Campamento Mi Momento 2019 is coming up in just a few short months! As we were reflecting back on past years, we found this lovely piece on the camp experience written from the perspective of GOF board member, Judy Miller. Enjoy!
By Judy Miller
My sticky body sways in time with the retired Blue Bird school bus that bumps over deeply rutted streets in search of the meeting place. Razor-wire topped buildings, a sea of rubbish, and bright graffiti are reminders that I am far from Disneyland and the United States. Occasionally I am forced to grab onto the seat in front of me when the bus threatens to toss me from my slippery seat. This is my third trip to Nicaragua in two years, and I eagerly look forward to working with a new group of Peace Corps volunteers who serve as camp counselors, as well as new campers—fifty-five this time.
The gears grind as the bus comes to a halt. The bus complains loudly as the driver begins to back up, having overshot his destination. Devoid of air moving through the open windows, the temperature soars and humidity clings on this December afternoon. We have been driving around this town for a half hour, in search of our last group of campers. The girls, like the others already riding on the bus with us, live in a permanent protection center in this small city north of Managua, Nicaragua, safe from the men who have abused them.
I rise to greet each of the petite, dark-haired girls boarding the bus. Tentative espresso eyes take me in—a blond stranger with a soft smile—while accepting the sandwiches, chips, and waters I offer. They move past me silently—some with fleeting smiles and others with stoic expressions—to stow their meager bags in the overhead rack and find a seat.
They look to be some of our younger campers—around the ages of twelve and thirteen. Each girl is a statistic, taken from her family by the Nicaraguan government because she is a victim of sexual violence.
More than eighty percent of Nicaraguan girls are abused by someone familiar to them—an uncle, her father, or her brother. Occasionally, it is a stranger that has committed the abuse.
Each of my young Nicaraguan bus-mates has been impacted by the country’s embedded machista culture. Nicaragua has one of the highest rates of sexual violence against girls in the world.
The incidence of abuse is staggering. Eighty-two percent of victims of sexual violence are estimated to be children, and nine out of ten are female.
These girls are my younger sisters. I don’t know them, but I know about them. I have been entrusted with some of their histories, and others’ stories will come to light during our time together in the mountains. Some have been in protection centers since they were infants. Others since they were toddlers or little girls with Prince Charming dreams.
The girls live under permanent protection, behind secured gates and walls, sleeping and eating in large structures with other girls of varying ages, away from their families, visited rarely or never by mothers, fathers, and other relatives. Sometimes, one or more biologically related sisters, who have also been victimized, live in the same center. The girls might attend school, if fortunate. When the girls turn eighteen, they merge into society with life skills that make it impossible to rise above the station inflicted upon them by their perpetrators.
The girls’ chaperone across from me is small and quiet, but she smiles with her eyes. The girls are guarded and unsure. They sit in silence until the bus gets moving, then they talk quietly among themselves, under the watchful observation of their chaperone, their eyes darting around the bus, shyly taking in the other campers and the American women scattered among the large group, bags, and supply bins tucked in every conceivable spot.
Every so often I receive and return a shy smile. Now is not the time to connect. We’ll begin after settling into the campsite for our retreat, after the girls have received their group scarves and bags and have been assigned cabins. There they will create their group banners. And during the first of our fifteen rice-and-bean camp meals, the girls will explain the significance of their banners to the other campers and supervising adults and counselors. When I do the initial meditation with them, I will help them understand this is a safe place filled with support, and yes, love.
The girls are going to learn the camp song and why we chose it. One of the campers cries. Her skin is the color of mahogany. Tears race down her angular cheeks. She shivers in the crisp mountain air. My heart cracks. I grab a warm sweatshirt from the donated items I brought with me and help her into it. The gesture earns me a beautiful smile. I gently squeeze her forearm. Her counselor moves in and places an arm around her rail-thin shoulders, ushering her to a seat in the open-air pavilion.
In the coming days, I watch this camper soften and notice her confidence growing. Illiterate, she feels shame when she can’t read. Her counselor is tender and reassuring when reading to her. My young sister gets her period and bleeds through her clothes. No worries. We take care of her, providing sanitary napkins (tampons are not culturally acceptable because they penetrate the vagina), clean clothes, and compassion. One of us has her clothes laundered and dried by camp staff.
A steady smile begins to emerge on the camper’s face. She still shivers. We add a sweater, fleece pants, and fresh socks. Her shoes are a problem. They are slippery flats and are too large for her bony feet. It’s possible she rose later than the other girls in her protection center, and what she wears is the only clothing left from the community collection that sort of fit her. She cannot possibly hike the twenty minutes with us up to the mirador (lookout), where I will lead a guided meditation. We want her to be included in everything because she matters. This is her moment. We are here for her.
We rack our brains. None of us packed extra shoes since space on the bus was at a premium. We open the bins, hoping we have missed something. Miraculously, we discover red Keens, and they fit. Her smile is beatific. I am reminded of Dorothy. Can shoes make a dream come true?
On the last day of the week-long camp, we hike to the mirador. My young sisters sit in the long grass and relax in the cool air and setting sun, many with arms around their new friends as I lead the meditation. They close their eyes without being asked. A Peace Corps volunteer translates as I speak about personal power—a meditation I expect will trigger crying after a week of charlas (discussion sessions).
Sometimes it may seem that other people can block my happiness.
I no longer give away my power to those persons.
I do see tears, but I also see so much compassion. My little sisters pull the weeping into their embraces and stroke their silky heads. I continue.
I am the one who gets to choose what can bring me down.
I am the one who gets to choose what cannot bring me down.
We sing the camp song and then take numerous photos as the mist envelops the sun and us high above the valleys, then we trek back to camp for presentations and a candlelight closing.
After dinner we celebrate. The girls have collaborated within their groups to create presentations highlighting what they got out of camp. Our dear, rail-thin camper attempts to talk. She falters. Everyone waits quietly and patiently; their loving energy is palpable. She finally speaks, cheered on by all of us, the campers being the loudest. Thrilled with her accomplishment, a blinding smile breaks over her face. I bow my head to let the tears drip onto my clasped hands. My GOF cabinmate sniffles next to me; her head is bowed as well.
Later, all of us sing happy birthday to two of our sisters—one raped and impregnated at the age of eleven and forced to keep the infant with her for a year due to a lack of services. For the other, it’s her quinciñera—the biggest of birthdays for fifteen-year-old Hispanic/Latina girls. She glows and her wet cheeks sparkle in the candlelight. In this moment she understands that she matters.
The next morning, our drive back down the mountain goes much quicker than the ascent. The girls are loud and full of smiles and laughter. I’m immensely proud when a few of the girls speak up when the male driver puts on Bay Watch—an inappropriate message for our newly empowered sisters. They request, then demand, something else or nothing. A Peace Corps volunteer just happens to have a copy of Moana—a much better message that helps underscore our camp program. I’m not ready to say good-bye.
We enter the Managua metropolitan area to begin dropping off the girls. Repeatedly, I receive a substantial hug, along with an “I love you” from the campers. I kiss each of my sisters on her dark head, parting with a prayer, turning away after they have sped off in unmarked white vans, tears wet on my cheeks. This is my prayer for them,
I love you.
May you be safe;
May you be peaceful;
May you give yourself the compassion that you need;
May you accept yourself as you are.