Throughout the course of a volunteering experience there are many fulfilling moments, but I think the farewell is one of the most poignant for any volunteer.
I left Chile two months ago, and as such it just so happened that it was the last week of December when I had to say goodbye to the children, to other volunteers and to friends. My departure was mixed with all the Christmas celebrations, something that’s emotionally hard to deal with for the children that we work with, given that are constantly reminded that they don’t have a family with whom to share their Christmas. Furthermore, my family came to visit me and I was a bit nervous about having them meet the kids during this time of year. Yet it was a truly great experience: showing my parents and brother what had been my life for a year as well as showing the children what was my family like. I think it worked great, as the children laughed at my father and brother’s jokes and they really had a good time participating in the games my mom created, and my family told me that they were “touched to their souls” while meeting my “other siblings”.
It was hard for me to say goodbye. It may not be forever, but when I think hard about it, it probably will be. For a while I was torn by two contradictory feelings. On one hand, I didn’t want the children to miss me, I wanted them to be able to forget me easily without disturbing their lives. These children already have many important adults who have disappeared from their lives, and I did not want to be just another face that waltzed into and then promptly out of their lives. On the other hand, I wanted to feel that I had been important to them and that my time with them had been significant, so I have to admit that a part of me did in fact want to be missed. In the end I decided that I did not need to give precedence to one feeling over the other, but to merely act as I felt and be open and honest with the them. So I told all of the children how special they were, and how special they had been for me, and that I wanted them to be happy even after I left (and to behave and to not say bad words, etc.).
And all of this came together in a single moment, when I hugged on of the girls and told her goodbye. She hugged me strongly in return and started crying. I knew she wasn’t crying because I was leaving, that was just a detonator of the emotional bomb she held within. She was crying because it was Christmas Eve and she was in a shelter, without her family, and feeling very alone.
In a certain way, this moment helped to resolve my conflicting feelings, as I realized that I was important for them and that I had helped them, yet they would not be traumatized simply because I was leaving. It was natural for me to maintain my emotional connection with them right up until the end, showing them my feelings and letting them know how important they were for me. It is a part of life that people come and go into and out of your life, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love you, and I hope to have imparted this message to my girls. I know that I have a family that will always be there, but sadly they don’t, and their growth and development will have to proceed within this context. Hopefully my relationship with them will help to make this context a bit less harsh and bit more compassionate.
I don’t know if what I did was the right thing, but at the time I felt that it was, and I still do. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the children that I used to work with, but I want them to know that I loved them as much as I could, and that they have been important in my life. They have to face many challenges in their lives, many more than what I would prefer, but I want them to face them knowing how great they are.