Because of my familiarity of working with people who mental and physical impairments, I accepted a volunteer position in a care facility for women, called Cottolengo del Padre Alegre, in Madrid, Spain this summer. This was a group that looked after these women because of their families’ inability to care for them or, in some cases, they were not wanted. The type of work made the volunteer position unpopular for Spaniards who were struggling to even keep a paying job, but with over one hundred women, they were always in need of help. The women here were all older than me. Everything would occur in Spanish. I would work for a month and enter the bus to go at 8:30 and get off at 7:30 every day. I was apprehensive, terrified, and unsure.
When I arrived at the secluded five-story, fenced home I was given a white overcoat and was directed immediately to my duties. Many of the women there were disfigured and stunted by their conditions. My attempts to feed yogurt to the severely autistic and violent, Bea, was a failure; the yogurt ended up all over the floor, my coat, and our hair. Maricarmen, a three foot tall woman stunted by cerebral palsy, bullied me into taking her for a walk, where, to her amusement, it took me two hours of pushing, bargaining, and dragging to get her back in. A truculent woman named Fatima had to be restrained by two nurses when she tried to attack me because she thought I stole her ring. The aids, volunteers, and nuns took to calling me “Chiquita” because of my age. By the end of the day I was exhausted, bruised, and was missing a clump of hair.
But that next day I observed attentively, worked industriously, and learned quickly; by the end of the week I knew the routine. Now, Bea would welcome me with a shriek and a clap and she would finish the yogurt: she trusted me. I became one of the only aids in the hospital who Maricarmen allowed to feed her, although she glared indignantly at me and kicked my skin between each bite of mashed vegetable. Fatima forgave me and we became laundry buddies.
My deepest bond was with Merche, a forty-year-old woman who could only say about seven phrases. One day during idle time, I traced spirals into her palm, and so every day after she rolled up to me and hold her hand expectantly. Three days before I left Spain she came up to me and again held up her hand, but this time when I reached out, she grabbed my hand and turned it over on top of hers. Her finger shook, but she slowly drew out a single circle onto to my palm and mumbled my name, “Pinchacho”. She finished the circle, dropped my hand, and rolled back to her music. Her display of affection and kindness was momentary but it left me speechless; it was a moment of connection and acceptance that I will never forget. Compassionate, loving, accepting people, like Merche deserve more than to be tucked away, out of sight, even in a facility that is well cared. They deserve more than to be denounced as “mentally ill” and unworthy by a self-interested society.
The women of the Cottolengo taught me more about myself that summer than I had learned all throughout high school. Their strength and endurance even with their conditions has taught me a gratitude for my life, body, and future; I have learned appreciation for the opportunities I have in my life.