I wrote couple months back about how I left my perfect job at St. Joseph teaching first grade in my hometown, with families I love, at my home parish, surrounded by friends and family, at school who supported me personally…I really had everything someone could ask for, but I still felt incomplete. Not to say that I didn’t appreciate everything I had, but rather that I could just give more of myself and be a little more for people who needed me. With my friends, coworkers and beloved students back in session at St. Joseph I decided to share my best explanation for why I’m teaching here, now and not in America.
First off let's be real, I miss so many things. I miss being able to stay out late in Chicago with my buddies who I have known since elementary school, talking about sports with my brothers, watching ESPN, working out in a gym, eating pizza, going out on dates with girls and basically everything else a 25 year old guy “should” be doing. But even at home while I was doing those things I still missed here more. To be perfectly honest, it comes down to food. It is one part of the day I never am allowed to take for granted here, and I am very rarely alone. I enjoy eating my breakfasts and dinners with guests as we talk about our different projects, the safaris they went on or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. What is most important to me and what I missed at home were the meals that I now share with my children…
I have always been one that keeps things “close to the vest” it's probably one of my greatest faults, but as my buddy Matt told me "you just got to man up and share". So here goes... My weekends now are not like back home, no more late nights with my buddies or dates, but instead I go to bed early in order to be up early for any child who needs me to be a little more than my teacher hours require. Since our hotel is in the middle of Mailisita next to the school, the children always know where I am and they can always find me. After my first weekend I realized this trip would be different when I saw some students hanging around just to spend the day together. So from then on I told our security guards that any child of Stella Maris is welcome as my guest. The reasons for their visits vary, but for the most part it is always the same, food. One of the greatest gifts of our school is not only the English education the children receive, but also the financial burden we lift for the families that care for our children. This allows them to hopefully buy shoes, clothes and most importantly food for the children. Even still, many families fall on hard times or are simply unable to care for their children. It has been one of the hardest things for me to accept, and during my first week here I decided I would do as much as I could no matter what the situation. I had to face one such dire situation early on with a girl I have spoken about many times with my interviews, Catherine. She is the one child I’m always asked about ever since those interviews and I guess it was only fitting that she told me she needed me to visit her grandparents at home the second day I was at school.
So that weekend I went to Catherine's grandparents home, a hand built hut with no electricity, no water, and very few crops. It took only a moment before they broke down, cried and said they needed help with caring for Catherine. They just couldn’t do it. So I knew what I had to do, which was help as much as I could, since that is why I am here. I told them I could provide them with small items to help with Catherine like soap, sugar and that Catherine was always welcome for food whenever she needs it. She was down to 44 lbs as a 9 nearly 10 year old girl and it was clear they couldn't give her food outside of what she gets daily at school. It is really a simple gesture, just give food. To care for whoever needs me and it didn’t take long to grow. It started with her, and most of the time it was just the two of us chatting away for hours, telling stories, drinking tea and eating as much food as she could fit into her belly. Other days it’s two, three, six or whoever wanders by and says “I’m hungry, I didn’t eat any food” or "My grandparents said you could help me". It was an inconsistent number for the first couple months, but I could always count on Catherine. With each meal we would grow closer together and her performance in school steadily rose. With her basic needs of food and love finally being met, she was finally growing as a student again. With every visit to her home I hear from her Grandparents how they have witnessed a change in her and her Grandmother said "I thank God He brought back her father to care for her".
Then two weeks ago I was drinking my coffee in the morning and saw two smiling faces staring at me. Catherine had been coming to see me in the morning from about 9am until 3pm daily, but today I had a new visitor. Another student of Stella Maris who was a late addition to our school due to the severity of her situation had joined Catherine, it was Eliza. Eliza lost her father last year and her mother is very sick, so I knew a bit of her background and that she was in need of some extra help. I of course welcomed her for some tea and breakfast and she devoured the food. After a little while I began to ask what was going on at home. I asked “when did you eat your last meal?” she said “I don’t know” She said she had been home alone for 2 days because her family had gone to a hospital in Arusha. She was left without anyone to care for her and without any food. She was just forgotten about. So since that day our group has grown and every day during our holiday and on the weekends I wake up in the morning and sometime during my first or second cup of coffee I see two little faces looking in and smiling waiting to be invited in. We eat together, play, read, do math and just spend time together. I realize now our time together is about more than food. It is time that they know they can count on being with someone who will be there for them and show them love and care. That is why I am here, so I can be a teacher but also because here I can be that something more I was missing. Here I can be pushed emotionally, stretched thin and forced to be everything for different people daily, but that is when I am most happy.
So my weekends here might not be as exciting on paper as back home, just eating lunch with a few children, but it is the meals that are the reason why I am here. I was admittedly very nervous the first time I heard “Mr. Terry will help you” because I was afraid that I might not be able to. I realize now that every experience has prepared me for this work and that these meals are the reason why I am here. I am here because these children need someone they can count on. I like being that person that they can all turn to and lean on. We can all be proud that we have given every child at Stella Maris a school that they can count on.
Thank you everyone and God Bless!