I finally got to volunteer at the Red Cross Children’s home on Monday. I had missed my chance last week due to illness and could only listen in horrific envy to Bjorn’s tales of adorable children, one of whom was in tears and had to be carried for nearly the entire time. So be it, I thought. I, too, can cry with the best of ’em and if I have to carry a child for 2 hours, especially if it’s a chubby one like I want, I will have at least worked on building up my upper body strength (and come to think of it, that much exercise would probably have induced tears anyway.)
My excitement that morning was dampened only a little bit by the fact that we got caught in that swirling morass of humanity aka rush hour. The lines to get onto the BTS trains were at least 10 people deep at every entrance. But with trains running few and far between, everyone still mashed themselves in. “Packed like sardines” does not begin to half describe it. I grumpily ruminated on inconsiderate passengers who stood too close and took audacious liberties with personal space…until the man upon whose backpack I was reclining (as he wore it) and leaning my entire body weight on darted quickly away.
We had to switch trains, which involved another long wait behind dozens of people. By now we realized we would not make it to the meeting place with the other volunteers on time. We called and told them we would meet up with them at the children’s home.
We got lost. Of course.
Finally, after about an hour of well-meaning but confused communication, large hand gestures, a sly tuk-tuk driver out to make a buck on hapless tourists, going to the wrong hospital and a circuitous trip around the Red Cross compound’s ground, we made it.
I was giddy. I practically ran to the playroom where the volunteers and kids were. I settled onto the floor with a happy sigh and beamed at the children, who were all under the age of 3, silently willing them to come play with me. But every child was already paired with a volunteer. Even Bjorn had been reunited with his old friend Phop. I had no one.
Suddenly, the door opened and two more little girls were ushered in. One was impressively round: She had a round head, round cheeks, a round tummy, even had a bowl hair cut. The other little girl was skinny, but quite cute, and it quickly became apparent that she was special. She hardly made eye contact with anyone, touched her tongue to everything she picked up and engaged in superbly limber back-and-forth rocking. I would guess that she had autism, a development disorder that includes repetitive behavior and impaired social interaction with others. So of course, I played with her.
BG (short for Baby Girl), would have been happy to play on her own, but I, however, was not. And even though the others said she was independent, I thought it would be a shame for her not to get any interaction and tried to initiate group play. Vainly I tried to recall my training as a behavior therapist, but it has been more than 10 years since I last was one, and it already seems like a lifetime ago. Besides, I thought, I am here just to have fun. But I couldn’t stand idly by while she licked everything (that’s just gross) so I attempted to redirect her attention when she brought a toy close to her mouth or took it out of her hand if she did. At mealtime, she didn’t want to eat, so I tried breaking the behavior down and let her rock herself a few times if she let me touch the spoon to her mouth. She didn’t end up eating one spoonful.
Playing with BG, I was reminded of why I stopped being a behavior therapist: I just didn’t know if I was doing the right thing. Was I reinforcing the right behavior or encouraging the wrong ones? Plus, I wanted to be her friend, not her therapist. I wanted her to like me and she was definitely unhappy with me when I was trying to get her to eat. This service project was not turning out like I had expected. I had thought my time at the children’s home was going to be all sunshine and games. I hadn’t expected confusion and battles of will.
Don’t get me wrong— I still want to continue this service project. I still believe service is gratifying and meaningful and can be full of joy. I still think a life of service is the life best lived.
But wouldn’t you know: Serving someone actually involves work.
At the end, BG willingly let me pick her up to take her back to her crib, and when I did, she held me close. It wasn’t exactly a hug, and maybe she was scared I would drop her — but I’ll still take it.