It is not easy to find the time and place to sit down and do the homework, even if we have the most comfortable desk in the world. For those who don’t own one it is even more difficult. For Cristina or Brian it was the same to lay their workbook on the dirty floor or on top of a mountain of potatoes or yucca; as it was hard for Karla to focus while there were always beans to peel or grains to remove from the corn. Karen just wanted to run and play leaving her backpack way under the table loaded with vegetables. Among the hustle of the local market of Cuenca, Ecuador, in between stands of vegetables, fruits, rice, juices and witch doctors, many kids tried to find the time and place to do their homework.
Jaime Jiménez, our hero of just 28 years of age, noticing this need started the group “Fundación la Escu” (Secular foundation of Escolapios/Calasancios of Cuenca) and made it happen, this project that combines the educational charisma of the order with a special way of helping these kids who, after school, had to go with their mothers to the Market or to the restaurants where they work, spending the afternoon alone or in not so healthy environments. Step by step, asking for the opinion of the mothers, they agreed that it would be wise to support them emotionally and stay with them. This is how, slowly, more and more kids joined the afternoons spent at the house borrowed from the Parrish next to the Saint Sebastian church. They called it “My small homework cottage”, using the Spanish word “caleta” meaning a small cottage.
The different paths of life took us to Jaimito. We found him playing a mix of baseball and frisbee, he was having fun like a kid. Only when they got their homework done, would they be allowed to go out to play. We joined their game and then we were called for a snack. They were intrigued by us, they thought we were new volunteers, our hearts broke when we had to confess we were just staying a few days; anyway they didn’t waste time and made us eat some leaves from the backyard and some clovers, while we all laughed at our odd faces.
Jaimito works every morning at a government institute for blind and deaf people and dedicates his afternoons to the “Fundación La Escu”. He assumed this responsibility 4 years ago and he consecrates his life to it. He used to be a teacher, therefore he understands the importance of helping the children with their homework, not only for academic reasons but also for the accompaniment that it entails. He says “It’s emotionally supporting the kid what makes the difference”. He has it deep in his blood, he lived 4 years of formation as aspirant to the Escolapios Congregation, and now he follows his path as a layman. When we asked him what moves him to dedicate all his afternoons to this project, he humbly answers: “First of all, it is a way to spend my afternoons and secondly, it really fills my heart to help them, see the kids how they come and how they leave. So I think if I can help them, why not give them a chance and do something that comes naturally to me? It is not in return of something, but it is for them, just thinking of them, I would never leave them.” Clearly he does it for Love (despite the fact he is not using the same words), and the phrase “in return of something or a way to spend the afternoons”, like he notes, is just his humble starting point. “What moves me is just that, a life experience of service to others, a life experience of love for the kids. I specially take care of the people who come to volunteer, so they may make the kids feel safe and therefore easily complete their homework.”
Four years ago he started to run “My small homework cottage”, and today there are 2 permanent and compromised volunteers: Jaimito who takes care of the kids from grade 1 to grade 4 and Mónica, a teacher who helps out the older ones with math, geometry, literature, English, natural sciences and plastic arts while cradling her one year old baby. There is also someone in charge of the snacks and a doctor who makes the follow up of the kids every Thursday. It is an ambitious project, they plan to have a place for 50 kids, for which the economic factor is an important restraint. Obviously it is not only about doing the homework, but also, listening to them, having fun and getting to know them better while spending time in a healthy environment, where affection is offered expecting nothing in return and where they feel safe, especially if they live difficult situations at their homes. “To make them feel emotionally supported and happy, is a human and Christian task, and the most basic thing we can do” he reminds us.
We compromised to help with the homework the following day and punctually we did it. Like beginners, we started with first grades: Diego sat down with Brian to help him with his homework, and I with Steven. While they were dealing with musical instruments in English I was left speechless with the assignment in the workbook: “Write string” next to 3 drawings. It looked like mandarin Chinese to me, so before starting I was already asking Jaimito for help. Diego was asking for my help, so along with the help of the other kids, we understood that “round” meant a song (for us that is typical from Spain). It was tough at the beginning, but then it became easier. We had to oversee the accents, orthographic mistakes and neatness. We went over proverbs, orthographic rules and counted with our own fingers and some borrowed from others. When we tried to help the older kids it got more complicated; Diego would struggle with the ozone layer and natural sciences, while I would think numerical fractions in the form of pizza slices and would colour chromatic circles. Their reflective faces that got transformed when the answer was found, was enough to make our afternoon happy. Then we played for a while this mix of baseball-frisbee and later to the crocodiles, laughing out loud and planning strategies to come out unharmed.
Jaime is reserved on talking about him, humble and transparent, but cheerful and affectionate with children. He looks like the eldest brother, who teaches his younger siblings, but plays and has fun with them at the same time, helps them out with their homework and takes care of them when they are alone. That one who takes the place of the mother and the father at the same time, but with the closeness of a brother, who has everyone under his watch, none gets lost and he follows up on everyone. Despite some health issues that has made Jaimito re-prioritize his life again years ago, he doesn’t give up, and he knows that in the future his life may get more complicated, his health and civil status may change, so then he will take another path and will need enough humbleness to give way and delegate in someone younger all this work.
With this small but great daily action, Jaimito gives back a lot to life. This little elder brother makes the afternoons happy for many kids, in such an easy way, that we wonder why it is so difficult for us to do something so simple. Jaimito knows each one of the kids, knows their weaknesses at school and what they need to improve, like a mother. He really lives what he says, “Thinking about them I would never leave them”. A great young hero, who slowly through these children is changing the world, “The children feel very acutely when someone dedicates time to them, or when just crumbs of time is being dedicated to them; they realize this and it is observed in the closeness they feel toward the volunteers. The problem with voluntary work is that some may do it just to obey a rule. The living experience of service to others or love, cannot be taught or demanded from anyone, either you have it in you or you don’t.” There is no doubt that he has it, but we believe that it is something intrinsic to human nature, that only experiencing that Service or Love, giving ourselves to others, is that we can become complete as persons. Some are blessed with an extraordinary capacity that overwhelms them and makes them big, changing the world, like our dear beloved Mother Teresa; on the other hand to some of us it is difficult to transform just a little of that, even if we have it sown deep inside. It is barely enough to have lived a shy experience of love or service to others, in order to be able to give it back. It is in us the greatness to find it, to give it shape and get into action.