Thursday 10th August

It is always exciting when visitors come to see the work and one has to explain to them that going on the streets is an experience they will never forget.  I have to also say that you never know exactly what will happen as the work is often chaotic and unpredictable.

bundleDan Jennings is from Amersham in the UK and has been out here for two weeks and we said our tearful goodbyes to him last night.  One little boy, 7-year-old Melvin, had grow quite attached to Dan and was in tears when he left, which made Dan cry and realise how desperate the kids are for love and affection.  It was funny though watching how the kids in our Centre jumped on Dan and then bundled him to the ground – a fun way to end his time with us.

I was out with Dan and Ben Soden the other afternoon on the streets and it had been explained to Dan the volatile nature of our work when we turned a corner in La Terminal and came across a scene that Dan and Ben later acted out for the other volunteers we have visiting at the moment.  It was one of those scenes that I am sure will stick with Dan forever.

We had spent some time with a family in one area of La Terminal in Guatemala City when we decided to move on to see how three young children were doing as we had reports that the youngest one was now sniffing solvents everyday and not going to school.

Walking out of the crowded and busling market area into the car park that separates the market from an area we call “las casitas” (the little houses) is a relief on the senses.  No soon as we had walked into the car park than Marta ran up to me crying and asking me for help.  Marta is 16 and is carrying a baby on her back.  I held onto her shoulder and was about to comfort her and find out why she was crying, even though the bruised faced gave me a clue, when Carmen – who is a short distance away – starts screaming.  Her screams distract us for a moment and divert our attention to a lady collapsed on the ground.  At the same time Reyna, another young teenage mum, approaches us in tears.  We seemed to have walked into quite a situation and for a moment we are overwhelmed and it seems like we are frozen in time.

My brain goes into emergency mode where I try and look at what is happening and make a judgement about what is the most important thing to do.  Cleary it is the lady lying on the ground who apparently unconscious.  It turns out to be Doña Gloria who we know well and as we try and comfort the three teenage girls I evaluate Doña Gloria´s situation as a small crowd begins to gather around us.

Doña Gloria has a story that should be turned into a book.  It won´t be a book with a happy ending so far but we live in hope that it will one day.  Doña Gloria has grown up in La Terminal and earns about £3 a day for cleaning up rubbish.  It is obviously not enough to live on and the three young children and teenage boy who live with her have to try and fend for themselves. It is heartbreaking and we have tried so many times to find alternative solutions for the family but these have always been rejected.

GloriaDoña Gloria has no obvious wounds and seems to have collapsed and, from what I can understand, is in shock.  We place her in the recovery position and ensure she is breathing and somewhat comfortable while trying to talk to her and bring her round.  Dan is a real help and holds her head while Ben and me continue to check her pulse and talk with her.  For a few seconds she comes round and looks up into my face and cries and says: “Duncan, please take care of my children”, before her body starts to shake and once again she loses consciousness.

I call for the Bomberos to come and take her to hospital while Dan monitors the situation and Ben, now joined by Frank, go with Reyna into Las Casitas to try and resolve a family dispute that, we later find out, is at the heart of this whole situation.

Having a friend who helps run the Bomberos means they arrive quickly and the sirens draws the attention of people from all around.  A crown gathers and the police step in to manage the push of people to see what is happening.  The Bomberos get through the crowd and help us assess the situation.  They agree with my initial observation that Doña Gloria has collapsed and showing signs of shock.

We manage to lift her onto the stretcher and arrange for one of her daughters to go with her to hospital and then are left with four young children in our care until we find out what is happening with Doña Gloria.  Due to the number of people still hanging around to see what we are doing I decide to take the children back to their shack and chat with them about options. 

This is not going to be easy as we have little choice if Doña Gloria cannot return tonight but to inform the authorities as we just can´t leave a small baby and three young children in the care of a teenage boy who is high on solvent.  I explain the possible options and when the older children here about the obligation we have to inform the authorities they begin to scream about not going into a home where they will be abused.  I leave them for a minute and make a phone call and while I do they all escape and hide in the alleyways in La Terminal.

Some of the neighbours come out and begin to complain that we are going to inform on them all and they will all lose their children.  One family wants to talk about making a formal complaint to the police about her being hit by one of the other families there, which left her lying on the ground for over an hour unable to move.  It is a volatile situation and I am concerned for the safety of the team and so we decide to walk away for a short time and, as we do, we receive a call from the hospital that Doña Gloria is allowed to leave.

The night is a long one and involves us collecting Doña Gloria and her daughter, finding the missing children, calming down aggressive families and trying to bring some form of peace before we head home and try and find some food to sustain us a while longer.  Just another day on the streets and one I am sure Dan will remember for a long time to come.

Sunday 23rd July

The day begins with high expectation as we head of to AMG about 10 minutes drive from the soon-to-be Protection Home for high-risk children in Guatemala City.  AMG is an inspirational school for about 400 high-risk children and they opened up a special classroom for the most challenging young people who have missed out completely on their education.

We drive into the school car park and disembark the huge pickup I have for the week while my car is in the workshop.  I am very happy to have my dear friends James and Sally Hawes with me, together with their two sons Cadan, 14, and Afton who is 12.  They are from Nottingham and are visiting here for two weeks to volunteer on the streets and to se the scope of the work we do.

Walking into the school is comforting, as the 400 children here would not normally have the chance of an education if it were not for AMG.  It certainly sounds like school and year 4-6 are pouring out of their classrooms and heading to the sports field to play.  We arrive at the special classroom that AMG funds for some of our boys and are welcomed in and invited to see how the boys are doing before photos are taken and a few questions are asked about the two boys visiting from the UK.

AMG1All of a sudden one of our team comes into the classroom with a cake that has candles on it and begins singing Happy Birthday.  It´s Alex´s birthday and he is rather overwhelmed by the attention but I can see he is rather enjoying it.  I remember back to the first day we found Alex and am so pleased we persevered with him and got him away from the streets and into school.

We challenge the boys to a football match, England vs Guatemala.  The challenge is accepted and before we can count to 10 we are out on the pitch recruiting little children to join our squads and the match begins.  It is a huge amount of fun but the game only lasts for 10 minutes at 1-1 as we get a call that one of the young mums we are working with has been kidnapped and has called to tell us she has escaped her kidnapper and is hiding in a warehouse and could we go and rescue her.

The Hawes family are then driven to our Centre while I head of with Ben to meet Juan Carlos, one of our street team, and see what we can do to help.  I drive as fast as I am allowed to as we are all concerned about Cindy´s safety and discuss scenarios as we drive and approach to warehouse.  I was expecting to find some abandoned industrial unit where we might have to rescue her by force and have already called PNC, the national police, to ask them to join us when we arrive.

I was asked to take the pickup as it was large and had black windows and so this would help with the rescue.  It was still rather confusing about why she was there and what had led to her call saying she had been kidnapped.  Cindy has lived on the streets for many years and has a 10-year-old daughter who has grown up on the streets. Recently we helped Cindy find a children´s home for her daughter, as she could not look after her and keep her safe from a gang.  Cindy was doing well, had found a job and a neat place to live and now her life was in danger again.

BenonstreetsOn arrival at the warehouse it was clear that she would not need to be “rescued” at all as a friend had already arrived and taken her away.  Furthermore the warehouse was a working factory where over a hundred people were happily at work making sweets.  The factory boss came out and invited us in to look around if we wanted to after hearing the story and gave us bags of sweets for the kids before we walked down the road to one of the many government offices that deal with complaints about abuse, etc. from the public.

Cindy is inside and bursts into tears when she sees us and tells us her story.  She fell in love with a young man who became violent and started to abuse her on a daily basis.  She coped with the abuse as she had always been in relationships that were abusive and so knew nothing else.  But one day she told herself that enough was enough and decided to leave him.  Apparently he would not allow this to happen and so locked her up in the warehouse where he worked and it was from there she called us.

Her boyfriend was nowhere to be seen but her friend who had helped her leave the warehouse seemed a really caring man and said he was from the local church and they would help find her an alternative place to live while we explored options for the next steps.  At least she was now safe and thanked us for our support before heading off to the Public Ministry offices to make an official statement that would mean a restriction order could be taken out so her boyfriend can now longer have contact with her.

Ben, Juan Carlos and me drive back to our Centre to collect the Hawes family and head to the streets.  It has already been a full morning and we suspect the afternoon will also be eventful as street work is hugely exciting, varied but also the most challenging of jobs.

Walking down the 6th Avenue can overwhelm the senses as we pass by the various bars, shops and stalls and are enticed by numerous street vendors to buy sweets, fruit and newspapers or have our shoes cleaned.  It is a busy afternoon and the sun is hot on our heads and so we try and enjoy the bits of shade until we reach the place where it is safest to cross the busy road.  It is at the point where four young children come rushing out of a doorway and grab hold of my legs.  I bend down to greet them and they all want picking up.

joseDanielJose Daniel is 6 and he is child number three to be picked up and given a cuddle.  I am just about to put him down when his mum appears and tells he the boy is not well and could I help.  Without telling me what he has she pushes him back into my arms and pulls down his tracksuit trousers to show me he has a genital infection.  The poor boy must be in agony and so we go into their shack where we can examine him without having to do so in the street.  He is obviously in pain and it is clear from what I can see that he needs a series of antibiotics.  So I carry him to one of the local heath clinics accompanied by his mum, brother and sisters, Ben and the Hawes family.

The doctor takes one look at Jose Daniel and realises the medication he needs and encourages the mother shower him everyday, apply cream and give him two forms of antibiotics and that within 10 days he will be back to normal.  Normal is not something Jose Daniel has ever had and so I must go back and see how he is progressing and hope that the mum is actually going to give him the medicine and apply the cream twice a day.

Finally we head across the road and arrive at La Casona, a street where some 20 children, young people and adults are living.  We greet everyone and introduce the family visiting from the UK before conversations quickly turn to Gerson´s death and funeral.  Everyone was asking to see photos of Gerson and so I quickly find some on my Facebook page.  His death has made some decide to leave the streets including Luis, Vicky and Selvin.  We begin to explore options for each of them while playing cards and cleaning feet and attending to wounds.

Casona Police 2All of a sudden there is a huge amount of activity as one of the guys notices that the municipal (city) police have just driven past slowly whilst taking photos of us.  Heads begin to look around and we notice that a small group of police is gathering at the corner of the road.  Within minutes everyone is gathering up their possessions, as they believe they have arrived to remove them from the streets and confiscate their beds and belongings.  One man grabs a machete and tucks it down into his trousers and so I warm the family that we need to be prepared to take photos and ensure that no abuse happens.

Feelings are running high and everyone is on high alert and then two national police arrive on bikes followed by a patrol car full for heavily armed police.  It is clear they have not come to just talk and something is about to happen and so Ben and me walk to meet the police while James and Sally Hawes begin to record the moment with photos in case we need evidence.

The municipal police are first to talk and we realise that their agenda is quite passive, maybe because we are present.  The last few times we have not been present the police have weighed in hard and in one video one officer is seen kicking a disabled homeless person in La Casona while threatening the others with much of the same if they come to her defense.  It is vital we are there and being present is about all we can do at this point.

Casona Police1The spokeswoman begins to tell us that they have had many complaints from members of the public and neighbours because of the younger children that are present living on the streets and abusing drugs.  We listen carefully and respond with our own concerns for the welfare of the children particularly.  It is clear the police only want to talk and raise their concerns but with the number of police officers and the manner in which some stand by with their fingers on the triggers of the police issue automatic machine guns I am worried that anything can happen.  It does not help that Juan takes off his shirt and begins to shout at the police and tries to barge the spokeswoman before an officer gets in the middle and Ben and me pull Juan away.  It is a tense standoff for a while but we help keep things calm and a reasonable conversation begins about what to do with the young children living there and abusing drugs.

Our visit finishes with an agreement that the police will inform the appropriate authorities about the younger children and leave the rest alone to live, as they need to on the streets.  I head back with the Hawes family as it is now getting dark and leave Ben with the guys on the streets as another one of our team rushed over so that Ben is not on his own.

It has been quite an eventual day and we talk about the various things we have seen and done and how we will be helping those who want to leave the streets to start new lives and enter rehab programmes.

DonEdwinAs we cross the main road and turn the corner into the road where our Centre is we notice two police pickups and an ambulance in the road and wonder what is going on.  It then becomes clear as we approach the building where our dear friend Don Edwin lives and I see his grandson on the steps in tears and quickly know that Don Edwin has passed away.  A TV crew appears and climbs the stairs into the flat where Don Edwin has been found lying on the floor.

It is a very sad moment for me.  Slowly our team poured out of the Centre and gathered with us as we mourned the loss of this elderly gentleman who cared so much for the work we were doing.  All in the street knew Don Edwin.  He would spend most of his day sitting on a post in the road and watch all our vehicles and take time to greet every child that came past.  We would often invite him into the Centre for cake and to see how the children are doing.  It was the highlight of his day and all the kids would give him a hug on their way home.

Another loss and another funeral.  Another long day and another reminder of just how fragile life is and how we must make the most of every opportunity God gives us to help someone and make a difference.

Saturday 15th July

Being a street worker is certainly not the most glamorous or well paid of jobs.  Street work is hard graft, dangerous, exhausting and messes with your mind as you see so much suffering.  However, it is my calling and I LOVE IT!  I love the fact that you can make a difference to someone´s life and when I say difference that could be to actually save their life.  I love the banter of the street, I love the chaos, and I love the multi-faceted sub-cultures that are very evident in every visit.  I love the welcome I receive from all those on the streets and love their acceptance of me and their willingness to share everything they have with me.

I was reminded again this week of the way street work can and does affect one personally.  I don´t think you can be a street worker if you are not prepared to be hurt.  A friend of mine who runs a project in Honduras for street boys wrote to me this week and said: “doing this work with a broken heart helps us get a better glimpse of our Father´s heart for them”.  How true his words are and they arrived when I was at my lowest and trying to make sense of all that has happened this week and questioning God about why so many of those we work with die so young.

Gerson5I have been grieving the loss of Gerson and so as part of my therapy I am writing to share his life with you in the hope that it will mean something.  I hope too that out of his death will come a renewed passion to help the many who still live on the streets of Guatemala City.

Gerson was born on the 28th May 1997.  His mum was just a teenager and clearly didn´t relish the fact that she had to now bring up a baby boy.  Gerson´s grandmother told me that she remembers visiting him one day and found him lying on a mattress caked in his own excrement.  He was only 4 years of age and so the grandmother tried to offer him an alternative family.  This arrangement didn´t last long and Gerson soon went back to live with his mum.

At the age of six Gerson´s mother decided that enough was enough and that she wanted to do away with the boy.  She tried to give him away to various people and then eventually found a lady in La Terminal who was interested in him.  That was the last contact she had with him and he was handed over to a total stranger, but at least she felt free and, according to Gerson´s grandmother, never felt anything towards her son at all.

Gerson grew up with this lady and quickly learnt why she was interested in him.  He was taught all sorts of things that children should not know about at the age of six and so suffered many years of sexual abuse and neglect before running away to live on the streets.  The authorities must have picked him up at some point as he was placed in a children´s home for a couple of years before escaping and finding his way back to La Terminal in Guatemala City.

How was he expected to be a good boy?  How was he expected to go to school and live a normal life after all he had experienced during those early years?  He was alone, angry, and bitter against his mum and wider family and really hurt by how he was treated in the children´s home and so began to look for belonging on the streets.  That is where I met him.

The early days of knowing Gerson were a mixture of fun, sadness and frustration.  The frustration came from me as I could see a boy who had been through so much and, as a result, was closed to being helped and could not bring himself to trust an adult.  I tried many times to help him consider another home but after hearing the horror stories of how he was treated when in the children’s home I could only hope that he would explore the option of living with his grandmother.

Gerson6My connection with Gerson became stronger after every visit as he would often come and sit with me and look at me with those penetrating eyes and say that I was his Dad.  He never remembered his father, who was killed when he was a much younger boy, and so latched on to me.  He would beg at the traffic lights on the 6th Avenue and when he had a 25c coin he would call me.  Often the conversation was about him asking how I was, what I was doing and when I would visit him next. This photo was taken a few years ago on what, gerson told me, was the happiest day of his life.

On my return from the UK in mid-June I visited the streets where Gerson was living because he called me the night I landed and asked if I would come to see him.  He was angry with me for not being in Guatemala to celebrate his birthday and asked if I had brought him a present.  Gerson was had just turned 20 but he still looked like a 14-year-old boy.  I went to find him and eventually he came running to meet me and gave me a big hug, telling me he loved me and why did I miss his birthday.

It was clear to me that he was ill again and so I asked him if he would allow me to take him into hospital.  It was a scenario that we played out many times.  Gerson would get depressed, refuse to eat and then sniff solvents to the point where he would eventually collapse and, when he became unconscious, then could we take him into hospital.  I can´t remember how many times I took him to hospital, visited him and helped arrange for a new life once he was thinking clearly.

The hospital visits increased and not just through solvent abuse.  He was stabbed so many times one evening that we all wondered if he would pull through.  When released he was hit by a car, which left him with difficulties in walking and talking and his hands would shake so much he could not drink from a cup anymore.  His life took a turn for the worse and, once again, was rushed into hospital the day after I returned from a recent trip to Honduras.

Gerson3

The day began with me receiving two phone calls from people on the streets telling me that Gerson was seriously ill and could the street team come and take him to hospital.  Ben Soden and Sony rushed to where he was while I went to collect Moses from school and then we would assess the situation.  Ben told me later that day how distressing it was finding Gerson almost unconscious on the streets and how emancipated he looked.  Ben and Sony (our administrator) asked the Municipal Bomberos to rush him to hospital but at first they were not interested.  After pleas for their help they arrived on the scene and decided to take Gerson to hospital.

Ben watched as one of the Bomberos tried to grab hold of Gerson like he was a dog and drag him into the ambulance.  This, according to Ben, was very distressing and made him angry and so pushed the Bombero away and, as carefully as he could, picked up Gerson and placed him gently in the ambulance.  Sony then accompanied Gerson to the hospital and later that day I went to see how he was doing.

I know I have written about the main city hospital here in Guatemala City so many times before and so will spare you the stories.  It takes me a while to eventually be allowed access to Gerson as I am told he is still in Emergency and that I would be allowed 10 minutes to visit him.  I walk into the emergency room, which is absolute chaos, and step over a pile of blood and begin my search for him. It is a miracle this hospital can actual function as government funds are limited and most doctors tell me they don´t have painkillers or much in the way of basic medicines.  The hospital makes you feel you have travelled to a war zone in the 1950s.  Hope does not find a home here as I look around at the many on stretchers and even one patient lying on the floor with various family members trying their best to keep their loved ones alive.  It´s distressing but eventually I find Gerson lying on a bed.

Gerson8

My first impression is that he is in a bad way.  He is a bag of skin and bones and is being kept alive through a ventilator and has a concoction of drugs being fed into him through a vein in his neck.  I have no idea where the drugs have come from, as I know how short they are and, according to one of the male nurses, would not normally “waste” drugs on someone from the streets.  It is clear he is in a really bad way and so all I can do is be with him, hold his hand, pray with him and whisper in his ear.

Gerson spends the weekend in the hospital before I visit him on the Monday afternoon and see if any progress has been made.  This visit I actually meet a doctor who knows Gerson´s situation and tells me that he does not think he will live for much longer.  His words seem to come out really slowly and the thought of losing him begins to dawn on me.  I manage to tell the doctor that I will contact his family and come back later or tomorrow to see how he is doing.

It takes a few hours to arrive at his grandmother´s house and I pass on the news and ask her to help provide us with legal papers should Gerson not pull through.  If no legal papers can be presented when someone dies then they are disposed of as XX and you never have a chance of a funeral or to visit the place the body is “buried”.  His grandmother tells me she will leave early in the morning and get copies of his papers and meet us at the hospital.

Gerson4

I arrive home exhausted and heartbroken and remain in prayer for Gerson and still hope he would once again pull through.  Sadly this would not be the case and later that night he passed away and the next day I went, with legal papers, to collect his body from the hospital morgue.  Dying in the hospital means he did not need an autopsy and then funeral arrangements were made and all those we knew who knew him were informed.  It was a difficult time for us all, especially for Ben who had recently joined the street team and was only one year older than Gerson and had seen three deaths in the last 15 days. What a way to begin his work with us in Guatemala!

Gerson´s life was a troubled one and he saw his fair share of suffering and I hope that now he is at peace and with God.  I knew that speaking at his funeral would be almost impossible and so I kept my words short in order to hold it all together and help the family know he was loved indeed.  All I could say was etched on a plaque that was placed on his tomb: “You were never alone in this world Gerson even though the world hit you hard.  I love you son and trust you to the mercy and love of God”.  It was a tough day and one I know we will be repeating again unless a miracle happens and all those we are trying to help leave the streets.

Gerson7

I tried to be a Dad to Gerson and, in part, I succeeded in demonstrating to him that he was loved just for who he was.  I will miss his phone calls and toothless smile and will now use my grief to fuel my determination to help many more Gersons.  One such boy rang me today and asked how I was doing as he had accompanied me to the funeral.  He told me he didn´t want to die on the streets like Gerson and like his Dad and was now ready to go into a home.  I tell him I will see him later and will remind him of the words he said to me at the funeral and how Gerson´s death has made him want to change.  Hope rises and I will keep you posted of his progress.

Dedicated to Gerson.  A boy I loved as much as I could.  A young man who knew he had a father who cared for him but who increasingly lived with a desire to be released from this life.  I trust him into God´s mercy and hope that one day I will see him again.

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