Nearly 80 years after he was orphaned prior to WWII, a World Cruise guest takes a Crystal “You Care, We Care” excursion and inspires some Costa Rican orphans.
By Joe Kita
Werner Dreifuss is sitting with a dozen other Crystal Serenity guests in one of four casitas or small houses that comprise the PANI orphanage in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. He and his wife, Norma, could have toured the rainforest or visited a chocolate museum or enjoyed one of several other adventures offered in this World Cruise port.
But instead they’re here – on a Crystal “You Care, We Care” trip that connects guests in special ways with local communities. Crystal pioneered this concept in 2010, and its “voluntourism” experiences in around the world have become extremely popular and beneficial for both, travelers and locals in need.
Werner and Norma are on their fifth Crystal World Cruise, and they sign up for “You Care, We Care” trips whenever they’re offered – especially the orphanage visits.
“I feel for these kids,” says Werner, 85, “because I was an orphan once, too.”
The Patronato Nacional de la Infancia (PANI) is a government-run orphanage for about 40 children ranging from infants to teenagers. Most of these kids have parents, however. But for reasons of negligence, violence, various abuses, poverty or some other threat, the government has taken temporary custody and is providing food, shelter and a stable environment until things improve at home. Typically, children stay in the orphanage about six months, but some become permanent residents.
Werner observes the children and listens closely to their stories, as told through a translator.
Seven-year-old Renaldo, who’s playing on the floor with some battered trucks, lives here with his five-year-old brother and two-year-old sister. Werner grins at him and waves, but it’s not easy making Renaldo smile.
Werner was about the same age as Renaldo when he lived at Waisenhauses, a Jewish orphanage in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1938 with about 70 other kids.
Fourteen-year-old Irena, who’s standing so far back in the room that her lovely coffee complexion makes her look like a shadow, already has two daughters, ages three and one. Even though she is a single mom, she is also still a child, so her little family is eligible to live at the orphanage.
Werner never knew his mother or why she put him in the orphanage. All he knows is that her name was Henny, and all he has to remember her by is a black-and-white, well-thumbed photo that he carried with him for years.
Fifteen-year-old Mazie, who’s sitting on a table and wearing blue headphones, has been at the orphanage for five years. That’s longer than any of the other kids and even some of the tias or aunts who take care of them. Via the translator Mazie says with a shrug, “Nobody wants to take me home.”
Werner was transferred from orphanage to orphanage to stay ahead of the war before eventually being put aboard a steamer with a hundred other orphans bound for New York City. He arrived on June 21, 1941, with no money, no knowledge of America or its language, and only the clothes on his back. He was put on a train to Los Angeles, where he went to another orphanage. In those days, prospective foster or adoptive parents could check a child out for the weekend and return him or her if it wasn’t a good fit. It was about a year before a foster family took Werner in, so he knows exactly how Mazie feels.
After a while the children tire of talking about themselves. They want to hear about us, and the magical ship we sail on and the exotic countries we come from. It’s a life they can barely comprehend, and it’s humbling for us. They nod and applaud and (finally) smile as we go around the room and tell a little about ourselves.
And then it’s Werner’s turn.
The room quiets as he tells his story – about how he moved from orphanage to orphanage, how nobody wanted him, how alone he often felt, but how he persevered, got a college education, started his own retail business in the San Diego area, and eventually became successful enough to travel the world. He ends by saying he has four children, eight grandchildren and a new great-grandchild.
“We’ve been married for 62 years,” adds Norma, tearing up. “The family he lost, we recreated.”
The applause is not just polite this time; it’s genuine and sustained. The children crane their necks to get a better look at this strange white-haired man from so far away who is so like them.
Mazie takes off her headphones and says something to the translator. He shushes the room: “She wants to tell you that you are very brave. She says you have a big heart, and very few people could ever do what you’ve done. She says she admires you.”
Travel brings with it many special moments. But sometimes it’s not just the sites that create them. Occasionally, people connect, hearts touch, and lives can change. I felt it in that casita at that moment. Everyone did. If you take advantage of a “You Care, We Care” excursion on your next Crystal Cruise, perhaps you will too.