This article provides a detailed account of my Birthday (Mi Cumpleaños) spent Volunteering in a Peruvian Preschool that is triumphing over poverty, and the unexpected and humbling gifts of love received and given that day that touched the life’s of many.
They gave me love and they gave me music, and in turn I gave it to others.Exploringwithbruce.com
Many months ago when I was planning for my trip to volunteer in Peru, I noticed that my birthday happened to fall within the pre-determined dates of the volunteer assignment. For a moment I felt a little funny about being away from my two sons and friends on my Birthday. I had been away traveling for work on my Birthday before, and my family was fine with celebrating on the following weekend when I returned. This time however, I would be gone for months on my extended trip (including through the December and New Year’s holidays). Although I never made a big deal of my birthday, I wanted to make sure my sons were comfortable with this plan, and after receiving their full support of my travels and getting together when I returned, I decided to go on this adventure.
On past traveling birthdays I was amongst familiar work colleagues, but this time I would be in the company of a couple dozen complete strangers I had never physically met. Other than some quick phone chats with the head of the charity and receiving an emailed roster of volunteers, I didn’t know a thing about these people. This is very important, because the fact that these folks started off as strangers makes the below events that transpired, and what these people did for me, even more incredibly special.
They gave me love and they gave me music, and in turn I gave it to others.
To understand the gravity of this “giving” story and the power of what these people willingly did for me, I need to tell you a little about my joy, heartbreak and the light:
When I was young, people that are closest to me knew that I loved creating and playing music, and several people said I seemed to have this little light in my heart that shines in those that have a desire to create.
Then I began growing up, having a relationship, having kids, … the stuff a lot of people do. For reasons I am just now starting to understand, I became more focused on the grinding day-to-day routine, striving to achieve what was expected me and navigating a life that seems to be prescribed for many of us. As I focused more on those pursuits, things in my life became harder and less enjoyable. I worked hard on building a professional life and as a result, I slowly reduced the time I spent doing the things I loved and redirected my efforts toward a concept that (for the purposes of this post) I will simply call “security.” I took on more responsibility, made more money, and at the time took some pleasure at becoming a reasonable provider for my family. So why, when these good things were happening and people were congratulating me, did I not feel happier? I tried to deny it but I had a strange feeling of loss, a feeling that never left me. Eventually many things in my live changed and the lifestyle and life outlooks I had spent so much time working towards slipped away. It was a dark time, my heart was broken, and that little light I mentioned earlier that burned in me as a child, it faded further and further away.
Then a few years ago when I was dealing with my cancer diagnosis and treatments, I was forced to slow down. I had to spend a lot of time alone recovering from my illness. As I did, I chose to invest some of that time considering how I had gotten to where I was and trying to identify that feeling of loss. Slowly, I began to realize that I had lost track of living a life with joy, and I began to remember that feeling you get when you are doing something that you truly love. Without fully realizing it, my heart was starting to heal. My close friends who chose to spend time with me could also see this too.
One touching example of this is when one of my dearest friends Richard came by my apartment during one of the worst periods of my recovery. He instinctively knew what my heart needed, and he took action. He got out my favorite guitars that had sat for years virtually untouched, and he cleaned and restrung them and set them out in front of me. And, without the pressure that sometimes well-meaning people innocently project when they try to encourage others, he simply said, “Here they are, whenever you are ready.” This is how well this friend knew me and how much he cared for me.
So you could imagine how guilty I felt when I sat there, looking at these beautiful instruments and the even more beautiful act of love of my friend, and my heart still was not ready to play.
Somehow, I knew I had to travel further to find the light again.
It was at this point that I finally surrendered. I can’t completely explain it, but in my own clumsy and humble way, I just asked God, the Great Spirit, the Universe (fill in whatever name makes you feel comfortable here), to please guide me and make me useful, and to help me to find my way back to the joy, peace and sense of connection that I felt as a child. I had forgotten everything I knew as a little boy about love, connection and joy and I wanted to come home again.
Once I let go, things suddenly started to unfold.
While still recovering from medical treatments, several elements of my current South American journey began to come together, the volunteering opportunity in Peru became available and I left my old life behind. Fast forward to a few months later, and on a particular day in November, I was sitting in South America in a dormitory with a few dozen cancer survivors in a religious retreat, I was working daily with beautiful kids and teachers in Lima, Peru and I was starting to feel something inside again I had not felt in some time.
None of these people in Peru knew my full life story, but they could sense a glimpse of my recovering heart. Just a few days into working with those incredible kids in the Kusi Wawa preschool, I said out loud for the first time in a long time, “I wish I could get my hands on a guitar.” I wanted to play for these kids, I wanted them to sing and dance, I wanted to make them happy. I knew my hands and playing ability had faded a lot and I likely would struggle and sound pretty terrible, but that didn’t matter. I wasn’t playing for recognition, or money, or for accomplishment or even for my own ego, I wanted to play for love, and for giving something to someone. I didn’t have the words to explain it when it was happening, but I guess for the first time in a long time I felt that I wanted to give, and to receive, joy again.
I asked our volunteer coordinator if it would be OK if I could play some music for the kids, and the next day the coordinator showed up with an old ukulele. The different-tuning on the Ukulele made it a bit hard for a guitar dude like me to play full songs, but in a few minutes I figured out a few tunes and played along while the kids sang. It was sweet, and the preschool teacher asked if I could play for the kids again in the coming days.
I also casually mentioned at some point to a few of my fellow volunteers that I wished I could find a guitar in Lima that I could rent so I could really dig in and play. This is when the magic really started to happen……
I was so busy working hard with my fellow volunteers, that I wasn’t focused on my birthday fast approaching. When it did arrive, the kids in my preschool class sang Happy Birthday songs to me in English and Spanish with lots of hugs all around. It was sweet beyond words.
After our volunteering day was completed, a big group of volunteers took me out for drinks and it was very fun. When we return that night, they surprised me with a wonderful Peruvian birthday cake and singing. I was very touched and started to say thank you to them when they stopped me and said, “Bruce, turn around.”
There, placed on a chair behind me while I wasn’t looking, was a beautiful brand new acoustic guitar.
The head of the A Fresh Chapter charity explain to me that when the volunteers heard that I wanted to play again for the first time in a long time, and that I was playing for the kids too, some of the volunteers noticed a guitar for sale in a local shop. They purchased it and after talking to the other volunteers, they all decided to chip in some money and give me the guitar as a gift of love and encouragement.
I was stunned. As I stood there in silence, tears came to my eyes. These people that I didn’t know just days ago, in the brief time of working closely side-by-side with them and sharing this experience in this foreign country, did this seemingly unnecessary and random act of incredible kindness. And they did it for … ME …. a guy THEY didn’t really know. It was one of the more powerful moments I can remember. I cannot fully describe what it felt like to be seen and acknowledged by such a wonderful group of people, but it was a beautiful and humbling feeling to receive such unconditional love from others. I thanked them and tried to explain what it means to give someone that loves music an instrument. It was like giving them a voice.
They asked me to play, and I attempted a song I wrote when I was about 17 years old because it had a lot of meaning to me. I stumbled through it missing notes and trying to remember passages. In other situations I would have felt embarrassed or ashamed, but here I felt safe and loved.
But the story does not end here. The giving had to continue.
The next day I brought the new guitar to the preschool. I played and the kids sang and danced. The sight of the joy that has flowing like a fountain in that room that day confirmed what I already knew…….
This guitar was not leaving Peru.
I know for some this may not make sense. To receive a pretty guitar is very special, and to take it with you and to hold on to it, well that’s just a natural thing because “it was given to you.” But what I knew in my heart was that the gift of love given to me by my fellow volunteers on my birthday was not actually the guitar. The gift they gave me, an even more powerful gift, was their expression of love and belief in me as a person and their wish for me to be happy and to find joy again. Their act of giving itself, was the greatest gift of all.
So near the end of my Preschool assignment, the teachers gathered the kids and after we played and danced one more time, I presented this beautiful gift of love to the preschool and the kids on behalf of me and all of my volunteer friends so the kids could share in the joy of music. The Preschool staff was delighted because they only had a handful of toy instruments, and they knew of a few people in the local community that would be happy to come in and play guitar for the kids on their new guitar.
Since leaving Peru on my continuing journey, I think of the kids often, and I hope that they find that deep love of music, and life, that many of us have the blessing to experience when our hearts allow.
Please consider volunteering, opening your heart and give your help and support to others. You will often receive more gifts of connection and love than you could even imagine in return.