Widowed Maria Matilda sat locked in her home in Guatemala City after experiencing a stroke. Paralyzed on her right side, Matilda could barely move or care for herself. “I felt lonely once my husband passed,” Matilda said. “I felt like no one could support me – only God.” She says her only daughter, who lived three blocks away, never visited or helped her. Instead, neighbors who taught Sunday School at a nearby church found her and helped her by giving her food and showers.
After a year, they decided to take Matilda to Virgen del Socorro – a residence home for special needs adults and children. The home is run by Faith in Practice, a non-governmental organization based in Houston. Here, she would have stable meals and clean clothes.
Matilda still has no relationship with her daughter, but she has established contact with one of her six grandsons who lives in Chicago, Illinois. “I like it here because I have medical attention,” Matilda said. “But I don’t like how cold it is and there isn’t anywhere to go out.”
Today Matilda, 83, cruises through Virgen Del Socorro on her electric wheelchair and occasionally snacks on salt. She loves attending misa, or mass, every Thursday and Sunday. Her friends know her for her singing, knitting, friendliness and sense of humor. “I pray to God, blessing all I encounter here when I go to mass,” Matilda said. In late 2016, Obras Sociales del Hermano Pedro, a hospital in Antigua that partners with Faith in Practice, opened Virgen Del Socorro, a new building for disabled residents located 10 minutes outside the city. The mustard-colored, three-level structure sits below volcanoes with a clear view of Antigua below. A total of 239 patients reside at Virgen del Socorro with room for at least 11 more. Although in operation, the home will continue to undergo construction until the project is finished. “Here, we have so much more room,” volunteer coordinator Xiomara Toledo said. “In the other place there was little to none.”
Government offices, social work foundations in the United States, church groups and a non-profit organization in Italy donated all the materials needed, including blankets, wheelchairs and televisions. Many of the residents who live here have been abandoned by their families. “But on the positive side [Obras] represents that [Guatemalans] have good charities that can help these people,” Toledo said.
Catarino Perez, 63, better known as Catocho, meanders through the second floor of Virgen del Socorro, bouncing like a pigeon with each step. He wears a quarter-zip fleece that is ceiba tree green – his favorite color.
The tiles on the floor make the shape of a square, circling the open roof that exposes the weightless, airy sunlight. He grips the protective mesh attached to the balcony railing, peering down to where the abuelas, or grandmothers, crochet bags, eat vegetable soup and close their eyes under the sun’s joyful rays.
To Perez, a good day at Virgen del Socorro means waking up at 5 a.m. to take a bath and make his bed. It means eating eggs, papaya and canned potatoes for breakfast and bread and tortillas in the afternoon.
In his free time, Perez loves to dance marimba. When meals are over, Perez likes to push the other residents in their wheelchairs from the table, back to their rooms. He claims to have loved mopping as a child and later became the sacristán, a helper of the church at Santo Hermano Pedro, the owners of obras. “For the first year, I almost figured he worked there,” David Dean, a volunteer of four years said. “He was always helping, pushing others to mass and generally keeping very busy.”
At the original resident home in Antigua, Perez would often tag along during tours of the building. He got to know what the tour guides would say, and asked if he could be a tour guide as well.
As time passed, Perez would complain of pains and ask to stay the night at Virgen del Socorro even though he felt fine. Eventually, they allowed him to stay permanently as a resident. Even after going through surgery, Perez still desires to help, often assisting his friend Antonio from his chair, to the table back to his bed.
Antonio Ramírez, 67, lays peacefully on his plaid sheets with his handheld radio at his side. One hand lies on his chest while the other hand supports the back of his head. Listening to the news, he closes his eyes as he drifts to sleep.
Ramiréz says he lost sight in both of his eyes more than 24 years ago due to alcoholism. “When you are an addict you won’t care if you lose everything you have,” Ramirez said. Although blind, Ramírez never forgets the place he once called home. “He knows every corner of Antigua,” Toledo said. “If you leave him in any place, he can find his way back.”
Ramirez smiles as he recalls going to church twice a day, but now only attends misa twice a week with the friends he’s made inside the home.“When I get there, I like to thank the Lord for what he gives me: my friends and this new big house,” Ramirez said. “I also like to ask him for a better sense or orientation so I can walk by myself in this different place.”
Alfredo Marin, 74, sits in his wheelchair, wearing his red knitted hat and a blue and white striped shirt. He listens to boleros, slow-tempo Latin music, as it plays on the TV. His wrists, twisted in opposite directions, rest on his wheelchair tray. While women are around, he bats his long, flowing eyelashes with a smile that rarely leaves his face.
After losing their parents at age 11, Marin and his brother were raised by his grandmother in Guatemala City. Marin claims to recall much about his younger years, but the social workers can’t be certain all the memories he shares are true. His stories involve dancing, partying and women.
At age 25, Marin became paralyzed. Although psychological therapy helped, he still holds resentment against family. He specifically envied his brother for his ability to walk normally and get married. Marin struggled in life, often questioning why God made him this way. “Everyone I knew is in heaven now,” Marin said. Once his grandmother passed, he was taken to Virgen del Socorro by his sister-inlaw, who could not take care of him due to her own health issues. Marin misses his grandmother’s cooking the most.
“How could anyone not miss their grandma’s tortillas?” Marin said.
Today, Marin finds joy by painting and singing. When Virgen del Socorro’s school is in session, Marin is given a helmet with an extended paint tool attached. “He goes slowly and takes great pride,” Dean said. “He also drives a hard bargain when it comes to possibly selling one of his masterpieces.”
Virgen del Socorros’ mission statement is, “helping the most in need and always with love and care.” The residents here are provided not only with physical therapy, but occupational therapy, such as arts and crafts, as well.
When kids visit Virgen del Socorro their parents often scare them, warning that if they don’t behave they will end up like the residents in this home. Some visitors believe the residents’ disabilities are contagious. “We still need a lot of education about this, Toledo said. “There’s a lack of cultural understanding and a huge lack of education.”