Unanchored Thoughts

Bits and pieces of musings about family, friends, social issues, and whatever else travels through my head without a purpose.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

An achy heart

We send our kids to a lovely child care center in Old Town Alexandria. After having been through a yucky in-home center and a crazy nanny, this place has far exceeded our low expectations regarding child care. The teachers are warm and friendly and always have a smile on their face. The activities are creative and engaging. The administration is responsive to our requests. And, the price tag reflects all these benefits, but we figured that this is where we should be putting our money right now, as opposed to say, more consumer goods.

Almost all of the teachers at the school are Spanish speaking and first generation immigrants. Their English skills vary, but because of their warmth and kindness the language barrier doesn't really matter. It does, however, effect the degree to which I "know" them or much about their lives. Our conversations are mostly limited to simple phrases about my kids.

What I have learned about a few of the teachers tugs at my heart strings. One teacher did some weekend babysitting for us a while back and after great effort to communicate with her about our address, and then learning that she did not have her own car we picked her up from a metro and then drove her home to Hyattsville where she commutes over an hour one-way to get to work each day, we learned that she has 3 young children of her own in her home country who are being cared for by her mother while she and her husband try to eek out a better life for 3 generations of people at low wage jobs in a high-cost city. We increased her pay on the spot, but even then felt inadequate.

Last week we learned that one of the sweet young teacher's parents were in a horrible car accident in El Salvador and the mother is paralyzed from the neck down. Miss C and her 3 siblings are in the U.S. working to send money home so that the parents and probably many extended relatives can live. The siblings were so excited to have saved enough money to buy their mother a new refrigerator and they were going to tell her about the gift on Christmas. A few days earlier her parents are hit head-on by another car and her mother is hanging on for her life in a hospital bed. None of the kids in the U.S. have money for a plane ticket home and even if they did they don't have jobs with paid annual or sick leave. And, now more than ever they need to work to pay the mounting medical bills. $10,000 last I heard. It sounds like a paltry amount by U.S. standards, but in a country with no health insurance, a per capital income of $5,200 and a family that probably falls far below that level this is a seemingly insurmountable debt burden, not to mention the emotional trauma involved.

I sobbed when I heard the story. The day after this happened Miss C was greeting my kids with a forced smile through watery eyes. She had to work. I could barely look at her I felt so much pain for the situation. I was about to shower my kids with toys they don't need, feed my family mountains of food we couldn't finish, and sink into my couch in a house bigger than I need. And here was a young girl working hard as a stranger in this country with a family in need thousands of miles away with no choice but to continue caring for my kids. I couldn't stomach the dichotomy, but yet I didn't know what to do. Buy her a plane ticket to El Salvador? But, she didn't feel she could leave her job and I couldn't communicate with her well enough to work through the options. The best I could do was help organize to collect funds for her family from the other parents at school. It wasn't my idea. Another parent saw her crying the morning after the accident, inquired about what was wrong and suggested the idea. As the self-appointed "room parent" I regularly organize collections for teacher birthdays, so I had the structure in place to do this. It also happens that Miss C's birthday is tomorrow so I was already in organization mode for her.

This morning I presented her with a card, cake, and balloon, the typical teacher birthday package, except that this time the card contained $260. Typically we collect $100. I saw other parents giving her money directly and the administration had already given her $460 that parents had donated. I also connected with a parent who is willing to donate her frequent flyer miles to get Miss C home if and when she'd like. Miss C gave me a long, deep hug this morning and we cried together. I could feel her deep appreciation in the hug even if we can't communicate in a common language. The school administration has also told us that her family feels overwhelmed by the generosity parents have shown toward them. I thought Miss C seemed a little less sad when I saw her this afternoon. I hope that these efforts are a small way to make a little difference in an overwhelmingly sad situation. However, I can't help but feel a sense of hollowness at my own paltry contribution. Truthfully, with a few sacrifices that pale in comparison to what she's making for her own family we could wipe out her debt in a fraction of the time it will take her and her siblings.

But, this doesn't touch the emotional wounds and the overarching economic disparity that exists between our worlds. I might feel temporarily better about this one action, but then what can I do to address the bigger disparities that exist? And while this situation is a tragedy, for sure, I'm sure if I knew more about the other teacher's situations I would feel a similar sense of pain. The small children that are without their mother? I think about them often and wonder if I should be slipping her an extra $20 every week so that the kids can have a little more in their lives. I'm sure there are other stories within this small group of teachers that would make me feel great pain. While it's probably not healthy to dwell on it hourly, interacting with the teachers daily does remind me of how fortunate I am and how important it is to help those with fewer financial resources than me, even if that's all I can do.


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