Orphanage Support Services Organization (OSSO) is a nonprofit whose mission is to “do everything possible to help children living in orphanages and similar institutions reach their potential.” It is a noble, and extraordinarily difficult charge. “If you’re looking for a relaxing vacation,” their website advises, “OSSO isn't for you. But if you’re looking to do good in the world and have your heart changed for the better, we’re the choice for you.” For Eliza King Freedman ’19, OSSO was exactly the right choice for two consecutive summers; and her heart will never be the same.
Eliza first traveled to Cuenca, Ecuador, during the summer of 2017. Over 16 days, she split her time between two OSSO-run orphanages: one for severely disabled children and young adults, another for young children, ages birth through 13. Many of the young residents of Los Pequenitos de OSSO are non-verbal or wheelchair bound. As they enter their late teens and early-20s, they begin to accept that the orphanage will be their forever home. Those in Tadeo Torres, however, hold out hope that their parents—many afflicted with drug or alcohol addictions—will return one day to make their families whole.
“Coming from a very small town in Connecticut, I was shocked by what I saw,” Eliza explains. “I had never seen children with so many challenges. Many of the disabled children had families living five minutes away, yet had no contact with them. It was difficult, and I felt a divide between myself and the children that I really do regret. I was determined to go back and bridge that divide.”
Eliza returned to Cuenca in 2018 with a deeper understanding of the meaning and importance of her work, and with a renewed commitment to truly making a difference in the lives of the Ecuadorean children in her care.
“I went in with a greater confidence,” says Eliza. “I knew how to change diapers, how to feed the children in wheelchairs and help them bathe, get dressed, and prepare for their day. That allowed me to concentrate on relationship building, not skill building. We played basketball together and watched the World Cup. The older boys asked me to come back at their bedtime to say a prayer with them before they went to sleep, which was very sweet and very special. Many of them are aware enough to understand that they have been left behind. They feel that deeply, but they are also just people who want to be respected and treated like adults. This time I could see that more clearly; in a way, it felt more like we were friends than my being someone who was merely there to take care of care of them."
Eliza’s confidence and ease with the residents of the orphanages was not lost on the OSSO administrators: they asked her to extend her 2018 stay, and take on the role of assistant director of volunteers. And she did. Despite being the youngest volunteer on site, Eliza served as liaison between the volunteers, who ranged in age from 19 to 40, and the program director. She had administrative responsibilities that included meal planning and budgeting, and assigning volunteers to each shift. None of that limited her time in the orphanages, where her heart and passion truly lie.
“These kids have been abandoned by so many people,” Eliza says. “I went back because I didn’t want to be someone else who didn’t follow through on a promise to them. This summer I got to see Cristian, who hated walking for physical therapy last summer, stand up and walk three more laps than I had ever seen him walk before—it was the best thing to be able to watch. And I was there when Daniel, a very special nine-year old who I had become very close with on my first trip, left the orphanage and went home with his dad—that was really the best day of the entire summer. I can say the experience changed me, and changed the way I see the world, but in the end it isn’t about me, it is really all about the kids.”
Eliza’s travel was funded in part by a Robert Keyes Poole '50 Fellowship, Established in memory of Robert Keyes Poole '50, Taft master from 1956 to 1962, Poole Fellowships are awarded each year to enable Taft students to engage in travel or in projects consistent with Mr. Poole's lifetime interest in wildlife and the environment.
OSSO currently provides safe, supervised volunteer experiences in orphanages in Ecuador and Thailand. Learn more at orphanagesupport.org.