Roxanne Dias says spending 14 days holding babies afflicted with HIV/AIDS changed her life.
Roxanne Dias says her life changed after she spent 14 days in a Guatemalan orphanage interacting with small children with HIV/AIDS.
"It changed what I want to do with my life," says the 17-year-old student. "At first I just wanted to get rich and live the life. Now I just feel I have to go back. All these children want is love."
Dias is one of seven members of St. John Bosco Parish in Edmonton's Clareview region who visited the Mother Anna Vitiello Home, an orphanage operated by the Sisters of the Small Apostles of Redemption in Sumpango, Guatemala.
The orphanage is a non-profit institution that specializes in working with children who have been affected by or live with HIV/AIDS. It provides them with medicine, food, recreation, education and a safe home.
Currently, 67 children between five months and 13 years of age live in the orphanage, a large compound that contains sleeping quarters, kitchen facilities, a chapel, a convent, a medical clinic and a community school from kindergarten to Grade 6. At least 80 children from outside the orphanage also attend the school.
The Edmonton group took $12,000 worth of aid with them, including school supplies, toys, medicine and cash, most of it donated by St. John Bosco parishioners. They stayed in a guesthouse in the compound, Jan. 31 to Feb. 14.
The purpose of the visit was to provide group members with an experience of Christian charity and compassion, said Deacon Jose Huezo, the group's leader. "We believe here that solidarity and charity with the suffering children is beautiful, but still there is the aspect of going there and experiencing with them their own reality."
Huezo first visited the orphanage last year after learning about it from his son, who had been there the previous year with a group from St. Albert Parish.
During their stay, mission members played with the children, helped in the school and covered a large outside wall with broken pieces of colour tiles to make it more appealing to the children. They all washed dishes three times a day.
"It was a good learning experience for me - a good opportunity to help the sisters and the kids," said group member Dennis Felts, a retired meat cutter.
"At least three times a day we were with the kids, walking with them, hugging them, carrying them, just showing them lots of affection."
All the little ones in the orphanage are HIV positive, added Felts. "But you wouldn't know it by looking at them; they are all healthy. The sisters do a wonderful job in looking after these babies."
However, since Huezo's first visit last year, six children have died.
Dias spent most of her time with the children. After taking care of babies each morning, she played with toddlers or with school children.
"For me, it was amazing just getting to play with them all the time," she said. "They were so happy and vibrant. I just kind of felt I was giving them love and they were giving me so much more back."
The orphans are Spanish-speaking but the sisters have introduced a program where they learn English beginning in kindergarten, said mission member Bernadette Swan.
"My favourite part was being there with the kids," Swan said. "Seeing the expressions on their faces tells me they were very happy that we were there. I'm inspired by the resilience of these children. I call them God's special children."
Many children in the orphanage were born with HIV and were brought directly from the hospital. The Sisters of the Small Apostles of Redemption specialize caring for children with AIDS.
"I was happy to see the involvement of the sisters with these kids," added Swan. "It's amazing to see their love for the kids, their involvement in making sure these kids survive." There are 15 sisters in the orphanage, most of them under 25 years of age.
Mission members noted that despite being HIV positive the children are remarkably active, always running and wanting to play.
Jose Jara, 35, said he joined the mission because he likes working with children. Apart from helping set tiles on the wall, he played with the children, washed dishes and helped repair stuff in the clinic.
"I looked around and I saw all this stuff they needed to fix and I talked to the nuns and started fixing them." He fixed air purifiers, computers, printers and a copy machine.
Originally from Chile, Jara speaks Spanish and was the group's translator.
The father of two said he was happy to learn there are still places where people help each other. "Seeing these nuns helping these children was like a bright light for me," he said. "There are lot of people that still follow Jesus."
Mission members said the experience has deepened their appreciation of life, family and home, which sometimes they take for granted.
They will soon make presentations about their mission to the parish.
The Sisters of the Small Apostles of Redemption need financial help to care for the children. Medicine for each child costs $100 a month. Huezo said St. John Bosco Parish plans to set up a program where parish members can sponsor children from the orphanage.