Thursday 28th April 2016

solo vinoLet me introduce you to Manuelito´s new resident – Solo Vino.  This stray dog made his way into the Manuelito Children´s Home recently and is now firmly attached to the children and the children to him.  He was named Solo Vino and when I asked the children why he was named that they told me because solo vino means “he came alone” and because he came alone then that is his name.  Can´t argue with that!

My few days at the children´s home were rewarding as always and one little boy was thrilled to see his “dad” come to be with him again.  Yesterday morning little Duncan came to knock on my door before school and I was expecting him to ask to borrow my phone for a game of plants vs. zombies.  He came in and I sat down on a chair and he just hung around my neck for about 10 minutes and then went off to school with a big smile on his face.

Duncan peepingI realised that life for him and many others in the home is often disrupted when a family member has promised to come and visit and then doesn´t turn up.  In Duncan´s case his mum had promised to come and visit on Saturday but, once again, she has not arrived and once again a little boy is crushed and feels alone in the world.  It is wrong, it´s tough and you do all you can to provide a safe and loving environment but in the end all children just want to be with a mum and a dad.  He followed me everywhere and even when I was in meetings would sit outside the buidling or look through the window (photo) and wait patiently until I was finished.  He has a strong connection with me and in his eyes I am his dad.

No mater how much you plan some special moments with the children there is nothing like a storm to disrupt plans and, at the same time, create new ones.  Last night a furious storm landed in Talanga and I could tell by the black sky and the way the wind had increased dramatically in seconds that something big was on its way.

AFE2

All plans for some activities in the dining room were replaced with everyone running for cover as objects were flying around in circles and the rain fell like bullets.  It was quite a storm and a massive lighting strike obviously hit power lines, which left us without power for the rest of the evening.  We all took shelter in the dorms and this led to some quality time of chatting about things that seemed more appropriate to darkness.  A couple of boys opened up to me and their vulnerability was comforting as they started to discuss feelings that might normally remain hidden.

I left the home with a sense that I had only started to scratch the surface of how the children are really feeling. 

My day at AFE, the project working with children from the rubbish dump in Honduras, was inspiring as always.  There seems a constant building programme going on and the current building extension is for the nursery (photo).  With numbers at capacity AFE would like to double the places they can offer to babies and toddlers who would normally spend their day on the rubbish dump.

AFE1

Since Street Kids Direct has helped to fund this programme in the past I was keen to help provide funds to help complete the work and so please do help us by making a donation online today.  This work is incredible and so many precious lives are saved through the nurture and care the AFE team provides for these young ones.  The alternative is growing up on a pile of rotting rubbish in 38 degrees of heat together with violence, abuse, contamination and neglect. 

PLEASE do share this need and help us make a difference in the lives of these vulnerable children.

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Thank you.

Sunday 24th April 2016

How do you tell a 16-year-old boy that there is a contract on his head and the killer hopes he will be dead within the week?  I suppose my world can seem strange and different to many people but each week we have to deal with some extremes and the joys and frustrations of helping vulnerable children always comes at some form of cost. 

The week passed with us saying our final goodbyes to Maricela and Miguel.  At the time of writing this we still have been unable to find Miguel´s family or any official paper that can prove his identity.  Sadly, it looks like we will have to allow the authorities to dispose of his body as XX and in Guatemala disposing means just that!

Brandon hospitalBrandon continues to improve and his recent operation was a success, so we are very grateful that he is still with us.  We have been working with him to put a plan in place for when he is released and are hopeful this time he will actually take the bold step of saying goodbye to the streets for good.

I managed to be in touch with his mum again and she agreed, with some persuasion, to visit him.  After an initial rant a beautiful moment of having mother and son reunited was experienced and I believe this will have helped Brandon to consider the option of leaving the streets.

This is the third time someone has tried to kill him and we are amazed at how he just keeps coming back to life and each time I have been with him and helped him through the operations and recovery and his early steps to leave the streets.  So here we go again and will never give up fighting for his life despite his many failures.

Coin Race GuatemalaLast Sunday was superb fun as we organised out first ever Coin Race in Guatemala.  The concept is new to the team here and even though I went through the idea of how it runs in Amersham each year, most could not grasp it until they saw it in action and were amazed by the way people were so generous.  The girls´ team had a clear win and we managed to raise over Q3,000, which was great for our first attempt.

While we were busy collecting money a man approached me who I know from working on the streets.  He came to tell me that he knew the person who shot Maricela and Miguel last week.  This time he was looking for one of the boys we work with on the streets, a 16-year-old who had apparently stolen a phone.  He went on to tell me that Brandon was involved and that he would be found and killed also.

We always take these threats seriously and so went to find the boy in question (will leave his name out here for obvious reasons), as we wanted to inform him of the threat to him and to the rest of the guys he hangs out with.  I think the word had already got out as the guys on the streets said he had not been seen since the last killings and so we warned them all of the threat.  Another concern was Brandon who was recovering well but now in danger all over again.

Just when you think you make some progress then something comes along to try and dampen any confidence you have that change is possible and that you can help these young people and keep them all safe.  At the time of writing both are safe but we pray for their safety and for them to make the right choice and leave the streets.  We hold onto hope and won´t give up until they are living the fullness of life we talk about so much these days.

Oscar and mumOn a brighter note, on Wednesday I accompanied Oscar, one the boys I mentor, and his mum on a trip to a beautiful town called Panajachel.  Oscar and I had been exploring what it means to be family and how he has been keeping his mum safe and making some really good decisions to help her during a recent stay in hospital.  It was clear to me that he had done so well and when I asked him about his mum I discovered that she had never had a day off.  This led to us planning a special activity for her.

The day was memorable as we enjoyed a boat ride, a walk around two villages that specialised in local crafts and then a great meal at a restaurant that overlooked the lake.  While we ate Oscar told his mum how much she means to him and his speech led us all to shed a tear.  It was a special moment and I know his mum appreciated the talk and went on to thank me for the support we have given to Oscar.  He is one incredible person and has overcome so much in turning his back on the streets.  Hope indeed does not disappoint us.

Sunday 17th April, 2016

Dyana Jorge“When is mummy coming home”, called 9-year-old Jorge (photo with me) as we walked down the crumbling path towards his little house.  I looked into his eyes; they seemed full of hope and expectation that I was actually bringing good news.  His question and expression will remain with me forever.  It had been a tough 24 hours and now the reality of what had happened came back into my mind all too powerfully.  I suppose re-telling the story will not only help me but will, I hope, continue to bring before the world the conditions in which so many young people have to live every day.

It was Monday 6:00pm and I had just dropped off two boys from a mentoring session who were full of laughter and excited by the day´s activities.  We had planned to mark the International Day for Street Children with a week of special activities for all the children we work with and so our team had taken the boys, and many other children, to a swimming pool. 

As I left their little one-room house I met Kevin, Walter and Frank who asked me to help with a situation where a mother had been beating her daughter again.  The girl stood behind them, she is 12-years-of-age and is biting her nails and seems very anxious.

We walk around the corner where her mum runs a bar, which offers all sorts of “services” and it is here that she lives together with her daughters, and the eldest has a 4-year-old son.  There is one bed in one room and the other room full of wooden tables and chairs and pounding music that makes any conversation almost impossible.

To cut a long story short, we have to witness and intervene in a physical fight between the mother and her young daughter and enough information is disclosed that leaves us with no doubt that we can´t leave this girl with the mother.  It is heart-wrenching stuff and the girl clings to my side and cries as we walk her into the street to then find the mother closing her bar and saying she never wants to see the girl again.

It is a short walk back to our centre and clearly everyone is distressed, particularly the girl.  Sitting back at the centre and having hot coffee and something sweet to eat brings a smile back to her face and we begin to explore our options.  The girl´s sister and her 4-year-old son join us and Kevin, one of our volunteers, brings out our box of Lego and begins to play with the boy who must clearly be affected by what he had to witness.

killing AprilIt´s then we get a phone call that a shooting has taken place a couple of blocks away and it had involved some of the homeless youths we work with nearby.  We arrive at the scene within minutes and find three police officers and one of the local volunteer Bombero (ambulance team) standing over a body.  The boy is obviously dead and in full view of all those who had rushed over to see what had happened.  The ground is covered with bullet casings and we quickly identify the body to that of 17-year-old Miguel.

One of the police officers asks us if we know him and we say yes and begin to pass on the information with have about Miguel.  We are then told that two other people had been shot, Maricela and Brandon, but that both had just left for the San Juan de Dios hospital.  It is at this point I notice a light shining in my face and look round to find two TV cameras there and a reporter beginning his speech about how a group of local delinquents had been gunned down in front of the Ministry of Defense in zone 10 of Guatemala City.

Our concern now is for Maricela and Brandon who are fighting for their lives in hospital together with their families and those in the streets nearby who had become their family.  Apparently one of the boys had witnessed the shooting and had gone back to tell the others and that is how we got the phone call.  We take the decision to split up and for two of us to go and visit Maricela´s family while the others can go to the hospital.

The drive to Marcela´s family with Walter and Maricio through the late evening traffic is sullen during which we speak little as we are both reflecting on the fact we won´t ever see Miguel again in this world.  He was a teenager who had grown up in horrendous abuse and had taken to the streets where he was quickly assimilated into a life he always regretted.  He had also fallen in love with Maricela, a 26-year-old and who was one of the leaders of a group of homeless street youths.

Maricela AprilHer family home lives in a conflict area and one of the gangs is clearly visible as we arrive and park in a dead-end road that then leads down into a dark wooded area.  By daylight the walk is a very different experience but we have no clue where we are treading and so slowly descend some steps and knock on a door.  It´s now 10:30pm and a family come out and ask who we are and what we want.  We explain how we are looking for Maricela´s family and a few minutes later are invited into their garden and led down another path that takes us past tin shacks with barking dogs.  At the bottom of the path Maricela´s family meets us.  It´s my first time of meeting them and we introduce ourselves and ask if we can talk with them.

Most people sleep in their day clothes here and so it is no wonder all are fully dressed and immediately gather to meet their guests.  “It´s about Maricela” we say and go on to talk about the shooting.  Her two children children, 11-year-old Dyana and 9-year-old Jorge are immediately shaken by the news and cling to Mauricio and begin to cry.  The rest of the family want the full story and ask if Maricela will be all right.  The news we have received from the hospital at this point is that both Maricela and Brandon are fighting for their lives but stable.  Stable usually means good and so the family takes some comfort in that word.

From what we gathered up to that point is that Maricela, Miguel and Brandon had gone to a fairly wealthy area of Guatemala City to beg at the traffic lights.  Maricela and Brandon had been sitting down watching Miguel work his magic and earn a few coins.  A black car with darkened windows had passed them and then had driven around the loop and had come back.  Brandon had pointed the car out to Maricela as it came around a second time.  Their instincts told them something was not right.  It was then the car screeched to a halt, a man got out of the car and walked towards Miguel with a gun in his hand.  He quickly lifted the gun up and fired 5 bullets into Miguel´s chest.  All the other cars either stopped or drove off at speed.  Maricela got up and ran towards Miguel but was shot 4 times in the stomach.  Brandon stood up and heard more shots as he stared his friends lying on the ground.  He then felt warm in his side and realised he to had been shot in the chest.  The gunman was now making his way over towards him and so he fell to the ground and rolled under one of the cars.  The gunman then fired a couple more times and then took of in his car.

With about 8 young children present it was hard to explain all this and, at the same time, having to watch Maricela´s children react to every part of the story. We offered to take Maricela´s father to the hospital as they had no other way of transporting themselves apart from the bus, which was now not running, as it was late.  The family thanks us for coming and the children give us hugs and ask us to pass on their love to their mum.

Driving back up the hill is another silent time of refection punctuated by having to slow down because a crowd of people is gathered in the middle of the road.  We notice police cars and then a body and drive past thinking of the many others who have lost their lives this night.  Guatemala City is still one of the top 5 most dangerous cities to live in with a minimum of 17 people killed a day, most of them young people.  It´s then we get the call that there is no longer any need for Maricela´s father to visit the hospital as staff have assured us that she is OK and the family can visit her tomorrow.

On our way back to the Centre we stop off at the place where Maricela, Miguel and Brandon live and spend some time with the group to bring some form of comfort and consolation.  They had lost yet another friend and it had hit them hard.

Returning to the Centre jolted us back into the situation with the 11-year-old girl.  The team that had stayed had resolved it for now and the girl was going to stay with other family members and her sister until we could arrange an alternative solution.

It was clear we all needed to talk and to pray and so the early morning hours were filled with our memories of Miguel and solutions for this little girl who was obviously in a very abusive situation.

I suppose most of us had about 3-4 hours sleep and then made our way to the hospital after calling Maricela´s parents and agreeing to meet at the hospital.  Getting into the hospital is not that easy.  You have to be a family member or know the system well.  This time we had been asked by the Public Ministry to go to the hospital and give a statement of what we had seen the previous night.  On our arrival at the hospital we are given the news that Maricela had passed away in the night.  We are given access to see Brandon and go to his bedside to find him alive but in bad shape.  He had been shot twice in the back but both bullets had exited through the front of his chest leaving him with severe blood loss and lung damage.  He is clearly pleased to see us and holds onto my hand as his tells me the whole story.  I wonder how many more times he will have a close brush with death and so encourage him to consider a different path in life.

As we leave the hospital we bump into Maricela´s parents who have now been told of her passing and so take offer to take them back home and break the news to the family.  Driving back down the same road during the day is very different but now even sadder as we have to break the news to Maricela´s two young children.  As we get out of the car little Jorge runs over to us and takes my hand and then looks up at me and asks when mummy is coming home.  I want to be there and somewhere else at the same time and find myself saying something along the lines of having to talk to the whole family first.

Funeral April

Clearly breaking news like this is never easy on those bearing the news and even worse on those receiving it, but is has to be done and practical arrangements have to be put in place.  Thankfully we have already started to make the funeral arrangements for Maricela as we have papers for her.  Miguel is going to be an altogether more complicated situation as we have no papers for him and now contact with family members.

The story of Maricela´s two young children will have to be a blog in itself.  The situation is desperate and I find myself discussing with the team at the funeral what we can do to help. 

The funeral runs an hour late due to traffic and so we are told we only have a few minutes before the men have to bury Maricela in the wall tomb and then we can hold our service.  We have been helped to design a service now for such occasions and hope that something of what we offer at this time brings comfort to the family.  I found myself consoling little Dyana as her mother is laid to rest and promising to help her and her brother as those were the last things I spoke to Maricela about before she died.

The only sour experience in all this was the day of the funeral when we had called to collect all Maricela´s street friends and take them to share with us in saying goodbye to her.  The family had asked where they all were as the mother knew many of them by name.  We had arranged to collect them that morning at 9:00am and take them to the cemetery.  

vigil

Sadly, one organisation that seems keen on trying to disrupt anything we do in Guatemala and knew of the funeral plans, had arrived at 8:30am and told them all to go with them to play football rather than the funeral.  With the obvious offers of food and drink and fun in a park most of them went.  Frustrating but also deeply sad to see how organisations, at times like these, can do the most despicable things in order to either get more publicity for their work or disrupt what others are doing.

Miguel April

We will remember Maricela and Miguel and going back the other evening to their streets friends to talk with them about all that had happened this week we found they had made a little shrine by what was their bed and asked to see photos from the funeral.  It was a time of deep connections and when we eventually said goodnight I realised we had been chatting, as a group, for more than 3 hours.  Time had stood still and a certain sense of reverence had been observed for two dear friends who will be missed by all.

Miguel (photo) after one of the sessions on the streets with us.

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