When I signed up to volunteer at an orphanage on a ranch in Mexico for a week, the first thing I thought about was the kids. A blurred montage of round smiling faces and Spanish songs and sweaty, manic games of tag raced through my head.
On the bus ride down to San Vicente, I daydreamed about baking cookies with the niños, teaching them how to crack the eggs over the bowl so there would be no pieces of broken shell in the yolk, demonstrating how to flatten and stretch the dough, standing behind them to admire their handiwork, distributing plastic heart-shaped cookie cutters and telling them to be careful with the edges.
I would use the basic Spanish I’d been practicing to ask them questions about their favorite colors and animals and what they liked to do for fun. They would teach me the words for tinfoil and oven and sprinkles. We’d all end up with flour dusted on our cheeks and in our hair.
On the first day of our work duties at the ranch, the leader of our volunteer group assigned me to work at the cement station. Though I had the option of choosing which work group I wanted to be part of, I went to the cement station willingly, but only because I had no experience with tree trimming, no strength for digging trenches, and no desire for demolition—which were my other choices.
We would be mixing cement to create a wheelchair accessible ramp in front of the newly built dentist office. An American dentist would come to Mexico now twice a year for a week and give each one of the seventy kids who lived there a free teeth cleaning and check-up. Mexican government officials, who dropped by every few months at random to inspect the ranch, had recently come by and told the owners that all the buildings needed to be up to code within forty-eight hours or they would have the authority to shut down the entire ranch—including the school, orphanage, and medical center.
I spent the morning shoveling gritty sand and small, jagged rocks into buckets to be poured into a large rusted mixing machine, along with pails of water and fifty-pound packages of sticky cement powder.
Between rounds of intense shoveling, I had to remind myself of this. I’m making a difference here with these rocks and this sand because my efforts will provide some handicapped child with a smoother path to free dental work.
I didn’t believe myself. It was hard to grasp that my shoveling was a great help when there were five Mexican guys working far more efficiently alongside the eight Americans from our group. They had us beat.
Rafael—a teenager who wore a red flannel hunting hat despite the late December heat—had an agility and nonchalance that made me feel like a blundering baby calf.
For the first time since I had arrived at the ranch two days earlier, I questioned my purpose here. What exactly was I—a gringa from Orange County with zero construction experience and pathetic upper body strength—doing shoveling buckets of rocks next to Mexicans who lapped me in speed and skill level?
I considered venting to someone on my team, but my fear of sounding spoiled, whiny, or non-Christian stopped me. I wanted to ask why we were helping locals with a project they could not only manage on their own, but could finish in half the time without us in the way. I wanted to ask why we weren’t devoting our energy to an endeavor that enriched the quality of the ranch in a unique, intangible way. I wanted to ask what we were giving the people here that they didn’t already have.
All at once, I felt my cheeks flushing for a different reason than the sharp afternoon sun. I felt indignation trapped in my throat like a piece of food that had gone down the wrong pipe. I didn’t want to be part of the group mindset that assumes foreign help is the solution to local problems. I didn’t want to waste time pretending like I was making a significant difference. I didn’t want to feel useless.
But I said nothing. Instead, I walked to the edge of our work site, leaned my hands on my shovel and my chin on my hands, and watched Rafael work with a growing ache of helplessness in my chest.
“Well, I feel useless.” It was Candy, the middle-aged mother who nicknamed herself “Tía Dolcita,” who spoke my thoughts aloud. She wedged her shovel in the red dirt, took off her sunglasses, and started cleaning them with the bottom corner of her cotton Cal Berkeley T-shirt.
I laughed. “Me too,” I said. Then I couldn’t help myself. “What are we even doing here if Rafael and the other guys are so much better at this than we are? It seems like we could make a more positive impact doing something we’re actually good at.”
Candy shook her head. “I don’t know, honey. All I know is that that young man,” she said, pointing to Rafael, “is a machine.”
“Yeah, he is.” I sighed.
“You know…” she said. I braced myself to hear another Christian explanation about working to give God His due glory. “Sometimes I just think we’re here to show our solidarity, to show that we care.”
I was surprised by her answer. “I guess so,” I said.
Candy stared ahead for a few moments then clapped her hands. “Well, it’s not lunchtime yet. Let’s get back to it!” She grabbed her shovel and walked back toward the pile of rocks and sand. I followed.
We worked for another two and a half hours before we heard the lunch bell. I tossed my shovel on the ground beneath an olive tree and picked up my plastic water bottle—half full and wilted from the sun—and the extra jacket I’d long since shed.
As I pulled off the red leather work gloves my dad bought me for the trip, I saw a shadow arrive next to me. It was Rafael. I smiled at him and he matched my stride as we walked toward the dining hall together. I wanted to say something to him in Spanish, to tell him how fast and talented he was, to apologize for getting in the way, for not doing better work.
But before I could utter a word, Rafael turned to me and held out his hand. “Gracias,” he said and pointed toward the job site now fifty yards behind us. "Por todo."
I glanced at the half-finished ramp, the scratched blue barrel filled with hose water, the heap of charcoal-gray rocks glittering in sun, the little pile of orange peels we’d accumulated. I wanted to contradict him, to say that none of us really deserved any thanks.
But the sincerity in his smile told me otherwise. In that moment, I saw myself through his eyes—not as a clueless, self-important foreigner, but as a human being doing her best to offer help where she could.
I met Rafael’s gaze, put both my hands around his, and said, “De nada.”
Paige Smith is a freelance writer and editor from Southern California who specializes in travel, lifestyle and wellness topics. When she's not writing stories and articles, she's planning her next trip. See more of her here.