Three years, later, I was astounded as I walked down the hill to see the changes that had taken place. I had seen pictures since I left, but nothing can change your own mental image of a place except seeing it again in person. The school building is now complete, meaning there's more sleeping room in the home, there are mosquito nets for all the children, a store to earn money, an enormous farm, a playground, a dining area, a kitchen, toilets, and a new home being built so the children have more room to live and play. The buildings were painted pink and brown, and flowers housed in pots made of tires decorated the land in front of the home.
Of course, it was the children I really wanted to see. Danny and I had come late into the afternoon, and for a moment it seemed no one was around. Then Emmanuel came out of the house. My throat tightened as I hugged him for the first time in three years, and we both laughed. He told me all the older ones were working on the farm, behind the new house, and he would take me there. Then Ophelia came dashing out, her beautiful face glowing with a smile I remembered well. More laughing, hugging, crying, talking. She was taller.
The little ones came around as we headed to the farm, swarming me. With a start, I recognized one of the taller, chatty boys. "Benjie!" I cried. He grinned up at me, but I knew he didn't remember me. Though I taught him for four months, he had been only two and a half at the time. I hugged him anyway. There were many clustered around him that I didn't recognize-- new faces since three years ago. One girl, seven years old and small for her age, like they all were, giggled as the little ones started chanting my name: "Shallee, Shallee..." They pronounced it "Shelly," like always, and I had to smile as they dragged her over. "Shallee, Shallee!" they cried, pointing at her. Her name was Shallee, or "Shelly" too. Still giggly, but shy, she pulled away to the back of the crowd.
That day remains now in my memory as very sweet-- yet also a little bitter. For three years, I had held these children in my heart and called them mine. I held fiercely to the idea that they were my children. Coming back, I realized the truth. I love them, as many volunteers since my time have loved them. They have grown, and changed, and though I still love them and some of them still remember and perhaps love me, they are not mine. They belong not to me, but to each other and to their full-time caregivers. That is their family. That is their life. I came for a short time only, and though I have shared my heart and my hands, that did not make them as wholly mine as I had so long thought. My heart had to break a little that day in order to open up and let "my children" go. That was the bitterness. The sweetness was feeling the love I still hold for them, and being able to physically hold them in my arms again.