By my fifth day in El Salvador I was a wreck.
My body was swollen and retaining water from the relentless heat. For some reason my brain was telling my ankles to go into hiding in a cocoon of water because we were sweating too much. The food was good; the papusas were to die for. But eating white rice with every meal had my digestive system screaming for roughage.
Interacting with a constant barrage of people was exhausting, especially because I worked and lived alone in Tennessee. But mostly it was exhausting because they weren’t just people, they were kids. I was surrounded by 300 little attention machines that I would normally run screaming from after day one.
My muscles were strained from the physical labor, but it was nothing compared to the worry of not hitting water. We had drilled for days to bring this community a clean water well. Every day brought new mechanical challenges and we were already digging far below the depth we’d expected.
The morning of the fifth day – Thursday – I felt all of these stressors closing in. A panic attack was gearing up. My team told me to take a break, sit in the shade, and relax.
I felt guilty leaving them and ashamed at my weakness. Yes, this was a third-world country. No, they didn’t have running water, but there was electricity and TV, and roads and cars and shops and motorcycles all around us. Conditions were actually better than I expected. So, why was this so hard for me?
I felt ashamed of being the spoiled gringo. Was I really such a child of privilege that I could not even keep it together long enough to love on a bunch of kids for a few days? I prayed for help. I prayed for mercy.
That’s when I met Kayre.
I had walked out of the school and sat on a bench with a wet cloth on my neck trying desperately to cool off and get back to work. Next to the bench was a water cooler. I struggled a bit to fill my water bottle – a task that required two hands regularly. I was balancing the bottle on my prosthetic as I held open the spicket with my left hand.
Suddenly these two tiny hands reached out and held my water bottle for me. Kayre, a second grade girl, had seen me and wanted to help. I was totally stunned. I was on a mission to help them. But here was this little seven year old who wanted to help me instead. And boy, did I need it.
She spent the rest of the day following me around offering to carry my water bottle when I needed two hands for something else. It just about blew my mind. I was so touched to be served in return. And not just served, but SEEN and loved.
I did not speak Spanish and she did not speak English, so our conversation was limited, but our actions showed volumes.
That morning I had made a thank you card and thrown it in my pack. A few of us on the team had done it with the intention of giving them to the women in the village who had prepared food for our lunches. But I knew my thank you card belonged to Kayre. This little girl had saved me from suffering a panic attack from the shame of privilege.
That afternoon we hit water! Oh, thank God, we hit water!
The next day, our last day, I saw Kayre again. She gave me a thank you card in return, complete with pink Barbie stickers! Again, I was completely shocked and grateful and touched. Even if we had spoken the same language, words would not have been enough.
There were so many sweet moments and dear friends I made in those short days. Laughter and love and beauty were woven into every challenge. I am grateful for them all. But that card sticks out in my mind.
Kayre’s card is still my favorite token from that mission trip. When it was hard for me to show love because of sheer physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion, she showed me love anyway. Kayre didn’t look at our differences and see a spoiled American who deserved to see how she lived for once. She saw someone struggling and wanted to help.
There has never been a more moving expression of gratitude for me. I think of her often, especially when I glance at her photo in my home office. It makes me sad to think I will probably never see her again. I often wonder if I touched her life the way she touched mine.
But even if she’s forgotten all about this pasty one-armed gringo, I will still be grateful to her for being the answer to my prayers for help and mercy. In the 48 hours our paths collided she taught me more about the importance of expressing gratitude than my previous 30 years experience. And for that, I am in awe and, of course, forever grateful.