“I want to put a ding in the universe.”
-Steve Jobs


Tegucigalpa, Honduras – inside a 3 room building at the Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos (NPH) ranch for orphaned and abandoned children

“This is stale air,” I think to myself as we enter the doorway. I’m next aware, after walking in, of the confused scattering of the room’s inhabitants: a lone young woman on a couch, a girl in a wheelchair near her, a young woman standing against one wall apart from two others in wheelchairs. No one faces the same direction. No one converses.

A television plays in the corner. No one watches.

I’m accompanying Don*, an American volunteer and part of our group. He’s asked me to join him as he spends time at the home for young ladies with impairments and disabilities (i.e., “special needs”).

I silently but immediately regret my decision to join him. Being here makes me uncomfortable. No one offers us a place to sit. No one welcomes us. The air doesn’t circulate. We don’t know where to stand and we’re both having great difficulty simply striking up a conversation. Any conversation.

I don’t kid myself that Don invited me along for my charm alone; I’m here in part to help translate. But, despite our efforts there’s no conversation. One woman physically turns her back to us. Another explains that Carmen*, the back-turner, is simply mad at the world and we shouldn’t take it personally. We don’t know if this explanation comes from a young lady with special needs or an NPH caregiver because no one has introduced themselves.

Our hope of parlaying this nugget of information about Carmen into a dialogue dies out immediately. No conversation ensues. I’m at a loss. Having no kids of my own let alone special needs children, I feel hamstrung. Even a basic conversation starter such as, “do you like playing soccer?” isn’t relevant to these young ladies.

We struggle.

My discomfort grows. I look up at the minute hand of the clock which has stopped dead in its tracks. The stale air grows somehow staler to me.

Don gets an idea. “Can you explain to someone that I’m hoping to get a pencil and paper?” he asks me. I translate. A search begins. One young lady returns from the other room with a range of items bearing no discernible similarity to pencil and paper. We offer her exaggerated thanks but continue to search. A pencil is found.

He draws a quick sketch of the face of the first girl able to bring him paper. She tilts her head and looks at it. She looks back at Don’s face and then back at his drawing.

He repeats the process for a second young lady. A third looks at his first drawing and immediately identifies Maria*, the apparent name of the sketch’s model. “Maria!”, she says loudly while pointing at her. Others in the room look up.

“Draw me next!” one of them says. “No, draw me first!” says another.

Don sketches nearly all of them before the end of the evening, when we need to leave because it’s “lights out” time at the home.

No one would claim his sketches are works of art. Certainly not Don. The vast majority are recognizably his model’s face, but not all. As demand for his work grew and became a clamor, he had to draw fast in a less than ideal setting.

However, you can’t judge the impact of art by objective standards alone. His sketches made these girls happy. Or in some cases, caused them to be disappointed that his reflection of how they look to the outside world isn’t a pretty picture. But it made them feel alive. Noticed. Something about how he really looked at each of them, into their eyes, so that he could sketch them, awakened a type of human contact many of them seldom receive, I think.

“Donald” one of the girls says suddenly as we depart. At that moment, my heart skips a joyous beat.

Personal space is cherished at an orphanage. The locker of each girl in the home is the one place they can preserve what is personally important to them- photos of family members, meaningful mementos. After our visit I was told that only one of the girls he sketched doesn’t keep his drawing proudly displayed in their personal locker. She carries it around in her wheelchair with her.

I think Don “put a ding in the universe” that night. If you listened closely, you may have heard it.

*Note: This is a true story, but names have been changed.

Yes, men are part of the AWE Community as well!

Pete Dougherty and I met while on a mission trip with my family to Guatemala.  He is the Midwest Development Manager for NPH USA. After a career on Wall Street, Pete began assisting NPH USA in 2015. He became a Spanish/English translator, mission trip participant, member of their regional board of directors and a child sponsor. In 2016, he joined them full time.

NPH USA transforms the lives of abandoned and disadvantaged children with homes, healthcare and educational programs in Latin America and the Caribbean.