My first full week as a NET intern has come and gone, and with it has come lots of other “firsts,” including my first Ladera playdate.
Now, going into this summer, the Ladera playdates were the events that I was most nervous about because, frankly, I have never been great with kids. I have never been good at getting kids to like me, I can never seem to relate to them, and most days I just don’t have the patience for them. As Wednesday rolled around, my anxiety began to skyrocket- not helped by the story broken the week before of the kid who climbed into a gorilla pen at the Cincinnati Zoo, dominating the news cycle and Facebook newsfeeds for days.
When I met up with the Ladera kids and the rest of The NET staff at the zoo, I was incredibly relieved to see that these kids were fun, sweet, and definitely much easier to handle than the illiterate, ill-behaved, and ill-meaning monsters I had imagined in my head.
As we walked through the different exhibits- keeping an extra vigilant eye when we reached the gorilla cage- I pointed and laughed alongside my kids as we marveled at the beautiful and often terrifying creatures that lounged and played before us. Most of the kids seemed to be having as good of a time as I was, but a seven-year-old Congolese girl named Salha caught my eye. Her beautifully framed eyes seemed to spend more time searching for her sister, making sure she was in sight, than admiring the animals in front of us. I tried to make an extra effort to engage her, but other than the occasional weak smile, I couldn’t seem to get to her.
Then, noticing the way she clung to her sister, an idea formed. When we approached the reptile exhibit, I wandered away from my group, searching intently for one specific animal. Finally, I found it: Python sebae.
“Salha!” I waved her down and pointed to the informational sign next to the thick snake coiled up in its glass box of foliage.
“You see this snake?” She nodded, “Look at where it’s from- the Congo. Just like you!”
She looked again at the snake, and for a split second I panicked. Did I seriously just try to relate this little girl to a monstrous snake? Oh no. This is why I should never be allowed near kids. This kid is going to start crying, and I am so fired.
But then she looked over at me and beamed a huge face-eating grin- the kind I had been trying to get out of her all day. She waved down her sister, pointed to the snake, and the two smiled together at the giant python.
As I watched the two girls, silently admiring the living relic of their homeland, I was struck suddenly by the loneliness of it all. Two young girls and a snake, so far away from their home. Working with The NET forces you to be thankful for a lot of the things you have always taken for granted- a roof over your head, food security, education- but never had it occurred to me to be thankful to have a home. Not just a house but a home. It reminded me of how important the “safety net” part of The NET is, and how unbelievably kind God has been to give me people and a place that I get to call home. The NET can be that place for our Ladera kiddos. It’s a truth I have learned, and likely will, learn over and over again: people need people, because people means home.
Written by Elle Meyers