It’s not much of a science to organize a meal for 3 or 4 kids, or even 5, but what if they’re 50? Alice seems to be these kids’ mother or aunt, because she knows each of their names and talks to them with an even fondness. The Immaculate House of Mercy in Orange Walk, Belize, is the home of each of these 50 children every noon thanks to Alice’s effort and devotion; she is extremely organized, nothing eludes her planning sheets and no one gets away with eating before saying praying or washing their hands. She speaks to us in Spanish, but uses English for the kids; between them we can hear a mixture of languages that takes us by surprise: they understand both. At home Spanish is generally spoken but at school only English is allowed, which is the official language after having been an English colony up until 1981.
Every food plate is waiting for them close to their juice, while Alice welcomes them in the Little House’s porch as they accommodate by age to enter in order from the youngest 4 year-olds to the teenagers of 14. The ‘group of the day’ in charge has arrived early this morning ready to cook under Fenny’s guidance, −one of the moms who has been attending for more than 7 years− and other 4 moms. Each kid’s family has the responsibility to send a member in order to help at the soup kitchen once or twice a week in the different chores, such as cooking, cleaning and tidying up. Anyway, the moms admit that they love coming because they enjoy seeing their kids in a different environment and they feel safe and calm knowing they eat well while they make the most of the time talking and learning new things while talking to other moms. Fenny confesses that ever since the Soup Kitchen opened up, she has happily come every single day to help out Alice whilst making company to her son and embracing the project.
Alice hasn’t always been devoted to this, she had always worked when she was living in Belize city with her family and 4 kids, but when they were old enough and almost weren’t spending any time at home, her life changed: “I felt I could do something to thank God for all He’d given me, my family, my good health to watch my kids grow and be there for them always… I started getting closer to the programs that were being held in Belize’s city parish about 20 years ago and then a nun asked me to work with them in the area of spiritual life development, which I did and loved; I felt more ‘online’ with God and having a better and deeper relationship with Him. After one of them retired to take over an elders’ home, I strongly felt that that was my calling, I simply had to go there; something similar to what happened to you before you left home. So I said goodbye with a broken heart and started at the elders’ home: they would arrive for breakfast and lunch, take a shower and spend time together. After a while I started realizing that some of them were not coming anymore because they were too old to walk or ride a bicycle; so I pushed hard and we got a van from the Rotary and I drove around the city taking food to their homes, they were 35!” By then Alice had moved back to Orange Walk, −her home town to the north of Belize city− but was still travelling one hour every day to get to the elders’ home. Her striking energy did not decrease even after a car accident left her 6 months in bed, or cirrhosis followed by a liver transplant in Mexico. She was unstoppable.
Alice finally settled down in her hometown Orange Walk, at 58, renovated and more energetic than ever before. She was living in front of her own school from childhood when she figured out a real need in the community that required a solution. Many of the school kids could not go back home at noon to have lunch and their working mothers couldn’t take them the food due to distances or costs. Alice spent a lot of time interviewing kids’ families trying to evaluate the real needed ones as she organized the “Immaculate House of Mercy Soup Kitchen”. Meanwhile she was managing to raise the necessary funds for the construction of the Little House from her contacts, donations, etc.
Even after so many health blows, she kept on: “I have always been devoted to God, I knew He would show me what he wanted me to do; He would show me the way for I have always relied on faith. When I made my mind about creating this, He even sent me the right person! A man came to me and said: ‘I have always thought about doing something for my God too, because I have been so blessed by Him and I believe now it’s my turn to thank Him. You make the plans, tell me how much it is going to cost and that is it.’ And he did! He gave us a huge hand, just like the kids’ relatives are now, taking turns to come here; I want them to be involved, to follow the kids’ development, to make a real effort; it is extremely important. If they cannot send a relative due to work reasons or illness, they send us fruits or food, which helps us a lot as well.” The land was donated by the Pallottine sisters next to the Church and School of the Immaculate while the construction was made by the Mennonites nearby who specialize in wood-cabin construction. The Little House started its activity in the year 2006, barely two years after Alice’s transplant.
Alice keeps strict discipline at the Soup Kitchen; the kids form a line before going in and then take their places that have been arraged by ages. The place is small and tight which is, in part, why their behaviour is so important. Alice miraculously manages to get them all sat up straight ready to pray and only begins when all of them are prepared, in silence with their hands together and eyes closed. She can see each and every one of them and calls them by their names slowly reminding them to lift their heads, sit straight or stop talking. They start their prayer in unison all together in English with their sweet soft voices. Very respectfully, only when they have finished prayer can they start eating, which really surprises us remembering how hungry we were when we came back from school. Mothers move fast filling up more glasses of juice, correcting manners, handing bananas for dessert and washing the dishes. Once the kids have finished eating, Alice affectionately thanks in prayer to the mothers who have helped creating a safe and healthy environment, a delicious food and so many other blessings. We can see that every kid, even the youngest can understand all this and is truly grateful and respectful.
Alice also keeps track of the absences in her records to be able to follow each kid’s real needs and commitment. She also plays them videos during lunch time, especially for the pre-teens, which instill moral values altogether with a 5 minute talk where they reinforce principles or discuss the movie. This time the subject was ‘Honor your parents’, so she reminded them the importance of taking care and protecting them just like they had done with them. She asked them in which way they helped at home, and to each answer like: ‘I do the dishes’, or ‘I make my bed’ or ‘I sweep floors’, she would double the bet: “But do you really do it like you mean it?” Those were the funniest faces, some would answer with a full yes, others would immerse in their thoughts and others would just turn around smiling.
The love we can breathe in the Little House is difficult to put in words, we could really feel the thankfulness they felt about having before them a plate of nice hot food and moms’ company. Alice looks like a mother hen taking care of her small chicks, treating them like her own kids, caring for them and scolding them if necessary: “I am so pleased to see their faces filled with happiness when they leave; it’s like the commandment says ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. That has always motivated me because everything is God’s blessing. I feel very thankful and I believe the kids are the future; I gave mine the best I could and I will continue giving these kids the best I can. Of course sometimes we have difficult problems to solve, but when they arrive, everything vanishes, it is complete joy just to see them.”
Even if the Soup Kitchen requires lots of organization and steadiness, now that the project is effective and at its full capacity, it is strictly necessary that they all pull the same carriage, making the job efficient and simple. The group of parents is committed to the project and is an important piece of it, transforming their time, effort and devotion into visible joyful results in the kids. Mutual commitment sides is giving extraordinary results, connecting them through the common effort and strengthening the project. There is no doubt that the foundations are firm in order to keep on working with all that they have learnt in the past 7 years although they continue learning as the net gets wider and more resistant.
As they say their goodbyes and thank ‘Miss Martin’ –as they call her–, she calls them by their names, reminding us: “And to think that I complained a lot about having to come back to this town… I didn’t want to! But life made me swallow my words, because it was my sisters who fortunately lived here, who took care of me those 6 months in bed, recovering from the transplant. I have so much to be thankful for! And anything can be done, you just have to act with conviction, proceeding as if you had already gotten it because most of the time, there are ways that we haven’t even thought about until they suddenly appear.”