Christmas on the Ranch

Loren O’Sullivan, NPH New Zealand’s Director, shares her thoughts about one exceptional caregiver who makes Christmas such a special time of year for the kids.

Iris Salinas is a special person. She’s the Manager of the Baby Home at El Rancho Santa Fe, NPH’s main property in Honduras. When I was volunteering at NPH Honduras in 2013-14, I formed a friendship with this remarkable woman. When you meet Iris you quickly learn that the children are so important to her, and that there’s nowhere else she’d rather be. In fact, sitting on a beach watching the kids play at Easter time Iris admitted to me that she once had the opportunity to live in Europe but she decided not to take it. She knew that she’d miss the kids too much, as well as her beloved country.

Iris has been working as the Manager of the Baby home, Casa Suyapa, for ten years now. Prior to this she worked for ten years establishing the Montessori program in our primary school.

As a volunteer on the Ranch I spent a lot of time with Iris because in the evenings I helped out with the toddlers. Most evenings I would stay behind and help wash the dishes and Iris would often come and talk with me. I remember one evening, Iris asked me to stay behind to colour in a New Zealand flag. She wanted to make sure that all the flags were represented for Godparents day. At the time, my parents were the only New Zealanders who sponsored a child in Honduras, but it didn’t matter to Iris – New Zealand, needed to be a part of the display. (Today 84 children in Honduras are sponsored by New Zealanders. In total we have nearly 500 child sponsors in New Zealand).

Iris is one of the most hard-working women I have ever met. She is a mother to the children, and a role model to the volunteers and staff on the Ranch. Iris treats the children as her own. She remembers their birthdays, she makes them feel special and she goes above and beyond to make sure they can have a good day, every day.

At Christmas time many of the caregivers go back home to their families, while university students and volunteers take over their roles and look after the children. Iris always volunteers to stay on the Ranch at Christmas time because “My philosophy of love is: celebrate with the children who are far from their families, or who don’t have families. When you have the vocation to serve and you love the ones you serve, there is not difference in spending these holidays away from your biological family”.

Iris says, ”The first Christmas that I spent on the Ranch was beautiful and unforgettable. It was the first time I celebrated Christmas Eve mass with the children and volunteers from all around the world.  For me, the most special moment was to sit in front of a large bonfire with the children, chat by the heat of the fire and at midnight receive big Christmas hugs from the kids. Yes, lots of big hugs!”

Iris admits that while Christmas is such a special time, it can also be a difficult time for some of the children. ”During the holiday season some children get emotional and sensitive. It is important to be with them not only physically but with an open heart and ears ready to listen to them. That way I show them my love and empathy. This is such an incredible, worthy and extreme experience. We laugh together almost all the time, but we also cry together in hard times”.

For Iris the best thing about Christmas is the wonderful atmosphere in the home. The kids get really excited leading up to Christmas, just like many children around the world. They enjoy putting up Christmas decorations and a tree.

Just like Iris I also enjoyed celebrating Christmas with the kids on the Ranch in 2013. While the holidays were a lot of fun, stepping into a caregiver role for a couple of weeks was exhausting. This was my first inkling of how tiring it is to be a parent. I continue to admire Iris greatly for the work she does with the kids – it is exhausting, messy and emotionally challenging. The hours are long and the pay doesn’t reflect the sacrifices she makes. But Iris doesn’t do this job for the money, she does it because she loves the kids.

When I returned to the Ranch in 2017 something strange happened. I had just arrived at the visitor house and the toddlers were walking nearby when suddenly a wasp nest was disturbed. I ran to help them and was stung viciously on the head. Once the drama was over and the kids were safely at the clinic, I turned and saw Iris. “Kiwi!” she exclaimed, running over to me, giving me a big hug. I burst into tears. “Don’t worry Kiwi. You’re home now,” she said.

That’s how Iris makes all the kids feel, at home. There’s no better Christmas gift than that.