I started volunteering as an Art Therapist at a group home/orphanage for girls between the age of 5 and 18 in the city of Cusco, Peru. All the girls were abandoned by their parents because of abuse, neglect, and poverty. Sometimes, the girls are reintroduced in their families if it is deemed safe for them. At other times, they will stay at the group home until they reach the age of 18, the age at which they will have to fend for themselves.
The group home consists of dorms, school rooms, a kitchen, a patio and garden. The psychologist that works there full-time gives me the possibility to run art therapy groups twice a week and facilitate individual sessions with the children that need more individual support.
Today, I had my first individual session with a 13 year old girl named Alexa (pseudonym). The psychologist had informed me about Alexa’s trauma history, which is an extremely difficult one to hear: her father sexually abused her leaving her pregnant. She gave birth to a little boy and was struggling with taking care of him. She lived in a home for teenage mothers and their babies for a few months. One day, she decided to give her child for adoption and relinquished her child to social services. She was then separated from her child and sent to the group home where I met her. It appears that she now regrets her decision and would like to get her son back. From the psychologist and the social workers’ viewpoint, it is no longer possible for her to get her baby back even though he is still in Cusco.
The psychologist asked me to provide her with emotional support and help her let go of the idea of getting her child back. I said that I wouldn’t take side, nor would I tell her that adoption is either good or bad. It is not my place to tell her that she made a mistake by giving up her child for adoption, nor will I tell her that it was a good idea and that her child will be happier in an adoptive family. However, what I can do is offer Alexa a place where she can express her emotions of deep grief, loss and sadness, without judging her or giving her advice. This is what I was trained for. I can be there for her, provide empathy and compassion for the difficult choice she made, as well as give her a place where she can slowly start to heal her own traumatic past.
Working with Alexa today really touched my heart, and I was positively surprised at how I was able to hold the space for her without being triggered myself. I did quite a lot of work around my own story of adoption, which helped me to be completely present with her, focusing on her unique story and putting my own past aside. As her story is quite similar to my own birth mother’s past, I can really understand where Alexa is coming from and how she must be feeling. My own birth mother also changed her mind after giving me up for adoption. She also tried to get me back but it was too late. I can only imagine the pain that she must have felt at realizing that I was already given away to an adoptive family. It is today that I really came to realize how my own story now helps me deeply connect with people going through stories that are similar to mine.
In the session, Alexa and I did an activity called “Colour Conversation” where we both “communicate” together by drawing on a common piece of paper, taking turns and without words. This is a good art-based intervention to start with as it helps establish a connection with the client as well as create shared moments of joy, which help slowly repair some of the trauma imprint and repair attachment styles. After the drawing, we turned to another art form, namely story-telling, and collaborated together in order to come up with a story based on the drawing that had just been created. I was surprised by Alexa’s extraordinary imagination and highlighted this skill and resource to her.
I wrote down the story on a piece of paper, we gave it a title and both signed it. The story, in its short version, was about a little boy who took care of an ant by giving it sugar and love. He fed the ant with so much love and sugar that the ant grew bigger and bigger until it exploded and turned into a condor (national bird of Peru). The condor, in turn, protected the little boy and his whole village.
After we finished writing the story, Alexa started telling me that the little boy’s name was her own son’s name. She then proceeded by opening up to me and sharing parts of her own life story with me. I listened and provided as much empathy as I could. I thanked her for telling me her story, acknowledging that it must be difficult to share such a story with other people.
We finished the session with her reading the highly creative story out loud one more time, which made us both laugh and giggle together. She mentioned being willing to come back for another session next week. I gave her a fist bump, but walked towards me and gave me a hug.
I feel really grateful for getting the opportunity to put into practice the skills I acquired in my 4 years of training as a therapist. I know that I am gaining a lot from these volunteering experiences in Peru as it allows me to open up my heart, to begin feeling more confident as a therapist, to be of service to someone else and to put my life mission into practice.
I feel gratitude and a lot of love.