It´s a 12-hour drive from Guatemala City to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras and last week´s drive down was a great time to think, reflect and pray. This time I had Sony, Danilo and Sergio with me as Danilo and Sergio had been invited to spend two weeks in Talanga, Honduras, where the Proyecto Alas mentoring centre is. Their time in Talanga I know will be filled with unforgettable times of working with the Alas team and the children and sharing something of their lives and stories with the 60 at-risk kids in the programme.
While I was there I needed to spend time thinking about the mentoring session I had with the older boys on my return. Our theme was ´How we see the World´ and the basic idea is that we all see the world and other people through our eyes of culture, race, religion, experience, age and gender. I wanted the boys to begin to explore how we could consider seeing the world through “other eyes” and also to see people as God sees them. Stick with me!
Our text was from John´s Gospel and recounted the time Jesus met a woman at a well. From all perspectives she was a Samaritan, a woman and someone who was drawing water from a well at the hottest part of the day. So many questions came from this encounter. But Jesus was able to see something far more profound in her and that led us to talk about how we could also look around us and try to see people as God sees them. What is it we can see when we begin to look more profoundly at a person´s life. What can we learn? It was a very interesting session indeed and we finished by watching the same scene on The Chosen and if you haven´t see this I would recommend it highly.
The thought came to my mind this past week while in Honduras as I sat and watched the kids that come into the mentoring programme in the Alas centre in Honduras. One group was watching a cartoon on TV and enjoying it thoroughly, the rest were sitting at a large table and colouring and doing homework, all being helped by staff and volunteers. But, one little boy sat alone.
I sat next to him and watched him colouring a sheet of paper. It was interesting observing him work and I studied his concentration and couldn´t help but notice the black dye on his hands and face. The dye was also on his clothes and he had obviously been using dye for his or another person´s clothes or for colouring wood. Maybe he was a worker. It was interesting just watching him for a while and asking the question of what more could I see about his life. Why was he sitting alone? Why was he so dirty, not just his clothes but days of ingrained dirt in his skin. I guessed his age at around 6/7 and this was later confirmed to be 6. I wondered what he would tell me about his colouring and maybe more information about his life and family.
Children have this amazing way of telling you so much without even speaking and I was keen to listen and learn. His concentration was intense and he would not be enticed to play a game that two children were playing near him and was not drawn to the loud noises that came now and again when new children came into the centre. Not once did he smile or look at me.
After a short while I decided to engage and asked if he would like some help. He nodded and I picked up some of the colouring pencils and started to sharpen them for him. I was then invited into his world and now I was allowed to join him in colouring the sheet, with a special attention to stay within the lines, something he was also very careful to do.
I then learned his name; Jefferson and he was 6 years-of-age. He remained focussed on the sheet and would not look up or look at me. He seemed content and felt safe and I wondered if he had come alone to the centre, how long he had been coming and why he was there.
It was sometime later that I was told a little of his story. When he was much younger his mum left the family home and took him with her to live with another man. He now had a new dad and like any young child this transition is a very hard one to make. Also he was now living in the mountains and so was isolated and powerless to contact his father. As time went by it seems his mother lost interest in him and he found himself being shipped to his grandmother in town. Another move and another loss.
Jefferson had come to the mentoring centre with his two aunties, both of whom are young children and not able to look after him. So he spends his time in the streets begging and trying to get by – and he is 6!
I spent a very special hour with a very smart, resilient and focussed kid. He is packed with potential and I am sure with some love and care would eventually come to smile. For now the project is doing what they can to get him into the mentoring programme, but the spaces are few and the budget tight. I am hoping they will take him in and offer him what his demeanour and behaviour are shouting out loudly for – I want to be loved.
My time in the centre did end on a happier note when I was asked to play connect four by little Derek (photo at the top of the article) who is 5 and can´t stop smiling. Despite his infectious laugh, engaging personality and winning streak I could not stop thinking of Jefferson who was now nowhere to be seen.
The work we do in Honduras and Guatemala is vital and reaches kids that many overlook. Your support really does make a difference and can change the trajectory of a child´s life. Thank you for your interest, for reading the blogs and for your support. It´s good to know you are there.
According to UNICEF nearly half of all children under five years of age in Guatemala suffer from chronic malnutrition. Most of these children will live in distant rural communities where help, advice and support are not as available as it is here in the city.
However, most of the children we work with and who have lived on the streets over the years have come from indigenous communities from these rural settings. The impact of malnutrition in the early years leads to stunted growth and many of the young children we work with here in Guatemala City are very undeveloped for their age. Our evaluations of them sadly demonstrate their place on the developmental scale and it´s not great.
A few weeks ago I took little Jonathan to the doctor as he was suffering from parasites again and the doctor wanted to do some more tests to see why he was so small for his age. He is not eating much and struggles to make any progress with his height and is clearly not happy and this is leading him to become rather down and can lead to being bullied and other issues around his self-esteem.
Today though I am with Antoni, a new boy who has started to come to the mentoring centre. He does not know me well as he has only seen me once on my return from the UK recently. It is clear that he is excited about being in the mentoring centre and is focussing hard on a worksheet that is helping him learn to form letters.
During the pandemic he was studying from home. However, he had no access to the educational materials as he has no internet and so his mum was trying to find ways to keep him in school even though they were closed. The Guatemalan government decided to pass all children on the books despite many not learning anything at all.
Antoni is now 13 and can´t yet read or write. His mum and older sisters run a small food stall on the street in La Terminal and he has grown up there and sees the streets as his home. Due to his high connection to the streets and seeing he was at risk, the street team decided to invite him to the mentoring centre. He now comes every day and is clearly flourishing with his education as he sits with me and helps me with a word search on my phone.
Today I walk him back from the centre to where his family are getting ready to prepare some snacks for the evening commuters before they walk home to the room they rent in La Terminal, all seven of them.
It is great to spend time getting to know Antoni´s mum and sisters and their story is heart-warming and is another long story of how her family moved from the countryside during the civil war to the city. The mum is clearly working hard to support her children and the long hours takes their toll on her, but she smiles and tells me she loves caring for them but has been concerned that Antoni is in the streets all the time. Having him now attend the mentoring centre has changed his life and put him in contact with other children and with caring adults who have helped him see that he can achieve his God-given potential.
Despite being 13 you would think Antoni is 10. His body is very small and frail and he tells everyone his date of birth in order to give credibility to his story of why he is so small. It is doubtful he will grow much more but with the support we can offer he could gain some weight and might increase in height when puberty hits.
Thankfully we have had a visit from the British Ambassador, Nick Whittingham, who was accompanied by David Rutley MP. The visit coincided with a large donation of vitamins for children, arranged by the embassy from Drogueria Italiana here in the city.
The vitamins will be given to the children and their families and the supply will be enough for the next six months. There is also plenty to share with various other projects in the city that work with children at risk.
Handing out vitamins to the children each day is only one solution to helping them recover from years of malnutrition. It is part of the package we can offer to keep children focussed on their education and not take those early steps to street life.
Antoni enjoys his daily vitamins and we are hopeful that he will continue to commit to learning with us this year and then next year start school full-time.
I know I say this a lot, but your support really does help us reach these kids and make a difference in their lives. Thank you and please do pray for Antoni and I am sure that over the year we will see him thrive and grow.
Walking down one of the busy roads in La Terminal in Guatemala City will take you past hundreds of stalls, most selling flowers, fruit and vegetables. It is noisy and often messy under foot as the thousands of daily visitors help generate over 3 million pounds worth of transactions per day. Built in the 1950s as a hub for the rural bus network to connect with the city centre, La Terminal has grown into the largest market in Central America.
It is here we work and where our first mentoring centre is situated. It is notorious for many things and certainly my afternoon and evening walk through the alleyways yesterday was not without its moments of risk, excitement, joy and challenge. Your eyes need to be open to what is going on as so much happens that your mind often struggles to take it all in.
I am visiting three of the children who have been in the mentoring centre this week and I am wanting to see how they are doing.
I come to the point in the 4th street where it becomes lighter and the street wider and you can almost be forgiven for not noticing the small metal door between two shops. It is half open and is dark inside, but as I walk in and up the steps I come to the upper level where hundreds of people live in squalid conditions, surviving in tiny concrete rooms with no windows, no bathroom and very little ventilation. The corridors are full of children playing, running up and down and enjoying their childhood as only children can.
As I get to a corner two children run out and meet me. Little Estuardo is holding up his arms and wants, as always, to be picked up and hugged. He is getting heavier now and soon is leaning back and looking into my eyes and asking me how his new mentor is. His sister introduces me to their cousins, two young identical twin boys. The mum now hears I have arrived and comes out of their room and smiles and asks how Juan Carlos (Estuardo´s new mentor) is doing.
Doña Flor, the mum, has fought hard over the years to keep her kids off the streets. It has been a battle and their new home is now farther away from the drug addicts that used to grace their doorstep, but it now comes with new challenges. Cooking is done outside in the corridor, toilets are for rent further down by the steps, together with showers, but it costs and every trip is another expenditure and over a week this starts to become quite a sum.
She was smiling and telling me about how much she had enjoyed the seminar at the mentoring centre today. She tells me how much she learned about how to manage money, the importance of saving, ideas of how she could generate a second income and the challenge to not fall into the various traps that are circulating around La Terminal that place people living in poverty in greater debt.
I leave and move on to visit another family. Leaving is not easy and takes time as the children ask for one more swing, one more hug, one more… well the list goes on.
I pop into see Carolina who had called me because she is distraught and needs to ask for advice. Out of the blue someone called her the other day and said they were a relative that was now living in the USA. It was clearly a scam but she was sucked into the story of a distant cousin who was coming back to Guatemala and was sending her a suitcase with phones and cash in and could she arrange to transfer him money to pay for the flight home. Slowly, and over three days, the caller convinced her to borrow money and send it because when the case arrived she would be paid back and earn so much more.
Carolina borrowed from here and there and made the transfer to the USA and then discovered that the suitcase hadn´t arrived and the number was now out of service. She was heartbroken as she thought she was helping her relative and was now facing years of paying back the £400 she had borrowed. She sat and sobbed and said she was more upset that someone had fooled her than thinking about the huge debt around her neck. She wished she could have seen what was coming and now has to re-build her life all over again.
Just a few hours or wandering around La Terminal and spending time with two families opens my eyes again to the reality with which thousands of people navigate each day. When you are living in poverty your options are few and every decision you take can lead so quickly to further poverty, abuse and pain or can slowly lead to growth and freedom. I know the team here work hard every day to bring more people along the path of freedom, walking with them and helping them make the best decisions they can to keep their children off the streets, out of gangs and in education.
Many of us have been in those moments when we receive news of a loved one who has passed away and we are left in shock and often can´t believe what we are hearing. We can quickly say something like: “but I only saw them yesterday”. Dealing with the death of someone we care for is not an easy time and one can often feel guilty, angry, sad as well as suffer a tremendous sense of loss.
Within 48 hours we had two such calls over the last two weeks and the first was from one of the guys who lives in the streets of Guatemala City, informing me that Erica is lying on the streets and not moving. We had been with her a few days before and she was her usual self – happy, smiling and trying to wind us up.
I have known Erica for over 20 years and have seen this young teenage girl grow up on the streets of the capital and in an area that is well-known for a whole list of activities that I would rather not go into right now. It is here Erica grew up, learned life´s hardest lessons and quickly was assumed into the culture of street life. Her survival mechanism led her to becoming a young mum and drug addict and then suffering from various sexual infections together with regular beatings, hunger, cold and her fair share of traffic accidents. The impact of all this led her to lose control of her limbs and was left completely unable to walk.
Every visitor that walked along the fifth street in La Terminal eventually came across Erica and would always comment on her smile and her joy at being greeted and loved. She would often ask us for a drink of Coke and was very specific about what type of Coke she required and might even send back to the shops the visitor who bought her the wrong brand!
Sadly her body could just not cope anymore and gave up its fight and freed her from her day-to-day pain in this life. She spoke often about going to heaven and trusted that God would forgive her bad choices and offer her the eternal home she often dreamed would be there for her one day.
Like so many in the streets, death is close and when it comes we have a well-rehearsed plan in place that ends with a funeral and yet more moments of reflection for those still alive.
Erica was loved and tried to love much. We miss her and walking down the fifth will never be the same now as one can´t help but glance to “her spot” and remember the joy she always expressed when she saw your face.
No sooner had we returned from the cemetery the phone rang and my friend Oscar is crying on the other end. Oscar started with me in the mentoring programme when he was 10 years of age, but I have known him almost all his life. He is now crying on the phone and trying to tell me that his brother-in-law is lying on the floor dead and does not know what to do.
I head over to the tin shack where he lives and ask Juan Carlos, who works with us on the streets, to meet me there and help. On arrival I discover the 37-year-old lying on the concrete floor of the tin shack. It is hard to see as there are many people standing over his body, together with his wife Maria and her three children.
So many of the children we work with come from very fractious families. The reason why most kids take to street life is because of the state of their family. These three children are not the exception and sadly I know well the phases they will now go through over the coming hours, days and weeks.
The youngest boy, Daniel, is 7 and continues to lift back the curtain that is being used as the door for their home. I watch him over the next two hours and every time he comes into his home he just stares at his dad´s hand, the only part of him you can see as he is covered up by a sheet. The next eldest is Jonathan (photo), who is 9, and he seems to understand a little more than his younger brother that his dad is not getting up this time. The eldest daughter, Vivian who is 13, is coping by looking though her dad´s phone for photos and posting them on his social media account. With each photo there is a pause as she remembers happier days.
The funeral is the following day and we arrange everything as the family are unable to think straight right now. What they can do is focus on one thing, the wake, as we arrange for the body to be collected, prepared and re-dressed and delivered back with all the things needed for the family to spend the night grieving together.
Later the following day and after the funeral I visit the family to see how they are doing and to offer our support. Thankfully some good friends in both the UK and Guatemala have sent in donations to cover the cost of the funeral, so that is one thing less for Maria to worry about. What I discover is that they are three months behind with their rent and have no food whatsoever in their shack. Thanks again to a generous donor in the UK we have been able to sort out the rent, buy some food and help them think about the coming weeks as their children start school again.
The family will need ongoing support and guidance and I can see more children now entering into the mentoring programme. Being there is sometimes all we can do, but it is often all we need to do. Thanks to your support we can be here and be the extended hand that expresses your love to vulnerable children and families. Once again, thank you for your support.
Poverty debilitates, it crushes hopes, robs you of dignity, makes you vulnerable to exploitation and violence and leads to greater social exclusion with its negative health outcomes. Poverty is not just a mind-set, but a day-to-day reality for all the children we work with. Growing up in poverty will mean you can´t access good education, you will probably live in a home that has no running water, toilet or safe place to sleep. Your home is probably not yours and so are at constant risk of losing it. Children that grow up in poverty and from a single-parent family are far more likely to head to the streets or become members of a local gang.
I certainly know the reality of the world of children living in poverty as that is where I grew up. It was my personal experience as a child who survived by eating plants and fruit from other people´s gardens. I understand the way poverty limits your choices and entices you into thinking that life can never get any better.
Sunday was a great day! I met the four teenage boys I mentor in Santa Faz on the outskirts of Guatemala City and, together with Carlos who now helps me run the group, we began to explore how our thinking determines our behaviour and life choices. It was true, the boys confirmed, that your life will always move in the direction of your most powerful thoughts. The more one thinks about something, the more likely one is to put those thoughts into action.
It was a rather deep session to be honest, but I could see that the boys loved hearing about my own childhood stories of having the voice inside saying “do it” and the voice of reason that makes you consider the consequences of doing it. I am glad that my mistakes and failures can now be used to great effect and can help children understand how their thinking can determine their future.
We finished with the game Spite that the boys did not want to end and asked if we could play it next time we meet. They were happy, had been challenged and had enjoyed their first mentoring session in the new centre in the middle of town.
We are now renting, for just £100 a month, a small shop that is so perfectly situated across from the park and next to the school and police station that only God could have made this happen. The “CasaClub” centre will open more and more as we recruit and train volunteers and are hopeful that we could start a small business there in order to cover the costs of running this.
As always, Carlos and I walk the boys to their homes. All have homes that are made of tin and the floor is just dirt and not one has a flushing toilet or running water. But that is all they know and they are happy and just love the weekly sessions and can´t wait till we meet again.
On dropping home one of the boys we meet his little brother on route and I could see his was distressed. He is 10, tiny and is the most at-risk kid we have here due to his high-connection to the street and the local gang. He has never showed much emotion in the time I have known him and keeps a guard up that always seems so impenetrable. Today, however, was different. He was crying and when I stood next to him it was as if years of tears he had pushed down deep came to the surface.
I hugged him and allowed him to cry and tell me what was going on. He is one of the few that has a mum and a dad, even though the mum feels very much like a single parent. Just four hours before meeting him his dad had been arrested and taken to the courthouse and sentenced to an indeterminate time in prison. His world was destroyed and he had to face the fact that things were now going to be different.
We walked him home and his older brother was now in tears and both boys were struggling to know what to feel and what to do. They could not understand why their dad had been arrested and it seemed to be about a permit for him to operate a taxi, something that is rare for someone to be locked-up for here in Guatemala. I knew there would be time to get to the bottom of this, but for now the boys needed support and comfort.
Their mum seemed to be in shock and had gone out to try and find some food for the boys, who hadn´t eaten much all day. Their lives, like all the kids we work with, rely on a daily shop for food depending on what has been earned that day. They have no stock of food in their home, nothing to fall back on if things get difficult. Things are always difficult and Carlos and I could see that we needed to go to the shops and buy them some food for the evening and for breakfast.
Later that evening I ate very little and was concerned for the family and how they were now going to cope. How you feed two growing boys on less than £2 per day I just don´t know. Living in poverty greatly diminishes your choices and places you at the vulnerability of others.
We will do our best to support while they put themselves at the mercy of the local loan sharks in order to raise the £500 needed to pay the fine for their dad to avoid a jail term. Furthermore, the arrest and imprisonment will be recorded and so this will further impede any progress the family wishes to make. The boys will also live with the stigma of their dad being a “criminal” and I know that other children and some adults will shove that in their faces in the coming days.
I hate what poverty does. I hate the way it treats people, crushes them and makes them feel they of no worth. What is does do in further cement my commitment to helping kids living in poverty and at risk of street life. Thank you for reading and for your support of our work here, it means so much more to me today.
Saturday was a long day, but they usually are with mentoring and family visits. But Saturday was a little longer than normal because we had been invited to visit a project that feeds homeless people the centre of Guatemala City.
I am always keen to visit and support new projects and see the heart local people have for those who live an excluded life on the streets. The project is open on a Saturday evening and runs from 6pm to about 9pm and has been running long enough for the city´s homeless to know where to go for a hot meal and some company.
The excitement of going and spending time with this group of committed volunteers, who seem to run everything on a budget of nothing, was topped by taking Kenedy with me and also having Sony and Juan Carlos join us to see for themselves what others are doing.
Kenedy (photo above serving food) has been trying to put into practice some of the things he has been learning in mentoring and serving others is very high up on his agenda. He finishes college this year and is keen on taking a gap-year with us and serving young people in the Centro Opp mentoring centre.
Our evening began by preparing tables and chairs in the street for the serving of food and then the leaders began with a time of worship and a bible story. Those gathered for a meal joined in with great enthusiasm and seemed very touched by the message before the meal was served.
My eyes were drawn into a few people who were not engaging in the activity. A boy, around 8 years-of-age, came and watched and one could see that he hadn´t eaten much that day and was standing at a distance watching the food being served. Thankfully one of the volunteers invited him to sit and eat and he did so with great enthusiasm, while at the same time was being vigilant to what was happening all around him.
I was not close enough to speak to him due to me now sitting across the street with two homeless guys. One lost interest very quickly as a taxi driver, obviously known to him, handed him a phone and I could see that it was his family calling him to check if he was OK. This left me alone with David.
David (photo right) was unable to walk and so crawled around and invited me to sit next to him and talk. As I introduced myself and he told me his name we both stared into each other’s eyes as it was clear we knew each other. I haven´t seen David in many years, probably about 10 years now, but his unmistakeable smile and voice reminded me of when I first knew him when he was a homeless 12-year-old and addicted to drugs.
Many years have gone by and there was lots to catch up on. David just kept hugging me and telling me he has missed me and wanted to know all the things I had been doing and then went into great detail as he told me about mutual street friends and who was still alive and who is doing what and where they now sleep. It was a very special time and one that really blessed the both of us.
Later that evening I receive a message from a friend of mine who works in La Terminal and wanted some advice about what we could do to help a 12-year-old boy who was in need of support and possibly a short time in the Protection Home. We needed more information and so this took us into Sunday which is when I was able to respond to the plea for help.
The boy was not in immediate danger and so I could continue with the day´s activities of mentoring and then head to La Terminal later on Sunday evening to find out where he is and more about his situation.
I walked down the Quinta (5th Street) and found him with his sister, two younger brothers, his mum and dad, all sitting on the streets just watching life go past. The mum got up now and again to make tortillas for various people who came by to get their supply for their evening meal. Tortillas are the staple food here and an important part of every meal.
Joshua saw me coming and a huge smile grew across his face as he hugged me and buried his face into my chest. He is small for his age and his two younger brothers joined in the hug and this made his mum and dad stand up and greet me. His parents, obviously knowing the reason I was visiting, started by telling me “Yes we hit him because he doesn´t do what he is told and doesn´t complete his homework”. I am now trying to work out what is going on from what I see, what I know and also the years of experience in working with this family.
It is clear his parents are frustrated and when they are like this they resort to the standard response with their children and that is to beat them. Two of Joshua´s siblings are already in care, for the same reason, and it now seems to me that he will be heading the same way.
I ask his parents for permission to sit on the street corner and speak with him and they nod and return to watching the world go by. Joshua skips alongside me and climbs up on a wall and taps his hand next to him, indicating where he would like me to sit.
There are no opening questions as he begins to tell me, without stopping for breath, what he thinks of his parents and how badly they treat him and how much they are beating him. He lifts up his t-shirt to show me the bruises on his back and turns his head around to show me the other side of his face, which was purple with bruises he says and then points to other injuries and continues to say how he is feeling and not holding back on his colourful use of the Spanish language. The next bit leaves me staring into his eyes as he tells me three times of his father´s threat to kill him if he doesn´t do what he is told!
At this point his little brother climbs up on the wall and sits next to him and tells me that Joshua is being beaten and this brings tears into Joshua´s eyes which, in turn, makes his little brother reach out his arms and hug him. It is all rather moving and overwhelming.
Joshua then goes on to tell me that a lady across the road befriended him and offered him somewhere to sleep last week as he was not willing to sleep at home anymore. This annoyed his parents also, who later told me they didn´t like the idea of Joshua sleeping in a place that is also used for prostitution.
Clearly the situation is not great and I know that we have more of a picture of what is going on to act and offer him an alternative. What that alternative is will become clear later today. But just being here and being around means that Joshua, like so many boys his age and of similar circumstances, won´t need to take the street option. We have a much better system in place now to respond to all manner of situations and prevent more young children heading the way of the street, like David did when he was 12.
We sit in silence for a while and I think about the parallels between the lives of David and Joshua and how one life can still be changed now to prevent another child heading the same way as David did when he was 12.
The last few weeks have been particularly busy with the Camino por Amor walk, which was a tremendous success and not only raised funds for the projects we partner with, but also has created a tremendous affinity from the children to the projects they are supported by.
A huge thank you to all who supported in any way and to everyone who donated online. The appeal page is still open till the end of September if you would like to support.
Today I would like to talk about education. In Guatemala, like Honduras and so many countries in Latin America, education is a poorly funded sector. Despite the government here making some investments in the structural improvements to some schools, the gap between what is urgently needed and what is being offered is huge.
USAID report that only 68% of all children who enrol in their local primary school actually finish their schooling. The older the children get the worse the statistics are, demonstrating that only 10% of students make it to secondary school actually complete their studies.
Those who have the resources do very well, can attend the illustrious private schools in the capital and enjoy a top-rate education, which invariably leads to studying in a university in a western country. Sadly, those on the other end of the scale struggle to benefit from what is published as “free” government education.
One of the main pillars of the mentoring programme, after targeting the most vulnerable children at risk of street life, is to get them into full-time education. Yes it costs in terms of the time it takes the team to convince parents to allow their children to go to school, visiting the schools and helping them understand the specific needs of our children and then to help to motivate the children daily to keep studying. Furthermore the mentoring centres are one of the few places the children can go to get help with the mountain of homework they are given.
I have had to collect many children over the years from their homes/shacks, get them up and ready, give them breakfast and take them to school. This is now done by the team and I realise the commitment that this takes for the first couple of weeks of the school year to get kids used to the rhythm of going to school, but it’s a commitment we have to make in order to help kids realise the potential of education to change their lives.
With 42% of the population of Guatemala made up of the Mayan indigenous people groups, the need to bring education to them is even more of a challenge. Since 90% of the children in our programme are coming from these groups, we know how difficult it is to engage them in school, but we do and the success rates are far beyond those of the national average.
I reflect on all this as I sit opposite Damaris and her boyfriend Alexander in San Martin, a smart bakery in a trendy area of Guatemala City. I invited them for afternoon tea, a new concept for them both, but one they thoroughly enjoyed. The afternoon out gave me the opportunity to understand how they are doing with their young daughter and review their studies.
Both Damaris and Alexander are now studying with us and trying to make something of their lives despite them both growing up in huge poverty and neglect and living in very humble conditions across from La Terminal in Guatemala City.
What makes me laugh is looking at the photo I took yesterday and what was written in Alexander´s t-shirt (photo below). He was not aware of what it said and when I explained to him the text he too thought it was very funny as it is just the opposite of where his life is right now.
It seems only a few days ago that I sat with both of them at the end of 2022 and discussed education. Damaris had dropped out due to the baby being born and then of embarrassment at returning to our centre with a baby. Her culture is very different from ours and an unplanned pregnancy and one out of wedlock is not something her family or the elders would approve of.
It was easy to convince her of the need to return to studies as she was doing well before they had the baby and now she needed to ask permission from her 16-year-old boyfriend to return to the classroom. Alexander agreed and Damaris smiled and it was clear she was keen to keep going and even reach the end of secondary school one day.
The biggest challenge was with Alexander who had made it clear that he would not return to school or consider any form of education. He had done all he could to get to third grade in primary school, didn´t like it and was adamant that school was not for him. So the conversation had to take a different approach and I looked at their little daughter and could see he was besotted with her.
Learning to be a husband and dad at 16 takes a lot of support and and he needed a fair share of advice. It also brings with it huge amounts of new responsibility as before “I could just take off with my mates after work and play football”, he tells me. The transition from being a teenage boy to a dad was sudden and not one he enjoyed to begin with, but the role slowly grew on him and I have seen him mature so much over just a few months and I am very proud of all he has achieved.
I asked him what he wanted for his daughter and it was hard to stop him as he explained his dreams and hopes for her life. I asked if she would go to school and he said, “of course”. This was my opportunity to demonstrate to him how education could help her and him with the question “so what would happen when she comes home from school and needs help with her homework and you have to say you don´t know”. He went blank and then burst into tears. It hit home and the following week he messaged me and said he wanted to go back to school.
We are proud of all our kids and we know how hard it is for them to just get by. For them to succeed it takes a lot of their resources, energy, time and real grit. But they are achievers and I know will go on to great things.
No apologies for saying this again, but your support really does make the difference. Without it we could not be here, could not support the kids who want to make a better choice for their life, could not offer them the daily homework help they need and be there to go to school presentations and events and rejoice with them as they celebrate their school results. Our partnership is vital and you are appreciated. Thank you.
I was reminded yesterday of one of the outcomes of the mentoring programme when Linda, a visitor from the UK, and I dropped 5 excited boys home after a mentoring session at the CasaClub centre in Santa Faz, Guatemala City.
Like many first-time visitors to Santa Faz there is the challenge of walking back up the mountainside afterwards, as the altitude and numerous steps really take their toll on even the fittest of folk.
The last child to be dropped off is 10-year-old Jefferson, who lives with his large family in a tin shack on the mountainside. His innocence and gentleness has won the hearts of the other boys in the group he is in for Sunday mentoring, as he was the last one to join the established group and I wondered if he would be accepted and understood by the other boys.
One thing I have seen over the years is how isolated so many of these families are, despite them living near each other. Trust is not easily won in Santa Faz and given the violent history of the area it is no wonder why many work hard to keep themselves to themselves.
This past week has been extremely violent with 5 young people being killed over a 24-hour period, the last one a 15-year-old boy shot right behind our mentoring centre. Growing up here is not easy and every child will tell you of the latest killing like they are telling you that it rained yesterday.
Jefferson spends his time playing in the dirt outside his shack when he is not in school and was too shy to make friends or trust in others locally. Today, however, is different and a pleasing sight to see as one of the boys in the group calls round Jefferson´s home not long after we had dropped him home.
Linda and I were still with Jefferson´s family as I needed to check on the health of his younger siblings due to a huge increase in dengue fever. Linda was quite taken with the family and they proudly showed her their new cooker. They have never had a cooker before and have been saving up for a long time and got a second-hand gas cooker and connected it to a small gas cylinder. It has changed their lives and the children tell us that their food doesn´t smell of smoke now when they eat it.
The discussion about the benefits of a gas cooker stopped when Jose Antonio arrived. He is also 10 and is in the Sunday mentoring group. I have been concerned for him for the last two years as he spent increasing amounts of time on the streets due to his mum working long hours and not being able to get home in the afternoon to let him into their tin shack after school. Thankfully that situation has dramatically changed and now his parents are back together and he is much more stable and wanted to invite Jefferson to his home to play.
This is a new concept for many of the children but one that we are used to in the UK as kids invite their friends around to play after school or stay for sleep-overs. Here in Sana Faz the fear of others tends to prevent such invitations and children get used to isolation.
But the new friendships that have been developed in mentoring are breaking down those barriers and helping the children see that trust in others is possible and so Jefferson, with a huge smile on his face, is given permission to head off with Jose Antonio and his mum.
I watch the two boys climb up the mountainside and you can see the joy and contentment and one can´t help feel proud. Friendships like these are not easy to build but I can see so many more discovering that having trusted friends is a good thing and is another one of the developmental assets we hope to see the children become stronger in over the next few years.
Some days I see here the undeniable need for change in a society that has lost its way and where there is a silent congratulation for just existing one more day. With all that we are seeing of war, death and suffering around the world it is no wonder why one can feel helpless and even powerless.
Yesterday I walked with one of the young adults we have helped get off the rubbish dump to his humble home in the middle of Guatemala City´s largest developing slum, La Limonada. I first walked into this slum over 30 years ago when most of the now concrete structures were just tin shacks and where a highly contaminated river runs through the middle. The smell is often overpowering, but you do actually get used to it. The enormity of the place and its hidden need is what can make you feel helpless as very few Guatemalans would come down here.
The young man I was walking with I have known since he was 11 years-of-age and have seen a huge transformation in him over the years. From a kid growing up on a rubbish dump, doing drugs and involved in things that adults shouldn´t be doing, to now – being a great example of change. It was just fun walking with him and chatting about his life and family.
The reason for the visit today is to see his brother who is going through a tough time and needs some support. I have had him on my mind and heart for many months and have something I need to share with him that I feel God wants him to know about.
Walking closer to La Limonada you notice a change in the environment. The smarter cars are fewer, there are no police around and the feel of the place is increasingly oppressive. We walk close to the Ministerio Publico (Public Ministry) where there are a hundred or more protesters demanding the resignation of the Attorney General. The protests have grown substantially over the last three weeks and have resulted in blockades throughout the country. The shouts of the protesters can be heard all around as we begin to walk down the numerous steps into the far side of La Limonada.
I am somewhat of an anomaly here as it is noticeable that people stop and stare. A man sees me coming and grabs hold of his door and pulls it almost closed while keeping a close eye on me as I pass. A lady is sitting on the crumbling pavement and talking out loud to herself while pointing at the figures that she must be seeing in her head. We continue to walk down the many steps and the “aroma” from the river begins to arouse my senses.
As we near the bottom of the steps I find a man, probably in his late 30s huddled over a piece of tin foil together with a boy aged around 12. Both seemed to be getting high on crack and the boy leans further into the foil and lets out a groan. Two ladies say good afternoon as they hurry past and then I meet three men drinking alcohol on a corner and make myself known by making a big deal of saying hi to them.
We walked into the alleyway where his house is and I am asked to wait until he ensures all is OK and I can climb up the few steps to see his brother. I wait and take a couple of photos while the dipping sun was casting its golden glow over the sprawling landscape.
I am now invited to come into his simple house and spend time with David. The last time I saw him he was 15 and had just become a dad and had decided to leave the local gang and try and make something of his life so that he can support his girlfriend and baby.
His smile is huge and infectious and I am pleased to see him too and we go inside and sit down, he on the bed and me on a plastic chair. A skinny cat rubs up against me and seems totally oblivious to its role in the home as a small mouse runs along the cable that hangs loosely from the ceiling and disappears into a hole in the block wall.
David was a lot of fun to be with and I first met him on the rubbish dump in La Terminal. He tells me he is nearly 10 and has a layer of dirt over his skin from working there in the heat of the day. His shabby clothes and rotting trainers were covered in rubbish. David smiled and then began to question me about who I was, what I was doing, why I was doing it and what I thought about the people on the rubbish dump. It was not long before he started appearing at our mentoring centre, which wasn´t yet open as workmen were working around the clock to try and get it finished before Christmas that year.
David always had that inquisitive nature and was always full of questions about why things were the way they were. I liked that and could see in him a desire for learning and so helped get him into school and could see he would thrive in an academic environment. The ups and downs of his time in school are something we can leave to one side for now as I know he has huge potential but seems resigned for now with drugs, stealing and sleeping during the day.
My message to him had been burning in my heart for many weeks and when I started to tell him what I had on my heart, tears began to stream down his face. He could see himself, as in a mirror, that the person he was now was not what he dreamed of when he was 10. I am now hoping he will work with us and go into a rehab centre as I know his potential is huge. It´s like I see him in an environment he was never meant to be. I feel so strongly he is destined for greater things and leave, after praying for him, and begin the climb back up the hill.
There was only one gun shot that rang out across the slum as I walked back up and then stopped at the top to take a photo. The sun was now setting but there was enough light for one photo and time to just look and think and appreciate what I have and then begin the long walk back home.
It´s not the safest place in the city and Sony, the SKDGuatemala Director, wrote to me later when I let him know I was home safely with the words “wow, that is a very dangerous place”.
The danger is never an issue, it´s the sadness that gets you. The hauntingly poignant image of that boy groaning as the drugs hit him will stick with me for a long time. I, at least, can go home to a place that is safe and I know that no one will break in during the night and where I won´t see children on the streets doing drugs or wandering around lost and without hope. I know the team here will do all they can to help David and I am hopeful that my parting words will have had an impact. There is still lots to do!