by Frances Fowler-Collins
It is difficult to raise children well under any circumstances, but it is especially difficult when all the children in question have been abandoned and most have also been abused. This was a central theme of the retreat that Madre Ivonne Sommerkamp, of the HogarRafael Ayau in Guatemala City, led at Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church in late September. About 120 people from Ohio and nearby states attended this retreat in Norwood, Ohio, entitled “Healing in Christ.”
Madre Ivonne and two other Orthodox nuns operate the “Hogar,” or Home, an orphanage that shelters about 100 Guatemalan children of both sexes, ranging in age from infancy to the mid-teens. The nuns’ work with the children is shaped by a coherent theory about how children, including children who desperately need physical, emotional, and spiritual healing, should be brought up. During the morning session, Madre Ivonne described the daily life of the children at the home; in the afternoon session she elaborated on the theory which she and her sister nuns have developed to guide the work that they do. They seek to follow a middle road between being too severe with the children and spoiling them. “There are two limits,” said Madre Ivonne, “not enough and too much. . . . It’s very important that children not expect to be served.”
The children’s daily schedule can best be described as “rigorous.” Rising at 5:00 A. M., the girls wash clothes while the boys swim laps. At 6:30 everyone eats breakfast; then they attend Matins at 7:00. No one is required to attend church, but since there is nothing else to do during services, almost all the children choose to attend. No doubt one reason that the children “love” to go to church is that they are permitted to play an active role in the services as chanters, readers, bell ringers, and censers. After Matins comes another important part of the Hogar’s program: almost five hours of school work. At 1:00 PM the children eat lunch. Extracurricular activities follow. In the afternoon the girls swim laps, and the children also pursue such activities as music, working with computers, carpentry and crafts. After a snack at 4:00, they attend Vespers. Supper is at 5:30, and the rest of the evening is devoted to homework and sports. Bedtime comes early.
This plan of activities is shaped by the philosophy of education that the nuns have developed through study and experience. Madre Ivonne shared a list of “Books to Read” with the retreatants. They included such works as On the Upbringing of Children, by Bishop Irenaeus; Raising Them Right: A Saint’s Advice on Raising Children, by St. Theophan the Recluse; Soul Mending, by John Chryssavgis; and Parenting Other People’s Children by John L. Stoller.
The spiritual healing of the children is of central importance at the Hogar. As Madre Ivonne said, “God must be the center.” Therefore, the sisters teach the children to pray and to count on God. Most are baptized soon after they arrive at the Hogar, and they are anointed daily. When priests are available to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, the children receive the Eucharist, with the older children carrying babies and toddlers to the chalice. Madre Ivonne and the other sisters also teach the importance of forgiving others quickly–an especially necessary lesson since most of the children feel deep anger because they were abandoned.
However, the children need healing on other levels as well. Drawing on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as presented in Stoller’s book, the nuns make sure that all the other needs of their charges are addressed as well. First, their physiological needs for food, water, shelter, and exercise must be met. “If those needs aren't satisfied in infancy, you’ll tend to confuse needs and wants. You won’t trust anyone,” explained Madre Ivonne. Next in the hierarchy of needs is safety and security. The Hogar is a complex of buildings protected by a wall; however, it is located in a crime-infested area of the city. One of the reasons that the nuns are preparing to move the Hogar outside the city is that the children’s need for safety and security can be better met there.
The next need in the hierarchy is for love and belonging. Madre Ivonne stressed the importance of meeting this need, not only at the Hogar but throughout our society. Ideally, children receive love and develop a sense of belonging within their families, but today many children have weak families that fail to meet this need. Families should eat meals together, said Madre Ivonne. “We all need belonging. . .If we don’t belong, we’re lost.” Children who don’t feel they belong anywhere are likely to be attracted by gangs, which appeal because they do meet the need to belong.
Self-esteem comes next in Maslow’s hierarchy. The children at the Hogar usually lack self-esteem, so the sisters try to build their self-confidence in various ways. Some of these include teaching them to read in a country with a high illiteracy rate; developing their skills in such areas as swimming and music; and providing them with attractive clothing to wear. The last need in the hierarchy is for self-actualization, usually not achieved until adulthood. Through their program at the Hogar, Madre Ivonne and her co-workers seek to lay the foundation for self-actualization later on in the children’s lives.
Madre Ivonne concluded her talk by telling the retreatants how to work effectively with a child who suffers from “reactive attachment disorder,” a common problem among abandoned children. First, all of the child’s needs must be met. Second, the adults must be absolutely trustworthy. However, they must also let the child know that they are in control. Last, any adult who works with such children must be emotionally strong because these children usually go through numerous cycles of “bonding and rebellion.”
The system of education which the nuns at Hogar Rafael Ayau have developed is relevant, not only for the Hogar, but for everyone who is involved in raising or educating children. After all, every child needs healing to some degree. And, as the title of the retreat suggests, Christ Himself is the great healer. Madre Ivonne put it this way: “If we choose to follow Him, healing will come.”