Thursday 1st March

I celebrated a personal victory this week.  I have been trying to achieve it now for the last year and could never quite make it due to many factors that always seem to work against me.  You might wonder why this was such a big deal when you find out what it is but stick with me as I hope all will become clearer.

It´s 5am and I head out of the car park under my apartment and turn into the main street, which is glowing orange from the city street lamps.  My little 1984 jeep is reliable and sounding sweet after its recent service and leaving this early means little traffic. I have two goals.  My primary goal, as always at this time of the morning, is to try and drive to our Centre – about 10 minutes away – without being mugged, shot at or driven in to by the numerous drunk and dangerous drivers who seem to frequent the streets of Guatemala City.  However, my secondary goal is to get to our Centre with every traffic light on green.  I know it is weird but the number of traffic lights we have here in Guatemala makes this task an incredibly difficult one, even for the most expert drivers.

My victory is celebrated as I pass the last green light and turn into the small road where our Centre is and park the jeep inside and prepare for the new day.  I feel elated and now don´t seem to mind how many red lights I have to wait at in the future as I know that on this day I managed them all on green.

Celebrating this seemingly insignificant event might cause you to wonder why I am sharing this here.  But when you are faced everyday with an overwhelming sense of disempowerment that comes from working with numerous children and families at risk and knowing you can´t help them all, one small tvictory, even the tiniest one needs to be recognised and celebrated.  The sense of disempowerment is one that is normal for those who work with vulnerable children.  How I wish I could sweep them all away to a safe place, help them realise they are loved and precious and work with them to realise their potential and to keep on dreaming.

Later that day I am asked to go up into the lounge and meet with Bryan.  Bryan is 9 and I am asked to chat with him due to a situation that occurred this past week.  He sits nervously and uncomfortably on the new sofa whilst swinging his little legs and looking down at the floor.  I sit next to him and as I do so he looks at me and smiles.  I feel moved as I know he has no idea what is coming and wish there was someone else who could do this.  But, for the moment, it falls to me.

bryanThe conversation with little Bryan begins around what happened recently when he decided to engage in behaviour that started to ring the alarm bells.  There were complaints and accusations and so I needed to hear his side of the story. I am trying, as you might guess, to tell you what happened without telling you what happened.  I am trying to protect him by changing his name and keeping you from the gruesome details.  Bryan loses his smile and it seems like his whole world begins to cave in.  I expect that in his head he is trying to find a space to go that is safe, but the fact that I need to bring up this incident means he will feel shame.  I wonder if he thinks that after we have discussed this, he will ever be allowed into the Centre again and if he could ever face seeing us again.

The discussion moves on to me explaining some basic facts of life.  Not the type of basic facts your parents might once have tried to share with you through huge embarrassment.  But facts about how boys grow and change and how sometimes other people do things to them they don´t like or how their search for knowledge leads them to see things they now regret.  Bryan looks at me and understands what I mean and so I take it a little further and give him the chance to tell me why this behaviour might have happened.

I am prepared to hear anything, but what I hear leaves me hurting so much for him.  He tells me what is happening when his mum is not at home.  He tells me how his 11-year-old cousin is teaching him and making him do things that makes him feel dirty.  He looks at me, grabs hold of me and sobs into my shirt.  It is a tender moment and I go on to tell him that he is very brave to talk with me about these things and what I would like to do to help him stay safe.  I wish I could make him safe all the time, but I know this is not a reasonable request and so consider how we can now bring this issue up with his mum and cousin and try and help them all see there is a way forwards.

Bryan feels loved and accepted and thanks me for listening and for his hug.  He is precious, and his smile is a reminder to me, and hopefully to him, that life can still go on.  This is a small victory today and one from which I am hoping will lead to a much healthier relationship with his cousin despite the difficult road ahead.

Sunday 25th February

Yesterday was a blast.  I had driven to our Centre on the outskirts of La Terminal, parked the car and walked to collect Brandon, Fredy and Jonathan.  Walking through the hustle and bustle of the crowded streets in the market always hits your senses hard.  I wonder how it is that large numbers of people weave in and out of the slow-moving traffic without being run over.  Small children tap on the windows of some of the cars expectant for a coin while others run around the traffic like it was a playground and where no harm would come to them.  Today our time of mentoring was going to be different.  We had all agreed to go and visit Go Guatemala.

brandon3I arrive to collect Brandon and walk up the dimly-lit alleyway to his “house” and I am pleased to find him dressed in his one smart shirt he got for Christmas and with a huge smile on his face.  His hair is gelled and styled into what he tells me is all the rage for 10-year-old boys.  The last two times I collected him he was running around about to go into the shower or just coming out of it. He lives in one room with his mum, dad and three siblings.  They share a sink and shower with a few other families and so he can´t always time the shower to fit in with me visiting.  Today, however, he was ready on time and so we head off to collect Fredy and his brother Jonathan.  A few minutes later we pile into my car and drive out of La Terminal and head towards zone 18.

Every Saturday Go Guatemala runs an outreach club for children who live in zone 6 and zone 18 - two zones in Guatemala City that have very high rates of gang membership and childhood homicide.  The club is run by Pastor Alex and his wife Evelyn together with some very dedicated mums and teenagers.  When I first moved back to Guatemala 5 years ago I volunteered here every Saturday and helped run the games and activities out in the sports field for up to 120 children while the rest of the team ran educational activities inside.

This was the boys first visit to Go Guatemala and they quickly engaged with the other children and started to play and enjoy themselves.  The programme starts with breakfast and then a time of signing worship songs, with all the actions, followed by everyone being divided into age groups for the various activities.  It always amazes me how much this project relies on casual donations and the team are hopeful there will be something arriving this morning to provide the children with lunch.

goguatemala1One of the main strengths of this project we help fund is the school support.  In Guatemala the levels of school dropout is high and from our experience this can be down to the fact that children just can´t access the information they need to get their grades.  It costs 30p to have 30 mins access to the internet and then extra for every page that is printed.  Every single day teachers ask children to investigate a certain topic on the internet and then write it up and print out pictures and illustrations for the following day.  For so many this is impossible.  Go Guatemala offers this service free to the children and the help they need to understand what they are looking for.

After lunch we listen to another inspirational talk by Pastor Alex on how so many young people just slip easily into the labour market without considering further education or how they could setup their own business.  We then drive back to La Terminal making sure we stop for an ice-cream on the way and the boys begin to discuss what they enjoyed about their exciting day out.  They love getting away from La Terminal and realise that the world is much different than they first imagined.

A few days later our street team, headed up by the amazing Ben Soden, organises an activity for one of the groups of mums of the children we work with in La Terminal.  The evening is a great success and the mums talk about how special they feel now we are doing activities for them and not just their children.  I love many things about this event, but most of all I love the fact that I had nothing to do with it.  I am encouraged by the way the team is growing in ability and confidence and expanding the work. 

sergio hospitalTwo other things to tell you before I sign off.  Firstly, Sergio is back with us.  Some might remember that a few years ago we rescued Sergio from the streets and he was given the chance to study and a scholarship to train as an airline pilot.  His life didn´t work out exactly as he had hoped, and he came to see us and asked for our help.  We received him with love and welcomed him back and soon after he was in the emergency ward of the state hospital.  A metal plate that had been fitted to his leg due to a severe brake had broken free and had caused the leg to break again.  Sergio was in agony, but we managed to get him the operation and now he is recovering and planning once again to resume his studies and pursuing his dream of becoming an airline pilot.

ashlyfilm

 

And finally.  I am heading back to the UK on the 1st March for some fundraising events and I hope you will be able to consider coming to join me on the 17th March in Amersham for our Family Quiz Night.  It is for anyone of any age and it’s a lot of fun.  Ben and Joseph Soden have been busy filming for this event and so if you are able to come along you will hear the story of one of the girls who is benefitting from your donations.  Ashly lives in Guatemala City and her story is quite an inspiration and I hope that in hearing it you will be encouraged to know your support really does change lives.  I will also be making the important announcement at the Quiz Night of this summer´s crazy idea – a sponsored walk like none other!  Stay tuned for more information.

Monday 12th February 2018

You know what it´s like when you fall into a deep sleep and then the phone rings and you are not sure if it’s the dream or if you need to get up and answer the phone?  Saturday night was one of those nights when I had been asleep for an hour when the phone rings a few minutes after midnight.  I answer the phone and only hear women screaming at each other, but the person who is making the call is one of the families we have been helping and so I knew something was not right.

I tried my best to get someone to talk with me but after about a minute of screaming the phone went dead.  I lay back on my bed and wondered if this call was made in error but all of a sudden it rang again and this time I was asked to go to a home in La Terminal right away in order to help keep a little boy safe.

Earlier in the week one of the young girls in our mentoring centre had asked me if she could receive some advice.  She told me of a lady in a neighbouring shack who looks after children and how another lady, who works as a sex-worker, had dropped off a young boy and had not returned.  The lady was now treating the boy badly and she wanted to know what we could do to help.  Soon after we finished talking a neighbour of the lady sent me a message telling me the same thing and sending me photos of the little boy´s face and head with the various wounds visible and asking me if we could make a formal complaint with the authorities.

boy rescue1Sadly the authorities, who should act to save the children from abuse and neglect, seem rather underfunded and over-worked and so I knew their response would take time.  What I was not expecting was the call in the middle of the night to tell me the situation had deteriorated and the little boy was now at great risk and the lady who is “looking after him” is now very drunk and taking it out on the boy.

I head to The Terminal and when I arrive two police officers are already there and trying to take some form of statement from the lady who is holding the child and has been allegedly abusing him.  I have to listen to countless versions of what has been going on but it seems that the mother of the boy has abandoned the child in order to keep working.  The lady being interviewed is drunk and aggressive but the police do their best to keep her calm.

After a short time I phone our super-hero, Juan Carlos, who knows everything about the law and what should be done and he tells me he is on his way, as is Ben Soden who is also hearing about the situation and wants to come and support.

I overhear one of the police officers telling the lady that even though the child is not hers, and she can´t produce any documentation that he has been left in her care by the real mother, that if she promises to stop hitting the child then they will leave it there.  This is where I need to intervene and explain to the police their legal obligations, which leads them to take the child away and give it to another mother in a similar situation next door.  The police officer tells me that since this other lady is not drunk the child will be safe and we should leave it there.

However, the lady who was abusing the child is becoming very aggressive and when I begin to talk with the police she starts to push me and then pull at my jacket to plead with me not to take this to court.  I have to ignore her pleas and explain to the two police officers that they are not acting within the law!  This grabs their attention and I need to make clear the legal process of dealing with situations like this, which includes removing the boy and placing him into their protective custody, taking him immediately to the court and making a formal statement about the child.

The police then leave and call for backup and within a couple of minutes more police officers arrive into the dimly-lit forecourt where numerous families have setup home in tin and block shacks and share a sink, toilet and shower.  It is grim even in the daylight but the darkness of night covers over some of the desperate conditions but highlights new ones like the coming and going of men who come for sex with young women.  There is now a female police officer and they have decided that action is what is required.

The lady who has been abusing the boy is now becoming more violent and so I have to step into a fight between her and another lady and try and keep them apart while they scratch at each other, try and exchange punches and all manner of abuse.  The police then arrest the lady who is obviously not going easily.  She puts up a fight as they try and handcuff her and push her to the ground and begin to punch her in the face.  The situation is getting out of hand and Juan Carlos and Ben arrive in time for us to focus now on the little boy who is crying in one of the shacks.

boy rescue2We discover that the original officers were not keen to pursue action as their shift was ending and so the reinforcements were now starting the new shift and keen to help us to keep the little boy safe.  Ben and me pick up the little boy and try and comfort him while one of the new officers seems to know the score and asks us to accompany him to the court to make a statement.  Ben cradles the little boy tenderly in his arms and goes in the police car while Juan Carlos and me follow on behind.

Thankfully the little boy is safe but it takes a little longer to get to court due to a shooting in the main street that leads to the court and police have now cordoned off the area.  The reality of living in Guatemala City slaps me in the face again and we follow the police up one-way streets - the wrong way - and eventually arrive at the court that deals with children.  We are given a warm welcome after being searched for weapons and short statements are taken and I manage to get the little boy laughing and feeling comfortable.

Ben tells me that he will hopefully now grow up with no memory of this event and should be taken into adoption or into a caring children´s home.  He remains a boy with no name and we pray God´s protection over him and hand him over to the nursery worker.  Now comes the tough bit as we finish the legal process and will now need to re-build relationships in the community where the event took place.  It is hard where we can be seen as the bad people who come and take children away, but we have to make it clear we can´t, and the law does not allow us to, stand by and allow children to be neglected and abused.  Just another day on the streets!

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