried as though I was watching someone I loved die.
Last month, a friend who was visiting for the first time put words to these very big feelings I have. She said,
“The building holds the echo of the souls of children you’ve lost.”
Finally, finally, finally I could define these feelings. Yes. Exactly. This place, in this building, is where I met and grew to love too many children who I will never see again on this earth. Losing the place that holds the whispers of hope never fully captured was like losing them all over again.
So when I’d hear discussion of what to do with what remained of the building, I had a hard time staying quiet. Essentially, the question was whether or not the first floor was salvageable if the second story was engulfed in flames. “ABSOLUTELY YES!” I wanted to cry. But what I was saying was that this place that holds my memories was salvageable, giving no thought to safety or viability of the structure.
To my delight, it was decided that instead of tearing it down, they’d repurpose what’s left. And recently they finished the building.
I stole away for a bit, earlier this month and peered in windows. Today, on the one year anniversary, the building was dedicated as new workshops for the older boys. In this building they will learn a trade. They will have a way to support themselves and their families. It is a place of hope once again.
But guys… the echoes of what used to be that I hold so very dear are still there. The room where they used to have meetings and parties, where I spent hours and hours playing Trouble or doing puzzles is still one room. The giant metal beam where we hung piñatas is standing strong. The office where Zuniga (who we also lost last year) held court is still an office. The kitchen and dining room, where I ate countless meals surrounded by kids that I love, where kids who needed a little bit of maternal love would sidle up to Madre Martha or Madre Sandra is now a workshop…but the cabinet where all the pots and pans were stored is still there. Which makes me think of Sandra hugging me as I cried, assuring me that they’d keep a kid I was worried about close while I was in the States.
Anyone new to Proniño will see this building and see workshops.
But me? I will still see my kids.
I’ll see Jose Luis peering through the wire window with his sweet smile and giant ears.
I’ll see Jose Alfredo off by himself in some corner. So quiet and so alone.
I’ll see Brandon who was always down for a game or for a fight, whichever came first.
I’ll see Jonathon, dropping his tough exterior for second, with tears in his eyes talking about disappointing his grandma, who he loved so very much.
I’ll see Angel David whose time in Proniño was too little, too late and who just couldn’t find a way to defeat his demons.
I’ll see Richar, who changed my life and introduced me to this terrible and beautiful life.
And I’ll see Chon, whose death nearly broke me. Who, if given the chance, I’d love as fiercely and frustratingly all over again. Even knowing the pain that would come with losing him.
Here I sit, one year later, crying once again. (But this time in a coffeeshop….awkward.) Filled with sadness over the ones we’ve lost but also filled with gratitude that this place, this building, that makes me feel closest to them still stands. Because for me these echoes swell to a chorus that urges me to keep going. For them, for the ones they loved and for those that remain.