Sunday 10th September
Happiness for me is walking the streets of Guatemala at night. There is something quite special about walking at night as life takes on a new perspective and those who can remain hidden during the bustle of the day become more visible. Often we find more young people on the streets at night as during the day they are often walking around begging, watching cars or maybe working. So, when we find young children alone on the streets late at night it tells us that something is not right.
I was heading back to our Centre after a couple of visits to see some families we are supporting when I spotted two young children hiding between the last few parked cars in the road. “Hola”, I called out and began to open the door to our Centre. Karla popped her head out and said in a cheery tone “hola” before running over to give me a hug while her brother ran off around the corner.
Karla has now been in the mentoring programme for a couple of months and has a great mentor who is trying to help her understand the consequences of staying out on the streets late at night. Our team had noticed her hanging around the streets more and more and so began to engage with her and eventually was introduced to her grandfather who runs a local bar.
After my hug from Karla I asked why her brother had ran off. I only guessed it was her brother as I know that she had told us that she often would hang out on the streets with her brother. The street team had tried, on a few occasions, to engage with her brother but he had always run off.
It was a cold night and the flimsy clothing nine-year-old Karla was wearing made her rub her hands up and down her arms to keep warm. It was also eerily silent and not even our friendly-armed guard from the neighbouring building was out on the streets. Karla asked me if I would like to meet her brother and without waiting for my reply turned and ran off after him, shouting back “he always hides from people”.
Our little jeep was nearby and so I decided to use that to follow Karla and see if she could locate her brother. No sooner had I turned the jeep around and headed slowly the wrong way up the one-way street I heard Karla shout and then noticed her holding on to her brother and calling for me to come over.
I parked the jeep in front of the two children and decided to stay in the car and act calm towards her brother in order to gain his trust. I said “hola” and introduced myself to him while reaching my hand out in the hope of shaking his hand. He pushed his sister aside and reached out his hand to me. I asked if he would mind if I got out of the car and spoke with him. He just smiled and so I took that as a yes and got out and asked him his name. “I´m Jose”, he said and asked me if the jeep was mine. The jeep is Suzuki model 1987 and is a great vehicle to use on the streets as its tough, small and doesn´t really matter if kids climb on it, lean on it or throw up in it.
The barriers were being broken down and so I asked him if he would like to sit in the driving seat and drive it around the block. I knew that he was not able to drive and I wasn´t going to give him the keys, but make believe is still a powerful world with children despite their age and experience. Jose is just 10-years-old and both seemed to relish the idea of going on an imaginary journey in the car despite it being parked on the corner of our Centre. Jose climbed in and placed his hands on the wheel and I closed the door but left the window open. He was feeling comfortable and so this gave me an opportunity to talk with him about our concerns for him and his sister being on the streets so late and all the risks involved, especially in La Terminal where so many bad things happen every day.
We talked about many things and joked about before I asked if I could drop them both home and then visit the following day to talk to their grandparents. If was as if I was offering them a huge bowl of sweets as their faces lit up and so the 100m drive was over in less than a minute but for Karla and Jose it was a special moment. We said our goodbyes and I agreed to visit them the next day and talk with Jose further about the mentoring programme.
The next day came soon enough and with the hot sun beating down on us we made our way from the Centre to the “cantina” (bar) where Jose and Karla live. The children were obviously excited about coming to our Centre as they were heading up the road and we were heading down it. On seeing us they ran up and embraced us with tight hugs and Karla asked if her brother could now start the mentoring programme and come into the Centre. I explained that I would need to talk with their grandfather first and then see what we could do.
I asked Jose if he wanted to come with me to his home so I could chat with his grandfather. He nodded and took my hand and led me down the busy road. Karla and Jose have no mum and dad. From what we know they both died a few year ago and I guess they were killed. They were left in the care of their aging grandparents. Their grandmother sells various items on the streets and their grandfather runs a bar.
On arrival I can see the bar is very open to the public. There are four small wooden tables lined up against the wall where men sit and drink bottles of bear and spirits and even some have crashed out and are sprawled across the table with arms dangling down on the floor. It´s a pitiful sight and the blearing music and three flashing lights continue to tempt more lonely souls in to take refuge in the welcoming arms of an alcoholic beverage.
Jose´s grandfather shuffles over to meet me when he sees that Jose is at my side. I introduce myself and explain a little about our concern for Jose and how we could offer him a place in the mentoring programme. His grandfather seems pleased by the opportunity and thanks me for my concern and I promise to keep him posted on any progress.
Jose has a smile on his face that tells me this will be an exciting opportunity for him and so we walk back to the Centre, with Jose skipping alongside me and talking to me about what his sister has told him about the Centre and what is available there.
Since no mentor is available to take on Jose I have offered to meet with him regularly when I return from the UK. It´s another commitment but I don´t want him to be without a caring adult in his life. I can see that he is a lonely vulnerable boy who could be easily and quickly tempted into the many vices that are on offer in La Terminal. At least he is in school and as soon as I return to Guatemala I will be seeing how his schoolwork is going and what support we can give to provide a structure in his life that could mean he will spend less time on the streets and more time in education and in positive activities.
On arrival back at the Centre I manage to grab a few minutes with Jose and Karla to record a special message for all those attending the Big Sleep in Amersham on Saturday 23rd September. We will be making a very exciting announcement on the night and so hope you can come and join us and also hear the message from Jose and Karla at 9pm.