My first goodbye. You're not supposed to have favorites when it comes to kids. I know. But I do anyway. I can't help myself. There is one boy in particular who caught my eye on the third day. He picked me first for his football team. He knows I'm no good, I think he just didn't like seeing me sitting out. He's that kind of kid. From that day he picked me every time, even though I was the reason for our losing streak.
I love all of my boys, I do. They're all special in a different kind of way. This one though, he's extra special. He's one of those people that lights up a room. He's about 12 and very smart. He helps me with my nepali and doesn't get annoyed when I ask about the same word a million times. He is teaching me to sing a popular nepali song and doesn't grow impatient when I forget the words. When we pass flowers, he always picks one for me. He's just that kind of kid.
A major goal for the Umbrella Foundation is reintegration. Kids deserve to grow up with their families. When they're sent home, they're frequently checked in on. Umbrella continues supporting them, but now they are with their family, in their village, speaking their native tongue and appreciating their regional culture.
Sometimes the kids talk to their parents on the phone and when they hang up they're teary eyed. They miss their homes so badly. I've asked a couple of my boys about their villages and they light up. They have so much to say. For all of the benefits of 33 brothers, it must be easy to get lost in the crowd. Their personal village gives them a sense of individuality. They all have a story, they all come from different places. Sometimes I forget that no one is born into Umbrella.
Today, one of my boys got to go home. My extra special boy.
We're all gathered in one room, about 60 young boys and all of the didis and all of the house parents and a few volunteers and some of the office staff. Three boys sit at the front of the room, prayer scarves (gifted from the house parents) around their necks and smiles on their faces. The group of boys that form the majority of the crowd have just wrapped up a song. One by one the staff approaches the three boys and puts a teeka on their forehead, whispering well wishes to each. The boys are brothers, blood brothers, and this afternoon they're going home. The one from my house, Kesh, is in the middle. One of the Umbrella staff is giving a speech in Nepali, so I find myself paying close attention to the scene, but filtering out the noise. The boys are smiling so wide, and it occurs to me- maybe this is the first time they've sat in front of a group and been told how special and wonderful they are. For most, every year on a birthday- groups of people sing a song publicly so that you know you're loved. I think of all of the award ceremonies, and graduations, and applause I've received in my life and wondered what it would be like if this was the first and maybe last time that would happen. I'm tearing up pretty badly and I think of my mother and how she gets choked up every time one of her children is on stage or on the field. I'm looking at him and I'm just...I don't know. Proud.
There's a woman sitting near them, someone I've never seen before. She's listening to the staff member talk and you can tell she has something to say. When he stops,she begins to speak. I think she is thanking him. She begins to cry. I think this is a relative of the boys, the one who came to pick them up. The mother? The aunt? I look at the sea of boys. They all have a mother. They all have a father. I imagine not knowing where my child was. I imagine saying goodbye and not knowing if I'd ever see them again. I imagine lying awake at night, wonder where my child is. My heart aches not only for my boys, but for their families.
Kesh and I keep making eye contact and I'm pretending not to cry. There's a pink flower tucked behind my ear and I can feel it beginning to wilt.
Right before the ceremony, me and Kesh sat outside. I was pretending to be hysterical over his departure and he was amused by my charade. We're sitting on this brick wall and I take his hand. "I'm really going to miss you." I tell him. He rolls his eyes at me, but smiles all the same. I slip my bracelet onto his wrist and say "Remember me, okay?"He pulls from his back pocket a key chain that has cards attached to it, each is a picture of a Hindu God. We've played catch with this before and he's taught me their names though I still refer to all of them as Shiva. He presses it in the palm of my hand. "I'm going to miss you too." He winks at me and hops off the wall. I wonder if he'd have given it to me if I hadn't given him the bracelet. Something tells me yes. He's that kind of kid.
We walk silently next to each other, headed to his departure ceremony and begin joking around. He's making fun of the way I walk when he notices a bed of pink flowers. He pauses mid joke and picks one. He tucks it behind my ear and says, "Last one." He flashes me a smile and we go into the ceremony.
I'm sitting there listening to this speech the staff member is giving but I'm not listening, I'm studying Kesh. I'm looking at his face and trying to picture him as 16, as 25, as 60. I'm wondering what his wife will one day look like. I'm wondering if he's going to be okay. I trust Umbrella. I know he will be. The ceremony ends, everyone leaves.
The boys say their goodbyes and help carry Kesh's belongings to the taxi. He has one metal box about the size of a briefcase and one book bag with hardly anything in it. This is everything in the world that is his. I reach into my pocket for the keychain. This is one of the only trinkets he owns. And he gave it to me.
The tears are coming and I'm trying to keep it together. A few of the boys are teasing me and I'm trying to explain: I am just so happy. I want to send all of these boys home. I love them so much, I want to send them home and I hope they never have to come back. My heart hurts for the boys who won't be going home.
Today, like every day here, I have gained more faith in Umbrella. They get results. I've seen it.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned
*Picture credit to the Umbrella Foundation, these are my boys with a rugby player about a year ago. Aren't they handsome? Raamro chha