Saturday 10th September

My plan was to return from the sponsored walk through Central America, spend a few days with the Mi Arca team and catch up on some admin and then head off for a week´s holiday.  The plans of resting for the week and all I had dreamed of doing were in the forefront of my mind while I was walking the last two weeks.  I knew I needed something really exciting to keep me going as well as the faces and names of the children we are helping.

On my return it was clear that the situation with Mi Arca was not the one I had left 5 weeks before and needed my urgent commitment.  Alongside some very serious staffing and volunteer issues came a list of names of children and families at risk.  It was impossible to just pack and bag and head off and so I decided to keep going and try and help where I could.

Dropping one of the children home one evening to their little shack I found one of the little boys we work with playing outside in the street.  The family of the child I was dropping off invited me into their shack and as I entered their home I heard the mother of the boy playing in the street scream obscenities and then drag the young boy into the adjacent shack.  The boy´s cries were just terrible and the mother begins to hit him hard and on each hit another scream.  I am told that this is a daily occurrence for him and that in another shack a young girl is being hit by both her father and mother.  In one recent incident the girl was left with serious injuries to her face as her parents repeatedly hit her.  As I leave the boy is still crying and the little girl sobbing as she sits hunched up on the street.  How can you just go home and pack your bags and head off to a beach?

The following day I have to drop two boys off after their mentoring programme in the same street and as I do a lady who calls me over and begs me for help.  I explain that after dropping the boys home I will return and then hear her story.  A few minutes later I turn up the road where there are around 40 small bars, all offering prostitution to the many men who frequent La Terminal at night.

street la casonaDoña Lydia is clearly distressed as well as drunk and her business is not doing well.  She has been working in La Terminal for many years and has seen everything that most of us wish to never see in our lifetime.  Her family is scattered around La Terminal and it seems that most are in the two camps of either getting along or fighting and trying to kill each other.  She is desperate to talk to me about her 13-year-old daughter, Carmen, who was arrested by police two weeks ago because she and two 11-year-old boys were on the streets at night taking drugs.  Normally the police would not bat an eyelid but the previous night a local TV channel reported the story of the children and so the following day the PGN (child protection service) and police turn up and take two of the three away to the secure children´s home, which is basically a prison for children.  The third child manages to escape custody and runs off into the dark alleyways in La Terminal.

As she talks to me about Carmen and how she wants to have her back at home her 17-year-old son bursts into the bar and smashes a bottle on the step and starts swinging it around and shouting at two men sitting at a table.  This was the first time I have met her eldest boy and obviously not the best of introductions.  Her grandson is 4 and starts screaming and clings to me whilst calling my name over and over again.  He is very clearly distressed and so I keep him behind me while I try and talk the lad into remaining calm.  It does no good as he begins to use his fist rather than the bottle.  The two men leave and some sense of calm falls upon the bar as we take the bottle form his hand and allow him time and space to talk.

The 4-year-old is still in shock and so I focus on a wound on his leg and I ask him to help me with my medical kit.  The extra attention I pay to his leg overshadows his real needs, but for the moment this will have to do.  It is a tough beginning to a very long night and I walk to meet two UK volunteers, Alex Denton and Jack Gocher, who have come to join Ben Soden and help us on the streets and in the Centre.  They are running activities just around the corner for about 30 young children.

The week begins to look like it will be a busy one with many such incidents, children coming to the Centre with some devastating news and big needs, coping with some who have left rehab and returned to the streets, families calling and asking for help as they haven´t seen me in weeks and have been waiting till I returned to tell me of the desperate situations they are in and many other situations that demand my time.

I did want to write a blog here about my reflections from the walk, but this will have to wait.  But I would like to say here a massive THANK YOU to all those who supported me throughout the five weeks, for those who wrote most days, for those who watched and shared the video blogs, for those who sponsored me and for those who offered us places to stay along the way.  It was one incredible experience and I will be trying to cover some of the story on Radio Christmas this December and maybe a book in the New Year.

Sunday 24th July

I am sitting in Costa Rica in the middle of a huge thunderstorm and writing up my blog before the sponsored walk begins tomorrow.  For those who have just joined us here, I will be walking 760 miles from Costa Rica to Guatemala in order to raise funds for the projects we support in Honduras and Guatemala with street-living and high-risk children and youth.  

TVJust before leaving Guatemala for Costa Rica I was invited on another TV show called “Interesting People” and they featured the work and me with Mi Arca in Guatemala.  The name of the show takes me back to a Monty Python sketch and I´m not sure that I am that interesting, but two programmes have now been made of me on this show and the second one focused on the walk and finished with me being presented a special recognition plaque for the team at Mi Arca.

So, a quick look back over the last week just in case you have been thinking I have spent the week resting up for the trip!  That was the plan, by the way, but too many situations demanded my time.

 

 

birthday3I can´t say I enjoy celebrating my birthday, never have really.  But others got to hear about it and then the kids at the Centre started to make me cards and the Mi Arca team bought me a cake and we celebrated together.  What was encouraging was coming home at the end of the day and finding three cards on the doorstep of my room at the Centre.  Three of the girls had obviously spent a long time working on these and then left a note stuck to my door with an arrow just in case I missed the cards.

birthday2A few hours before I had been given an amazing cake by Cindy, one of our volunteers, and had decided to take this out to one of the groups of street youths we work with and celebrate with them.  The guys were very excited and said that they all wanted to pray for me before we ate the cake and to say thanks for our support.  It really was a special time together and the two youngest boys were rather taken aback by us wanting to share such a beautiful cake with them.

The following day we had a ton of things planned by all that took a back seat to the need that was presented to us.  One of the boys who comes most days looked rather glum and when I asked him if he wanted to talk he said no and so I left it expecting him to open up a bit later.  A couple of hours later one of our team came to me and asked me to talk with him and his younger brother.

We get to hear some tough things from the kids each week and often it can be overwhelming.  This time it was another story of abuse at home and abandonment to the degree that the boy just could not contain the pain anymore and just melted into a heap and sobbed profoundly.  One of our team comforted him as I sat with his little brother to hear his story and listen to more tears.  No school or college can ever prepare you for this stuff but at least we could be there for them both and be available to listen.

counsellingIt was clear we needed to take action and report the abuse to the authorities.  On our drive over to the courthouse in the late evening traffic I began to wonder if this time we would see results.  The Guatemalan care system for children is not that great but we are hoping that new initiatives and relations with the PGN (Guatemala´s legal service for children) will lead to a much brighter future for those kids who are currently suffering intolerable things.

On our arrival at the courthouse we are told that for today the judge would not be available to hear cases regarding children and were sent to another court that is open 24 hours a day.  We checked in and began to explain the situation to a seemingly caring representative of the childcare system.  The process began with us hand writing a report of the situation and then the worker telling us that both boys would now need to be kept under the protection of the court until a place could be found for them.

An hour later and as we headed towards midnight the boys were complaining of being hungry and bored.  The worker at the court had been going through her list of approved homes and calling each one to see if they could take the boys.  All declined and so her only option was to send both boys to the children´s prison saying that it was not ideal.  That was an understatement!  Both would be put into a secure unit with hundreds of boys who had been arrested for numerous offences including abusing children, drug dealing and gang membership.  I knew both would suffer so much more abuse there and so we decided to withdraw the allegation and leave.

Until we could find a place for both boys our only option was to alert the family to our intentions and seek some form of support for both boys until a home could be found.  It is so hard when the oversaturated children´s home system can´t take in kids like these and offer them protection.  I can understand why so many say they are safer on the streets!

The evening´s events made me continue to pray for the need we have for a protection home.  We already have the building for the moment but need the funds and the staff and volunteers to make it all happen.  It will become another project for fundraising but this will increase our annual financial commitment to Guatemala quite considerable.  But we just can´t do nothing.

I had the chance to visit two children and their family this week that have been through some tough times.  The two children had been left as orphans when their mother, Maricela, was gunned down on the streets a few months ago here in Guatemala City.  One of the things Maricela asked me to do a week before she died was to help her take care of her kids.  When I met them both I was aware they were in a situation of risk and if no one took care of them they would soon end up on the streets.

birthday1The road to the little shack that is precariously clinging to the side of a hill is not an easy drive.  On arrival little Jorge, who I find walking in the street, meets me and asks for a lift to where the road ends.  The short 50m drive brings us to a point where I have to leave the car and pray that it will be still there when I get back, as it´s an area that sees its fair share of violence and gang activity.  We walk down a dirt track and I find a dog right behind me trying to bite my legs.  Eventually we climb down the track where the stench from the contaminated river makes me want to heave, but the boy seems to have got used to it.

I spend time with the children and those caring for them and explore options and then two large cards are produced and presented to me.  The children give me ample supply of hugs and beg me to come back and visit them ASAP but I have to explain that I will be on the walk for the next five weeks.  Our team will keep an eye on them and hope for a better future for them soon.

The news that the girl we had rescued a couple of weeks ago from a very abusive situation is doing well in a loving home is of great encouragement.  We have been asked to give her the space she needs to recover and realise that the abusive life that she was so used to day after day is not the norm and that another life can exist for her.  We wish her well but are now focused on the other girls in a similar situation.  I can´t go into details due to a legal clause that could put her, us and others in great danger.  All I can say is that we are doing all we can to keep them all safe from harm.

duncymoisesFinally, I spent time with the two boys I am mentoring, Oscar and Moses.  Both are doing well in their academic life but I have been concerned by the challenges both are facing.  Little Moses (photo) confides in me that he is unhappy with his life and asks again if he can come and live with me.  He is only eight and really needs a constant male presence in his life.  I know he will suffer a lot over the next five weeks with me away and I know I will also find it hard, as I have grown fond of the boy.  I pray that God keeps all these kids safe and that the team has the wisdom to help support them.

Thanks to everyone who has got involved in the Walk the Walk Challenge this summer and if you have not signed up to walk with me on one of the days over the next five weeks then please do so.  Thanks also to those who have sponsored me and are organising all sorts of events in Honduras and Guatemala for when I arrive at the border.  I hope I don´t disappoint and make it all the way to Guatemala City.

Saturday 9th July

Having had one year now to reflect back on the official start of our mentoring programme I am so encouraged to see the results and how the simplicity of intentional friendship changes lives.

It has been a busy time since my last blog as we have had more people join the mentoring programme, some serious abuse disclosures to deal with, a trip down to Honduras and lots of preparation and training for the sponsored walk this summer.  So I will take you through the events and thank you now for your interest and hope you get through the blog without falling asleep!

David Marco2David and Marco are two brothers and live in La Terminal in Guatemala City. David is 13 and Marco is 10 and both are in a situation that necesitates some of my time each week until we can find mentors for them.

On a recent special visit we went to Antigua, it was their first time here and their second time out of La Terminal.  For those new to the blog, La Terminal is the largest market area in Central America and where hundreds of children live in poverty and at risk and where we focus a lot of our time and attention.  They could not contain their excitement during the car journey and less so as we wandered around Antigua where everything was “amazing”, “cool” and new for them.

Both boys are doing well at school and not involved in street life but could easily become so as most children in the block where they live have already started that journey.  Prevention is easier at this stage and will mean fewer children living on the streets in the years to come.

I meet them every Monday and we usually spend some time cooking together as they enjoy this activity and then have the joy of eating what we have cooked but will always save some food to take back home with them.  Their basic diet is not that good and so I tend to spoil them a bit.

David EmmaTwo week´s ago Frank, who coordinates the mentoring programme, asked the boys to help him complete an evaluation form about how they felt about mentoring and then I was sent their replies.  I had no idea Frank was doing this but was very touched by what both boys had to say.  David had written in the comments section “Duncan has always been there in the most happiest moments of my life”.  He went to say his happiest day in his life so far was going with me to Antigua.

David has been in need of a bit of extra help with a speech difficulty and I was able to ask for Emma Perez´s help.  Emma (photo) and her husband Hector live here in Guatemala and volunteer full-time for the Mi Arca project and work with us on the streets.  Emma just happens to also be a speech therapist and so got stuck in with David who is already speaking much clearer and enjoying the fact that we can understand him better.

Mentoring is costly as it takes up a lot of time.  You need to prepare for the mentoring session, be in the mentoring session and then feedback through the diary your thoughts of how it went and what could be improved.  As issues come up in the lives of the kids you have to get involved and that means taking them for check ups, rushing them to hospital, visiting their home and school and being available for them as and when they need to talk or just turn up and cry.

So, seeing new children and mentors begin the journey together is of great personal encouragement.  We are nearly half way through the year and still need to find another 25 new mentors in order to help the 25 most vulnerable children enjoy this experience and get the support and encouragement that they need.

OscarOn Father´s Day recently I was given a rewarding surprise from 16-year-old Oscar who had worked very hard in the week in a tyre factory to earn money to support his family and the little he had for himself he brought a football shirt.  When I saw it I thought he looked great in it and then he turned around to show me what was on the back.  Words cannot describe what I felt and am very grateful to God for what I am seeing of how the lives of these kids are changing.

One of our newest mentors is Sergio, a very successful businessman in Guatemala City who showed great interest in the mentoring programme at the beginning of the year.  Recently he signed up for the training programme and then was paired with 12-year-old Lorenzo.  We are in early days but I can see how Lorenzo looks forward to spending time with Sergio each week and reviewing his schoolwork.  Sergio is totally focused on Lorenzo and it is great to see how this mentoring relationship is developing trust between them and keeping Lorenzo off the streets and in school.

Embassy chequeOn a different note, a few months ago I was informed that the British Embassy had decided that all the funds from their charity ball this year would go our work with Mi Arca.  I had to give a speech in front of hundreds of people, ambassadors, government officials, heads of business, etc. and seemed to have won many over to our cause.

When all the funds were counted we were invited to the British Residence with eight children from the mentoring programme to receive a cheque for Q82,000, that is about £7,000.  We are so grateful for this money as it will help us keep going over the next few months and help fund our mentoring programme and the prevention work on the streets.  I wanted to take this opportunity of thanking the British Embassy and community for their support this year and in particular Tom and Carolyn Carter, British Ambassadors to Guatemala and Honduras, for their enthusiastic support of our work.

Last week I had to pop down to Honduras in order to prepare the Manuelito and AFE projects for the sponsored walk this summer.  On my arrival at the airport I was met by a TV crew who wanted to cover the story and was then invited by another station to be featured on a TV programme that evening.  It felt somewhat surreal but managed to get through the interviews and plug the walk.  We had instant responses from people who offered to walk with us and one cycle group said they would cycle with us part of the route.  The TV station offered to cover the story daily when we arrived at the Honduran border.

Honduras TVThe AFE and Manuelito projects both have their own fundraising pages and so please do consider donating to them directly if you feel an affinity with their projects specifically or please do support me through the Street Kids Direct giving page as all the money I raise their will be distributed to the various projects we support in Guatemala and Honduras.

Yesterday I hobbled back from a 73km walk from Guatemala City to Antigua and back again.  I will be walking only 40km a day from the 25th of July, from Costa Rica to Guatemala.  The 1,200km journey will take me through 5 countries and will mean me finding a “safe” place to camp each night, but I will have two support vehicles now thanks to a friend in Guatemala and the AFE project in Honduras.

Danilo walkRecently we invited four of the fittest kids in the mentoring programme to join me walking from Antigua to Guatemala City.  At the halfway point two had left us for football training and two soldiered on.  Only one boy made it all the way to Guatemala City and is seen here in this photo with Herber and me.  12-year-old Danilo (photo) has had his life changed around through the mentoring programme and so wanted to walk as his way of saying thank you.  He trains everyday and so managed to keep up with us all the way and was of great inspiration to us as his total determination to finish brought us all to tears.

Today the Centre is full of kids running around, having fun, painting fingernails, cooking popcorn, watching TV, playing on the computers and just enjoying being children.  Their squeals and laughter are all around me as I write this blog and I am grateful to Frank and Jonathan who continue to give up their “free” time to organize events here together with the growing team of volunteers.  It´s all going really well!

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