November 16, 2015

I am always surprised by the negative connotation the word regret carries. I suppose it can be harsh if it is viewed as condemnation, but for me I find it liberating. I regret something so much that I learned from the experience and made changes so I won’t repeat the mistake.

Now that you know I do not beat myself up over my regrets, but rather experience peace as I work through and grow from them, please let me share one of my heartfelt regrets that I made while working with street children in Ukraine. A regret that would forever change the way I do humanitarian work.

My philosophy has and always will be to work with Nationals in their home country by providing training and encouragement. Like a number of humanitarian trips I have been on, I was told I would be investing in Ukranians to equip them to work with the hundreds of street children in Kiev.

Soon after I got there, it was apparent to me that we (the foreigners) would be spending a majority of the time with street children in a detention center rather than providing training for Ukranians.

This concerned me because I felt (and still do) we should be empowering Ukranians to work with these children since they can provide consistency.

There was a group of young Ukrainian adults who were ready to take this challenge. They were included on some outings, but nothing was done to support them for long term volunteer work – no training was provided nor was any confidence in their ability to lead demonstrated.

As I worked with the children in the detention center, I watched them become more accustomed to our visits, games, and love. Although I was learning a lot about the plight of street children, the lack of stability we were offering still weighed on my mind.

One little boy, who I will call Chase, became attached to me. So much so that the kids in the detention center called him mine and me his.

During the last few days we were in the detention center, Chase’s behavior began to change. He became depressed and the color in his face was fading. At first, I wondered if he was pouting, but when I really looked at him I could see he was hopeless, angry, and sick of being left.

In a lot of cases, we can try to gloss over someone’s pain and initially I tried to do that with Chase, but I realized my need to feel better by making light of the situation would only make things worse for him. So, I helplessly sat by him as I asked myself “What have I done?”.

The day of our final goodbye, Chase sat on a cement bench, head downcast with bags under his eyes. My hugs didn’t comfort him. His frame was weak and the last look he gave me was one of exhaustion.

It took me a couple of years to process that look and to finally admit that I did more harm than good. If I had insisted in sticking to the original plan to train the Ukranians, Chase would have had more consistent love and support.

There is no happy ending to this story. I don’t know how Chase is doing. Instead of beating myself up, though I will try to honor him by not making the same mistake. I felt relief when I finally admitted that I regretted what I did. It is much easier than trying to convince myself that it wasn’t a big deal.

This regret, that I still and will always feel, is not condemning rather it is a reminder to never make that mistake again. That regret is what led me to Community Based Development and then Walu.

Humanitarian workers aren’t perfect and things can become confusing for us. The best thing we can do, though is learn from our mistakes and keep moving forward! The mistakes, regrets, etc make us wiser and more capable of doing a better job. This post is for any humanitarian worker who has regrets. I hope you will learn from your mistakes and keep on giving from your big, beautiful heart!

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