Thursday 22nd September

terminal fire113-year-old Carlitos tells me how he and his little brother and sister were trapped insiude their tin shack and they thought they were going to die!  “The smoke started coming in and, at first, I thought my mum was outside burning something”, Carlos explained. I can see it is hard for him to tell me his experience but he goes on to tell me that: “when the flames started coming through the roof and I couldn´t get out of the door I thought he was going to die.”  Moments later the volunteer fire service broke through and rescued him and his brother and sister. Thankfully they are all now safe.

The fire consumed the homes of 16 people.  Each home measures about 6´x 6´and can house up to eight people.  All those living here exist on less than $2 a day and their physical poverty is just the tip of one huge iceberg.  We are in contact with all the families and have many of the children in our programmes.  Carlos, for example, is in the mentoring programme and doing really well and making some excellent decisions for his life. I maaged to get him an excelent work experience opportunity this week in a freind´s restaurant.  Watch the video of him here.

terminal fire3As I arrived at the scene of the fire a few hours later, having seen it on the local news, it was clear that something urgent had to be done.  The families were still going through the charred remains of their precious few material possessions.  The local TV news crew covered the story and in this video you can clearly see how Carlitos has climbed up on the family bed (four people sleep here) and tries to see if any of his schoolwork can be salvaged.  Watching this was just too distressing for me as I know him and know what a blow this will be to him.

The urgent thing now is to make the area safe and ensure that what few possessions are left can be kept safe and that all the children stay away from the still-falling shacks.  I meet with the families and allow them time to tell me what happened and then hear their solutions to rebuild their shacks.  It is clear that without outside help their homes will never be rebuilt and so I take the decision to mobilise the Mi Arca team and return to the office to send out appeals via Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to friends around the world.

An hour later we have helped clean the site and have bought the wood ready to build the structures for 16 homes.  As the hours tick by and it becomes dark some of the structures are going up and being covered in plastic as a temporary solution till the shops open on Monday and we can buy the tin for the roofs and walls.  We are grateful it is not raining and trust that God will give us a few days of break from the rainy season, which has battered us non-stop since my return from the walk through Central America.

terminal fire2Over the next few days the walls and roofs go up and families start to take possession of their homes again and we deliver hot food, clothes and blankets.  The rebuilding work was made possible by your donations, the solidarity and efforts of the 16 families and to the volunteers from Mi Arca, including Ben Soden from Amersham in the UK who is here working with us till the end of October. As the last sheets of tin are nailed into place and all are safe within their homes the rain starts to fall again.

At the time of writing this blog the homes are almost complete and we are about £500 short of funds to complete the project.  We still have donations of clothes and food to deliver later today or tomorrow and then these humble families can get back to their lives and we can get back to supporting the children and help keep them safe.  Watch the short update video we made towards the end of the rebuilding.

It´s been quite a week!

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.

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