Hands Wide Open

Our heroine has no costume or cape, but the one thing she cannot do is: fly. It is almost impossible to get her to pose for a picture; she is thin and small and despite her aerodynamic clothes could make her fly in a storm, she prefers to stay down here, close to the mud and those who suffer the most. Marlen may look tiny to our eyes, but she is just disguising an engine filled with a throng of power horses, courage and humbleness who dedicates every minute of her life to care for the abandoned disabled: the poorest of the poor, those who cannot even ask for help.  

She was only 20 years old when she got down to business with two other missionaries; they would go out wandering the streets of the city of San José of Costa Rica and its surroundings, and would return with a bus full of poor, forgotten, sick and dying people, so they could accompany them, taking care of them in a borrowed house with a stove. Despite her youth, she started this adventure with only 1,000 colones (USD 2) in her pocket, which would just cover rice, salt and sugar. Without any knowledge of medicine or nursing, without any gloves, nor something to cover their mouth and nose; but with a heart full of love and well disposed, they started to heal infected wounds, treat various disabilities and terminal diseases. Her dedication was such that her fears would move to a second level; she just wanted to bring more and more people to her “House for the poor”. The first death of a child in her arms on their way to the hospital made them understand that they needed the resources to be able to help them more and better. The years seem not to have passed, even though there were 22 years of learning and many bumps for Marlene and Marta, whose Foundation is today an example to many Costa Rican institutions.

Marlen remembers: “When I was a child, Costa Rica was different, we were poor but dignified, we had a united family and that was our wealth, they would call me ‘little milk bottle’ because I would go to Mass every Sunday with my same white dress. When I left to Colombia to get ready to be a missionary in Africa, being 19 years old, I got hold of the poverty there, that I had never seen or maybe had never noticed; I saw people fighting for a space in the trash pile. When I came back to Costa Rica, I felt I was called to serve here and not in Africa.” This is how it began, she wanted to purchase a house to bring poor people, but “Obviously, nobody would trust a young girl! So I made the math to calculate how many metal sheets I needed and told God: ‘Either you give me a land or I’ll just go there and occupy it.’ Finally a lady came and offered us to borrow a house, even if the floor was plunging, almost all the house was falling down or the roof risked being blown away, for us it was a residence! The second miracle was that after 14 hours of cleaning it, a friend offered to buy us rice and came back an hour later with a truck loaded with food, fruit, meat, pans, spoons, because the people knew us and wanted to help. This is how it all began.”

They didn’t have anything, but they would devote their lives to the people they picked up from the streets, telling them: “Do you want to come with me? I have a house where I can take good care of you.” This innocence, freshness and courage from her Young years, is still in her: I was never afraid, it is like a divinity touch in the call that coats one with an extraordinary strength. It is not oneself; sometimes I say ‘How did I do it? Was it me? It was God. Of course this is hard; nevertheless, where does the physical and emotional strength come from to face all this? To clean this abandoned man, dirty of his own physical needs from head to toe? I would picture him clean and well and so I would go forward. The strength comes from the Redemptive Heart of Jesus, you cannot see it, it is natural. With John, the first man we brought, we cleaned him up, we went through the first shock and then I saw that his legs were covered in wounds and pus, he was sick apart from being alcoholic. There was only one light bulb in the house, so I asked Marta for candles and boiling water, but I didn’t know where to start from, what to do with all this; I knew only up to that point. Marta was not close, she couldn’t touch him, so I said to God: ‘If You have done so many things on so many people and brought me here, give me the ability that I don’t have, Tell me what to do here!’ There was not enough light, I felt like I was alone, but there were 4 of us! Slowly, I placed the saucepan under his legs, I started to cut pieces of the skin and remove the worms. It was impressive but I was very calm, filled with peace; I started to see him healed while I was healing him. We didn’t have bandages, so we used pieces of bed sheets. After this, everything came naturally, nobody has taught or instructed us in disability, and now we dictate classes, we teach them how to sit down and wash the disabled, how to use the tracts and clean catheters.”       

Marlen always came back from her searchings successful, she would find someone to take to the house constantly. “I felt that He was telling me: ‘But don’t be silly, it’s right there’. And it was like that, -they are always there- it’s just that I couldn’t see them before, I didn’t have the eyes to see them; I didn’t have the honest wish to really see them. They are invisible provided that we don’t have an honest wish in our heart to find them or to see them. One may see them because one is looking to fill up one self’s need, but you have to get out from yourself, to really connect with the purity of the call.”

Naturally, Marlen has not always had that same energy: “It comes a time when that strength wears thin, it stays inside but doesn’t have the same force, nor the same shine, and I started to be afraid of bringing more people to the house, I would think: ‘They are all going to die, and I will have that load on my shoulders, Will I be able to do it? What have I done?! I’ll have that load all my life.’ The poor invade all the being, you open the door and they come like a throng. And I would think, ‘Africa was much better!’ I would feel they had invaded not only my house, but my whole self. But God gives you that strength, that integrity, that knowledge that you don’t have. The more the service you provide, the less you are your own self. Some people say that we are obliged to care for them, and they are right! After everything we went through; one would pee on our faces, another one wanted to hit me, so I would hold a broomstick and tell him: I warned you that I would return it! He would hit me while I was washing him, he would pinch me; we have had a bit of everything. And everything helped us to be more humble. Today we are better organized.”

Nowadays these 10 nuns welcome disabled kids and adults judicially declared in state of abandonment by the PANI (‘Patronato Nacional de la Infancia’ National Board of Infants) and the CNR (‘Consejo Nacional de Rehabilitación’ National Counsel of Rehabilitation); there are 100 in the house at Alajuela. They also took charge of other 40 disabled kids in Cartago from another centre that closed their disability program. “Sometimes it is very difficult, we suffer persecutions, envy, and hatred. And you realize that what is most difficult is to keep on forward, it would be much easier to go away, I don’t even need to go back to my room to get anything; in any moment of my life it is much easier to go away than to stay. Now with this building people will see us differently, but we are still the same people, we haven’t changed. There are people who want to make this lucrative, but for us, if someone can pay for it, then search for some other place! This is for those who cannot pay for it, for those who are poor and abandoned.”

The first disabled kid, who changed the direction of Open Hands, is still alive and is 2 years younger than Marlen. When he was a kid, he almost died, for which she was strongly scolded by the doctor at the hospital, because he couldn’t understand how she would assume to be in charge of the ki;, while she would only ask for the kid to be healed. “The doctor told me he was going to die. I told God: ‘If that kid has waited 19 years for me to pick him up how come he is going to die?! Then, where’s the joke? What was the point in finding him and going through everything I did? Why find him if he was going to die? Then why did He send him to me? You must heal him, You must heal him! And He healed him, he got better! The doctor told me to take care of the kid because he would only live 3 more months. I did everything, I did more than everything I was told to get him better, the kid couldn’t even swallow, he was very handicapped. It was infused science, I didn’t know anything about all of this. And after all this, he is still with us.”

It has been just a few years since Marlen became Sister Marlen. This was the fruit of her great generosity, even though it doesn’t surprise us considering everything she has told us. The only way to avoid the merit being taken away by people was to be seen as people of God, because this work is His work. The only way to achieve this was to become ourselves consecrated religious. If not it would become another ONG (NGO). How to be seen as a working Church and not like a NGO? It is a long and bureaucratic process to obtain the approval of our religious order (‘Misioneras del Corazón Redentor de Cristo’ Missioners of the Redemptive Heart of Christ) It was so hard for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, considering that she is a saint and I’m not! It is something very difficult; I don’t find it funny to found a new order! It would be much easier to be lay people! But we want to be seen as women in love with Jesus, dedicated to serve others. We had done it for love, God will know; we are listening to Him and seeing which paths He is signaling to us. The work has to go on; it has to be for His own merit. This is a work of the poor for the poor; God knows who He sends here. This will be known by those who need to know, there is no need for publicity, here arrives whoever needs it, and they come here from far away because they want to come, like you, because this place is hard to reach. You tell me, where do you think the Wise Men thought they were going? The one who is really interested in getting someplace ends up there. These are the paths of God.”    

Their first big shock was the death of a native 5 year old child, Francisco. He died because they didn’t have an oxygen tank when he had a respiratory arrest. Marlen was 21 years old, and she questioned herself everything, and realized that she needed more support for the patients. “This was the death most cried about, and then I have buried more than 50, deep inside one knows that this is the most wonderful moment for them. And we know that we have more than 50 little angels pulling us to Heaven.” She also remembers a man sick with aids, whom they picked from the street, who couldn’t even say his name and was only asking for a clean bed. He was taken to the house, and after 18 hours he passed away in his clean bed. Sister Marta shares with us: “The burials become a party. God sends these souls to us so we can take care of them and then we give them back to Him. When a person is declared to be in a terminal phase, we treat them here, the person dies here, we assist them, and when we know that their last days are to come, we move them to a special room, filled with balloons, everything is full of colors and joy. We call 4 or 5 nuns and we stay with them during their last moments. It is beautiful; the disabled people are so pure! We have welcomed kids with terminal diseases who can talk, who understand that they are going to die, even though these are more difficult deaths, I remember one who wasn’t afraid, so the Sister Isabel would tell him: ‘So why don’t you run up to Heaven?’ ‘Not today Sister, tomorrow.’ And indeed the following day he passed away. We were told he was going to last one month and he stayed with us 8 months, he wanted to ride a bicycle, so he would carry his oxygen tank behind his back, we also told him it was his birthday and he invited his brothers and gave them presents, he was so happy during that time!”   

With many small efforts, they have accomplished to build a building with all the comfort and equipment necessary to take care of the 50 disabled kids they have today. Thanks to the silent contribution of many charity donors and collaborators in the course of 8 years it was made possible. “We have to leave everything else on one side and dedicate ourselves to serve. I don’t want to dedicate myself to ask for money, I want to serve others! It is incredible, but we don’t have anybody who is dedicated to the trade! We have never lacked anything at Open Hands. We have never been out to ask, God has always taken care of covering our financial needs. There was a time when we needed to pay an installment of the land, I owed 6 million colones (USD 12,000) and the day was coming when we needed to pay it and we had had 3 months with the kids sick. I told Him: ‘My Lord, you told me to search for the Kingdom of God and the rest would come naturally; there are 2 days left to pay: Now what?’ And I went to the Chapel to pray, asking not to be interrupted. The Sisters would come every hour because someone was calling on the phone and I would tell them I couldn’t get the call right now. Until they came 4 times, because a man wanted to talk to me, wanted to know me and see in which way he could help me, but I had to go to his house in person. I went there that afternoon, it was a monumental place, an incredible house and he asked me ‘What do you need?’ ‘Whatever you have available, whatever you wish, food’ –I would normally ask for a few common things– ‘Is there anything else you may need?’ ‘I don’t know, so many things we need…’ –How was I going to tell him I needed so much?–, but he insisted so much that I ended up telling him I had a debt of 6 million colones, he didn’t say a thing, and he gave me that amount that same day! We forged a great friendship, he was older, like my great grandparent, I took care of him at the clinic until he passed away. He would insist that I ask more from him, but I could never ask him for anything else again. When I went to pay the installment of the land, the owner laughed and without letting me speak, told me: ‘I know that you cannot pay, Sister, so if you pay me tomorrow at noon I give you one million discount’. So with that extra million we started the construction of the building!”       

The 10 Sisters are full time mothers, they know their 50 children and their 50 adults like nobody does, they know their cries, their sounds and special gestures and can understand them like no one else does. Their only concern is to make them happy, feel supported, well taken care of and loved in the many or few years of life they may have. The Home ‘Madre del Perpetuo Socorro’ (Mother of the Perpetual Relief) overflows with light and clean smell. You can breathe peace in each room, thanks to so many volunteers who offer themselves day by day in each task. Young as they may seem, the Sisters are human whirlwind. Marlen is the engine who propels them, proposing things of which they don’t even know they are capable of.  Like Sister Marta says, who knows Marlen very well: “The weight and the height cannot be measured, because she is small and thin and she does everything. She is full of the Holy Spirit; she is moved by God, because she has an incredible energy. This is not human! She is inspired by God, she is the force behind everything. Last year 11 kids died, almost one per month and she would always motivate us, pushing us forward. She is the one who stimulates us when we have our personal falls, when we slacken; and she says we motivate her to get up when she falls. She told us we were going to start a project and we didn’t even have 5 in the purse! She says: ‘We will do it!’ and the fact that she is saying it, it means it will be done, it doesn’t matter if we have the money or not. Sometimes after so much work she forgets to eat, but she is especially concerned that we eat. And suddenly we see her in bed, suffering from her stomach, most probably from worries; sometimes she spends 3 days in bed because her battery is down, but when she stands up, nobody can stop her!”   

It seems like it was yesterday what Marta and Marlen tell us, and it is because they re-live it day by day. Despite having achieved great facilities, they don’t forget the mud, the rubber boots, setting and removing tracts or waking up at any time hearing someone crying out of pain. They wait with their open hands and are happy with each person they welcome at the Home, accepting them even before they get officially transferred, knowing that God keeps on trusting them and sending them more little forgotten brothers to take care of. They are the eldest most generous sister, or the most dedicated mother that any person could wish for, whose valorous mission is to be with the weakest during their most difficult times. And like Marta says, “It is clear, this is not human”.

open helping hands

group of sisters

helping arms

open hands

open hands2

Note: the pictures were extracted from official website of the Foundation: https://www.manosabiertas.org , due to judicial orders it is not possible to take pictures of the kids.

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