University of Texas Press, 226 pages; $24.95
In 1982, Steve Reifenberg was disillusioned with his teaching job in Colorado and faced a weighty career decision. Persuaded by a fellow Notre Dame graduate who had just returned from Chile, Steve chose to postpone his decision and travel to South America. Upon arriving in Santiago, Steve followed up on his friend’s lead and was provided room and board in exchange for helping to care for 13 abandoned or abused children at the Hogar Domingo Savio.
In his book, Santiago’s Children: What I Learned about Life at an Orphanage in Chile, Steve describes his two years living among the children and their indefatigable guardian, Olga Diaz, who co-founded and ran the hogar. He sets the joys and frustrations, the hilarity and the gravity of life at the orphanage against the backdrop of General Pinochet’s brutal military regime.
Initially, Steve’s focus was limited to tending to the children’s needs at the hogar and improving his Spanish. As the hogar faced continual financial hardship, Steve marveled at Olga’s forthright approach to fundraising, recounting her words: The way I approach people when asking for help is to make them part of a dream. What dream is more compelling than creating a better world for a child who has been abandoned or abused?
After several failed attempts to establish a sustainable farm at the hogar, Steve began to take part-time teaching jobs in the city to help make ends meet. There, he came face-to-face with the dichotomy of Chilean life under military rule. In Chile, I had come to appreciate a simpler, less-hurried lifestyle. I took comfort in the warmth, generosity, and friendliness of Chileans, a people who relish family, music, and song. Other times, I felt disoriented in Chile, living in a country where poverty, political repression, malnutrition, brutality, and alcoholism were overwhelming. At times, my strategy was to ignore the national woes and focus on the lives of the children at the orphanage. Like the pioneers of the American West, I wanted to circle the wagons and build a better future for those kids.
Throughout his time in Chile, Steve grapples with how to respond to the horrors taking place around him. (”For a time, I was determined to write the name of each person who died in protests in my journal. The list simply got too long, and I gave up.”) At the same time, he struggles to determine his own path. The angst of young adulthood is palpable in his narrative. Still, the immediacy of his relationships with the children keeps him grounded.
For example, Sebastian, the oldest child at the hogar, found it increasingly difficult to share a bunkroom with the younger boys as he entered his teen years. Steve invited him to move into his room. Curious to know about Steve’s journaling, one night Sebastian asks what he is writing and Steve reads out his entry of the day’s events at the hogar. Steve writes:
The next night when I entered the room, I saw Sebastian propped up in my bed, his face dwarfed by my glasses, which rested precariously on the end of his nose. From under the covers he pulled out one of my blue journals (written in English) and pretended to read: ’I have decided to give my ten-speed bicycle to Sebastian because he is such a good, hard-working person,’ he began in Spanish. Then he started laughing and could not continue, throwing the covers over his head; and the blankets shook with his laughter.
After postponing his return home to face his future through a second year, Steve finally says good-bye to Olga and the children in late December, 1984. While knowing he helped make a difference for the children at the hogar, he is disappointed in having done so little: ”although I’d tried on lots of fronts, all my contributions paled in the face of so much poverty, repression, violence, and need.”
But like many experiences, the repercussions of his two years at Hogar Domingo Savio changed him in innumerable ways. As his Epilogue describes, Steve has returned to Santiago nearly every year since 1984, working with human rights groups and promoting educational opportunities. Not surprisingly, he continues to have a close relationship with the hogar and the children who grew up there.
To order the book, visit www.santiagoschildren.com