Sunday 16th April 2017

I could quite get into this idea of resting!  Yes, I have actually taken some time off over Easter and took a few people with me on one incredible journey to Rio Dulce, Guatemala.  Read more about our adventures at the end of this blog.

It was a crazy two weeks that led up to Easter and so I will have to select a few stories that I would love to share with you as they represent very well the work we have been doing before the country closed up for Semana Santa (Easter).

JosueOne of the biggest encouragements for me at the moment is seeing how young Josué has responded to his first ever full-time job.  Josué is 16 and studies in school on Saturdays and has been working in La Terminal for the last 3-4 years unloading lorries and accepting work that only paid him about £1-2 per day.  He is also living away from his family now but trying to earn something so that they can eat and pay their bills.

When I managed to negotiate a job for him with our neighbours CEFESA I had high hopes for him as he has proved he can be trusted, is reliable and works really hard at any task given to him.  Another boy away from the streets and occupied in something he enjoys.  He is already planning to travel to Mexico at the end of the year with money he is now saving each week.  I love seeing him I his work uniform with a huge grin on his face even though he is very shy when the camera comes out!

Joseph Soden is still working with me and it has been one of the greatest blessings this year to have him come out from the UK and work alongside me here in Guatemala.  At the time of writing Joseph is lying in his bed with a stomach upset and so I will probably have to cope without him on the streets for a while.

Joseph TerminalThe week before Easter, Joseph and another volunteer, Claire, came with me to the streets and we found a small group of young children, some who were just celebrating their success in walking.  One of the little boys, 18-month-old Alvaro, had taken a shine to Joseph as he always plays with the really little children.  At one point Joseph had invented a good game where they get carried around in a cardboard box but today no cardboard boxes were available and so his arms had to do.

Little Alvaro is a very cute looking boy and who wouldn´t want to scoop him up and cuddle him.  He is now in Jospeh´s arms and does not want to leave.  It was at this point that his mother brushed past me.  When Alvaro saw his mum coming he reached out his arms to her only to be rejected and spoken to harshly.  His face told the full story of his neglect and abandonment.  A small tear appeared in his left eye and just hung there while Joseph gave him a cuddle and some extra love.

I know Joseph has found situations like this hard but has come to understand why the work we do is so important.

Screen Shot 2017 04 19 at 2.35.43 PMAnother encouragement to me was receiving a video message from a boy called Gerson.  Gerson has grown up in the notorious zone 18 in Guatemala City and has suffered tremendous amounts of loss and had threats against his life from local gangs.  Every week he has been attending one of the projects that Street Kids Direct supports called Go Guatemala.  Gerson wanted to record something to say how grateful he is for the support Go Guatemala have given him.  I know Gerson and have helped train him to be a young leader in the activity club that is run in zone 18 every Saturday.  I hope you will take a couple of minutes to listen to his testimony.

There is more encouragement before we head to the Easter break with a very special time with two young boys called Marcos and Jesus.  Little Jesus shot to Radio Christmas fame a few years ago when he was loaned a camera by Willie Reid and encouraged to take photos of his life on the rubbish dump.  12 of his photos were then turned into a calendar we sold over Radio Christmas and the money that was raised by the sales have helped keep him and his brother in school for the last 4 years, buy them shoes and uniforms and help with medical bills and other needs.

Marcos JesusMarcos and Jesus continue to live at high-risk and so the team has begun to target the boys in order to get them interested in the mentoring programme.  My task with Joseph was to pick them up one Saturday, take them back to the soon-to-be protection home for breakfast and then to Go Guatemala for a day of fun activities.  Both boys were overly excited and when they saw that Go Guatemala has bikes they were desperate to borrow them.  It seemed a rather overwhelming day for the boys and we ended up in a swimming pool and a enjoying a slice of pizza together before taking them back to the rubbish dump.  The taking them back was the hardest bit, not just that we had enjoyed their company and would miss it, but that we had to take them back to a rubbish dump.

I am pleased to report that they have now begun the mentoring programme with Joseph and me trying to look after them until we find mentors for them.  At least they will now be able to come to the mentoring centre each day and get the love and support they need and since their mum does not read or write we can help them each day with their homework.

mentoring hondurasFurther encouragement came when Lorena visited us in Guatemala.  Lorena is the coordinator of the Manuelito Children´s Home in Honduras and has always shown a key interest in our work here and when she heard about the success of the mentoring programme she asked to come and see for herself.

Lorena was so good on the streets, even though she found some parts of the work threatening and challenging.  The work she clicked with the most was our work with high-risk children and the mentoring programme.  Lorena was trained in our mentoring programme and was keen to return back to Honduras and get things started.  Only a few days after she arrived back home she had organised and delivered training to 30 volunteers who are now prepared to mentor 30 high-risk children in Honduras. It´s all very exciting!

Just before we closed for Easter and for staff and volunteers to have a break we invited the children who come to the mentoring centre to come together for an afternoon of food, games and water fun.  It was an exhilarating end to the term and it was just the most special moment watching the children jump up and down with excitement, squeal with joy and run around getting us all wet and seeing them just being kids for a while.  Thank you for your support that makes all this possible.

Finally, I thought I would share with you the testing out of an idea I have had to provide outward bound experiences for the children as a form of prize for outstanding school results and making good choices in their lives.

RioDulceJoseph and I took the two boys I mentor to an outstandingly beautiful part of Guatemala called Rio Dulce.  Rio Dulce means sweet river and we had discovered a log cabin on an island with access to the river and so settled back to plan 5 days of water activities, exploring and relaxing.   I feel it was a real time of growth for both boys as they were challenged about their fears of swimming in the lake.  Little Moses learned how to row a kayak and at the end of the holiday said he had learned to never give up despite finding new challenges difficult.

We would love to be able now to invite mentors and the children they mentor to enjoy long weekends away at the cabin and begin to develop a programme that will bring challenge and fun experience together and help the children see that making good choices and working hard at school really does bring exciting benefits.

In the meantime my role is to “get out there more” and bring more children into the mentoring programme that are at that point of real risk of taking to the streets.  Looks like a challenging few weeks ahead before I return back to the UK at the end of May for a couple of fundraising events.

Sunday 26th March 2017

Returning to Guatemala is always exciting and having Lorena, from the Manuelito Children´s Home, with us we knew would be a full and encouraging week.  Lorena had been invited to Guatemala to participate in the mentoring training course as she has plans to launch the programme in Honduras.

That night a phone call returned me to the reality of life in Guatemala.  A neighbour of one of the families we support was calling me to let me know that the mother of the family had been beaten up by her husband and had been left with a very swollen face.  We headed over to see her and when we arrived it seemed like all the neighbours tried to hide their faces from us in embarrassment.  We knocked on the wooden doorframe as the door was just a thin sheet of cloth and are welcomed in.

The mum is lying on the bed and trying to hide her face from me.  Her daughter is sitting at her side and her youngest son, who is about 3-4, tells me that his daddy has hit his mum again.  The mother then allows me to come closer and shows me her face.  She has endured a huge amount of pain and one eye is now closed over and the rest of her face is purple and very swollen.

Her 9-year-old son comes into the room and tells me that he had to try and protect his mum because “it´s not right to hit a woman”.  He looks down at his feet and for a moment I think he is going to burst into tears.  I enquire as to the whereabouts of the father and I am told he has run away as he knew his wife was going to make a formal complaint to the authorities.

I know that it won´t be long before he is back pleading forgiveness and once again she will take him back and then the abuse and violence will return to this family.

lorena on streetsThe next day we head to the streets but decide to check up on the family we visited the night before and I am pleased to hear that the father has not returned home and that they have begun to make plans for life without him in the home.

A few minutes later we are sitting on the streets with Brandon who is complaining that one of the older boys on the streets had fought with him and left him with another injury to his neck. I clean his wound while Lorena gets stuck in with cleaning the feet of some of the guys.  Her gentleness and compassion touches their hearts and they begin to talk with her about their lives on the streets.  While this is happening one of the older guys who is visiting the group to buy drugs steals a packet of wet-wipes we are using to clean feet.

When I realise the packet has been taken I stand up and inform the guys that unless it is returned we will not be visiting them and certainly not bringing more first aid supplies to them.  There is a lot of commotion as the finger is pointed at the man sitting closer to where it went missing and then Gerson identifies the same person.  It only takes a couple of seconds for the group to set on him and recover the packet of wipes.  I know it must seem that a packet of wet-wipes is not worth a fight but in the streets you must have limits and those we work with must know we trust them and they must trust us.  I am hoping this will help the trust we have built with them over many years even though a few nasty minutes had to pass.

moses1On our brief return to the Centre, before we head back to the streets, we find the children having fun playing with toys and games we have been given.  I so love seeing the children being children and enjoying being together and playing and creating a fun environment where every child is involved in play.  Love it!

One little boy is very pleased and so we sit down and have a chat.  It´s 9-year-old Moses and he is in mentoring with me and it´s amazing to think we have been together nearly three years now.  Last year he was struggling in school but we helped get him into a school nearer the room he lives in and a school that offers very small class sizes.  Since his start in late January he has grown in confidence and has achieved so much in the last two months.

I checked through his schoolbooks and see the amount of red ticks and “well done” stamps.  I then check his diary and read two notes from his teacher.  One is a letter of encouragement of his great behaviour and attitude in school and the other is to complement him on his excellent schoolwork.  I am so proud of him and all he has achieved these last three years and what a joy to journey with him and watch him grow.

joseph soden1The week finishes with more street visits that include watching Joseph Soden, a UK volunteer, work on the streets with the young children.  They adore him and gather around him the minute we arrive as he takes time to play with each one and they enjoy his attention and love. It is always hard to leave as we know most of these young ones will be on the streets, playing alone or playing with other young children and most times with no adult supervision and care.  

Joseph is here learning Spanish and volunteering for the Mi Arca project that Street Kids Direct fund.  He plans to return to the UK in May and then return late July to help us setup the new Protection Home and second mentoring programme.

 

jesusThe last visit this week was to see the children on the rubbish dump.  Little Jesus (photo) races over and grabs my hand and pulls down on my arm.  As I bend down he asks me when I am taking him to a swimming pool, something he has been asking me now for nearly a year.  I have no idea of why he and his brother have had this idea in their heads and so offer to plan something soon but convince them to join me one Saturday in visiting Go Guatemala, where they can have a full day of activities and a hot meal.  But I still might have to plan a trip to the pool one day and use the time to chat with Jesus and his brother how they could be part of the mentoring programme.  Will keep you posted but I am hoping that Jesus and his brother Marcos will allow me to shadow them later this year when I begin a challenging and exciting project called "The World Through Their Eyes".  More about this at another time, but it could be one of the hardest personal challenges I have faced since the walk last summer.

Saturday 18th March 2017

welcome to HondurasThe long drive to Honduras is never a tiring journey as it is always full of incredible experiences and often opportunities to help people along the way.  My drive from Guatemala to Tegucigalpa took just over 10 hours and I had the joy of having Joseph Soden with me this time.  Joseph (photo with me at the border) is planning to move out here to Guatemala this summer and is here learning Spanish and seeing the work we do.  He is a gifted jazz musician and feels called to help run our second mentoring centre and protection home in Guatemala City for vulnerable and high-risk children.

On arrival in Honduras we head towards Talanga, where the Manuelito Children´s Home is situated and are given the customary welcome by all the children (tons of hugs and kisses) and then meet with the Director and his wife before heading to our dorm and an early night.

Being at the home for three days means we will both have lots of time to spend with the children and staff and discuss how the Street Kids Direct mentoring programme could offer some extra support to those children who are struggling the most.

girl in schoolWaking up in the home is always full of surprises.  The light is now streaming through the thin curtains in the men´s dorm and I can hear children outside and see little faces peering through the gaps where the curtains have not been drawn enough.  I open the door and little Duncan and two other young boys rush in and give me a huge hug.

It is just gone 6am and the children are getting ready for breakfast as the school day starts at 7am and already some of the 115 children from the local town are arriving.  One of the best sights at the home is watching the children arrive to the home for their day in school.  Due to the local schools struggling to accept the children from the home, a decision was taken a few years ago to educate the children on site.  This proved to be popular with the children as they were suffering from bullying and discrimination from children in the local schools.

I could see then what would happen.  With so many children living in poverty and living in very vulnerable situations locally, and some living on the streets in the town, how long it would be before exceptions would be made and they would be invited to join the school!  Time proved the gut feeling correct and slowly more children from the local community were included in the Manuelito School.  I have spent time visiting many of the children in their homes and can see the desperate need to offer free but also caring and supportive education to children who would normally fit into a “normal” school.  We now have 115 children from the local area coming to the school everyday and so watching them arrive is a precious moment.

Duncan with medalMany wanted to know how my time with the Queen went and so I took along my MBE medal for the staff and children to see.  Little Duncan could not resist the opportunity of having a photo with the medal on his chest and stood up looking proud and pleased to be a part of the special honour.

One of the afternoons I went with Lorena, the coordinator of the home, to try and find two boys who had dropped out of school and were not even coming to the home for food everyday as they used to.

We walked into town and followed the dusty road to the little house that sits a metre or so below the road level.  The mum was in the “garden” washing clothes on a rough piece of wood that was precariously placed on top of a bucket of water.  She smiled and asked us to let ourselves in, which was easy as the door was already open and we find one of the boys sitting watching TV.

The situation is complicated and we don´t need to go into detail here but the boys are at risk, particularly the older one (one the right of this photo).  He is now spending more time in the streets and his innocent face hides the reality of the things he is getting involved with in the town.  We are concerned for him as he can be easily led astray and despite being 15 he is still a little boy really.

boys with ipadThe conversation I have with the boy sitting watching TV proves to hit home and he realises that if he wants a better future then it won´t just come knocking on his door.  He promises to try and find his brother in the streets and bring him to the home that afternoon for a chat.  The boys have a little brother who is attending the school and wants to try and study rather than end up on the streets.

Later that day both boys appear outside my dorm and we sit and chat and play with a new game on my iPad before they go and talk with Lorena about how they could recuperate their schooling.  At last a positive outcome as both boys agree to starting a private night school to gain back the last year of education and Lorena rushes around to get them the books and uniform they need to start in the next few days.  We encourage them as they have made an important decision today and one we hope will lead to greater possibilities for them and their mum.

medical wasteJoseph and I then spend the last two days visiting he AFE project, who work with the children from the city rubbish dump, and two other projects.  There have been some changes to AFE recently and the 140 children and young people are hard at work studying when we arrive.  Jesy shows us around and we are excited by all we see.  This is one inspirational project and it is often hard to comprehend all these kids have to deal with on a daily basis and when we went up on the dump that afternoon we were reminded of the reality that slaps you hard in the face.  We follow a medical van as it winds its way up to the area where medical waste is dumped.  Officially this should all be disposed of hygienically and probably incinerated rather than being dumped in the open and where dogs and people search through dangerous waste that will include body parts, abortions and all manner of medical waste.  It is disgusting and the smell overpowering.

There are still two more projects to visit before we head home to Guatemala and the first one is a short visit to the streets of Tegucigalpa with Stephen, an American volunteer who works for the Micah Project with street children and youths.

Probably not many people see the work Stephen does and it would be a rare moment when someone would encourage him and tell he is doing a great job.  Stephen wanders the streets of the capital and encounters young boys and girls sniffing glue while sitting in alleyways spaced-out and thinking of nothing more than what will happen in the next few minutes.

girlonstreetsWe find this girl, who is about 5 months pregnant and will, I am sure, loose her baby when she gives birth as the hospital will realise she lives on the streets and so her baby will be given to the care of the social services.  Due to her drug use the child might be born drug dependent and so will need extra support in the early stages of life.  It is a very sad moment indeed watching her lie there alone.

The last visit is to support Teressa and her work with one of the gangs in the capital.  We accompany her to visit two prisons where young boys are held until they reach the age of 18.  All are from one of the most powerful gangs in Central America and all have committed all manner of crimes.

Before the main door is opened the boys are told they have visitors and so they call out a warning to the lookouts posted around the prison square.  There are heavily armed police outside who are wearing what I can only describe as the type of kit you would wear in a war zone.  The last time I saw someone wearing a much lighter version of this equipment was when I last went paintballing.

We walk into the square and over 100 boys gather around us.  There are no guards inside; it’s just us and the gang.  We are invited to meet in their hall/dining room out of view from any of the guards or police and we start to talk with them about who we are and what we do.  I am invited to give a little talk to the boys and share something of how God changed my life at the age of 21 and how I felt rescued from my teenage life of crime.

Time runs out, as we have had to fit so much into a day and have already had a visit to another children´s prison earlier in the day.  Before we leave Joseph tries his best to get the boys interested in drumming and does achieve something special where the boys begin a beat on the table.  If these boys were not in prison and were not sold into gang life I know they would be more interested in music, art, games and play.  For now though they are boys who have had to grow up quickly and have had to discard their childhood in order to stay alive, support their family and serve the gang.

It takes me a while to get to sleep that night as I wish I could do more to help all those I have met on this trip.  I wish we had more people working with us, I wish we had more funds; I wish we could just do more.  Finally I get to sleep and begin to think of returning home to Guatemala.  

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