Monday 27th November 2017

Returning from Guatemala last week was an interesting experience as the last time I drove back from Honduras I discovered (too late) a dead cow in the road and the car did not come off that well!  This time no cows were in the road and I arrived safely back in Guatemala City and with little Moses waiting for me as I had promised we would have our mentoring session as soon as I returned.

buying shoesMy time in Honduras was both refreshing, inspiring, comforting and challenging and has left me with many images in my mind of my week there that I would like to share with you and thank you again for reading this and for your support of the work.

Driving into the Manuelito Children´s Home was an amazing experience.  I had left the kids in the home 6 months ago and was hoping to return in August before the walk to spend time with the kids and staff, but having my car in the agency for 6 months and no funds to fly down meant I have had to be patient.  It took a few seconds for the kids to realise I was in Steve´s car and came over to great us and, of course, little Duncan came running over to hug his dad and tell me how much he has missed me.  It is a touching moment greeting all the kids and after tons of hugs and kisses we make our way to meet the staff and see how the home is going.

Duncan PresentThe home has been through some changes since my last visit and I was keen to see how these changes had impacted the everyday lives of the kids.  Despite their sadness for those who have now moved on I thought they all reacted really well, but I expect they wanted to put on a brave face.  As time went by it was clear that the kids are really sad at the loss of the senior leadership team, but those who have come along since have started to win hearts and minds and so I am hopeful that things will slowly return to normal.

Steve Poulson and me had the opportunity to take little Duncan out for the morning to the capital as all the children had been invited to visit a shoe store and chose one pair of trainers or shoes for Christmas.  Shopping had to be done this day as the store had a special offer on buy one get one free and so buying for 42 kids would be much cheaper today than tomorrow.  Little Duncan had recently celebrated his 11th birthday and was so happy to be out with me to not only chose his shoes but to chose a present for his birthday.  No surprise then when he asked for a toy gun and I gently encouraged him to consider a remote control car.  He was one happy boy indeed and then we went for lunch and talked about his school year and how he felt now in the home.

There was no time to visit AFE on this trip as the usual time for AFE was taken up meeting with the Director, Jesy, to discuss plans and models of management that might help lead AFE to a more stable future.  After Jeony´s departure from AFE the charity, like Manuelito, has been through a difficult time of change and adaptation.  I am hopeful that a major US partner will come alongside this school and help bring it into a new era of financial stability and an exciting future.

CiudadEspaña2We move on at the end of the trip to visit one of the new projects Steve Poulson is now working with.  Steve moved to Honduras this year as a full-time volunteer for Street Kids Direct, so I was keen to see the work he is doing. Steve did tell me: “you will like Ciudad España” and he was right.  One of the interests I have is in gangs and youth involvement in them and how this leads so many to adopt coping behaviours that lead them to an early death or even to living on the streets.  I have come across so many young people on the streets that had escaped from a gang and street life seemed the only option to them.

Over the last few years I have visited a very good friend in Honduras who works with one of the gangs.  Teresa is one of life´s special angels and has committed her life to staying in Honduras and helping young men and women caught up in gang life.  She is quite an inspiration and her methods of work are not always orthodox but she really does care for those who are now in youth prison due to their gang affiliation.  It has been amazing accompanying her to prison on many occasions.

I am invited by Steve to join a small team on their visit to Ciudad España and run a small service for the guys who come along each week.  We all climb into Pastor Hernan´s 4x4 and head off out of the capital and soon turn into the road that leads to Ciudad España. Hernan points out a house on the hill and tells me that from this moment we are being watched and then he pulls out his mobile and calls one of the gang members to let him know we are coming into the Pueblo.  We then have to wind down all the windows so those on the lookouts can see who is in the car.  Not doing this would certainly mean the car is surrounded by armed men and maybe shot at.

CiudadEspañaArriving into the little Pueblo we drive around to remind a few young people that the meeting is on and then drive back to the little house that a young couple are renting and that has been turned into a small outreach centre.  Jen and Luis run the centre and have a real heart for this community and have won over the gang´s trust, who allow them to operate without any hindrance.  The gang is very much in control of this little town and Hernan tells me that no one would dare steal from anyone else in the place and said that if he left his phone on the wall of the house it would still be there the following day.

Slowly the young people and some children arrive and the meeting begins.  This is a church service and those gathered hear about the importance of honouring your parents – a tough lesson indeed if your parents are abusive and one of the reasons many of the young guys have gone into the gang in the first place.  Talking with some of them after the service made me realise what a hard place this is to grow up.  Recently 400 soldiers descended on the town in the middle of the night and took off young people they said were gang members.  Being locked up in a youth prison can be a traumatic event for any young person but being there just because someone thinks you are a gang member leaves you with very few options.

I talk with 16-year-old Carlos who is looking for a way out.  When I ask him about what his dream is he just stares and looks down the dirt road and shrugs his shoulders.  Eventually he tells me that getting out of the town is a dream but where does he go and how can he get a job if people know he lives in Ciudad España.  He is marked and so his options are either the gang or to take the bold move and just go into the unknown and see if he can make it.  I can see he won´t take the later and so hope that Jen and Luis can help him with a third option.

Projects like this are right on the front line and deserve our attention even if we are limited with funds and can´t give them money to expand their work with very high-risk children and youth.  At least Steve is involved and is helping each week.  Please remember them in your thoughts and prayers.

Sunday 19th November 2017

I am sitting in the airport lounge waiting for my flight to depart.  I left early enough for the airport today so I could spend an hour writing my blog before departure, as I know that this week in Honduras will be full of activity.  Steve Poulson has arranged a grueling schedule of meetings, street visits, mentoring training and visits to the Manuelito Children´s Home and the AFE School.

The hour gives me time to reflect back on the last two weeks, as they have been very hectic, but mainly good.  So, let´s start with the good news before I use this forum to share some very sad news.

HarbottleOur spirits were lifted when Jonny Harbottle came to visit this past week.  Jonny is a friend from Amersham and wanted to come and see the work and explore how he could offer his support.  We have been discussing the funding needs for the new Mentoring Centre and Protection Home in zone 11, Guatemala City and churning around tons of ideas about business opportunities that could generate funds in order to support the work here and in Honduras.

Street Kids Direct has always been about guaranteeing that 100% of all donations go directly to the projects we support, and given the fact that only about 20% of our income comes from fundraising events we do need to look at the long term sustainability of the charity and the projects we partner with.  We are hoping that in the New Year we could explore a good business opportunity that business partners could invest in and help us create a more sustainable future.

Thank you Jonny for coming to visit and for bringing over a ton of LEGO that has proved a great hit for the kids and does help their creative side develop as well as encourage conversations during construction.  Thanks also to Ana Maria, Tom and Alberto for the chocolates and LEGO.  This photo was taken last Saturday when Jonny and me took four of the boys in our mentoring programme to the special Mini-Bomberos course.  The boys are just loving the course and while it keeps them occupied and off the streets it is teaching them some great values and life skills.

SelvinSunday was visiting day for Selvin and I was keen to see him.  Selvin entered rehab four months ago and is doing really well.  The change in him is quite incredible from the young man we had taken off the streets.  I remember him the day he had been hit by a car and left bleeding in the streets as people passed by.  We tried our best to attend his wounds but his heart was broken and he had given up on life and saw no way out.  Selvin´s life is quite a sad story of gangs, abuse, neglect and being forced into street life at an early age that included him doing things he now regrets.  His new life is very different and we are hopeful he will continue to whole course this time and then make good choices and enjoy life in all its fullness.

Campo Marte

 

One of the highlights of the week for the kids who come along to our Mentoring Centre in Guatemala City is our trip to Campo Marte.  The government has a well-developed park for children about four blocks from La Terminal.  I often wonder why the children don´t spend more time there but given the fact they have to walk four blocks, cross busy roads and will only do so with an adult by their side I can see why they stay in the street they know and feel relatively safe.  Our Friday walk to the park is an activity on its own with lots of banter, fooling about and jokes that makes it an enjoyable time.  Arriving at the park is a release for the children as they begin to run around and when we arrive at the area where we plan to play football one boy takes off his shirt and rolls around in the sand like he has never seen sand before.  The football match is now secondary to playing in the sand and so we enjoy watching the children have fun and be children at last.

Joseph SpanishJoseph Soden has now joined us.  Joseph is from Amersham and has recently passed his level B in Spanish and one more level to go before he starts with the Mi Arca team and helps me with the development of Street Kids Direct charity.  Joseph has given up a lot to come and serve as a volunteer here and is keen to start the mentoring training and take on two boys who have been waiting for mentors for a long time.  Welcome Joseph to the team and we look forward to working with you.

Another long-term volunteer is Azaria Spencer who has come to us via CMS in Oxford and has now finished the first stage of her language training and will now help us in Guatemala with our Mentoring Centre and the running of youth groups for the teenagers.  It is becoming quite a setup now and since Azaria was keen to offer to volunteer in the street team once a week she was invited to our monthly “investigation” street visit.

street work nightAfter a brisk walk from our Centre we walked to a bridge where I had found homeless people and invited the team to join me on a climb that was described as “terrifying”.  As we scrambled up the steep bank in the dark we came to the actual bridge where we managed to carefully ease our way along the ledge that would have been discounted in any risk assessment.  Azaria was helped by Ben Soden arrive safely to a hole where a man was living and who invited us to sit with him and hear his story.  He was very kind and welcoming and the visit confirmed my supposition that there are now no more children living there, just him and another man who slept further along the ledge.  We took a while to climb down and felt grateful to be back on flat ground and then headed into an area I used to visit a few years ago.

The area known as “La Linea” was a notorious area of Guatemala City but over the last few years the security presence has increased dramatically and so is a much safer place to visit, relatively speaking.  La Linea is the old railway track that has many railway sheds and small shacks on either side of the line and many of the little houses are about the size of a double bed.  Flagrant prostitution is the main business here and nothing is hidden from the eyes or mind as you walk by.  There was a time when I would find many children playing here while their mothers worked but now not one child could be found.

Our investigation walk took us into the heart of zone 1 of Guatemala City where I recalled the early years of our work in the city with street children and we passed by the Casa Alianza Refuge where I started work in 1992.  Seeing the building, now boarded-up and left to decay, brought back many memories and stories of those first few days on the street team.  That was 25 years ago and the situation was starkly different to the Guatemala City of 2017 and now again we came across homeless men and women who remembered me from previous visits.  It was a special time.

Funeral Marco AntonioI arrived home exhausted but very thankful for being able to witness history changing in Guatemala and feeling I had been a very special part of it.  As I sat down on my office hair and placed my head in my hands the phone rang.  It was Oscar and he sounded very upset and wanted me to go to his house right away.  I knew something was wrong as a group of police officers were outside the cluster of tin shacks on my arrival.  The nights are now much cooler but there are still many kids on the streets in shorts and t-shirts and all of them come and greet me as I arrive.

Oscar is distraught and invites me into his home to talk with his mother about what has happened.  His 13-year-old cousin is lying dead in the street in zone 21 and asks for prayers and help.  I invite the family to get into the jeep and we drive over in the city traffic to a notorious area of Guatemala City where the gangs are battling it out and leaving many young people dead as a result.

As we approach the place where his cousin lived we notice a police car and the investigation team looking over the boy´s body in the street, which is now covered up by a sheet.  We all assume that he has been shot but when we get out of the car and are greeted by more family members we discover that the boy hanged himself and his 16-year-old brother found him, cut him down and dragged him into the street while calling out for help.  It was a distressing scene and the boy´s mother was in no situation to pay for funeral services and so the high-risk fund and donations from two friends help cover the cost.

sleeping on streets

Knowing the process of going to the morgue, identifying the body, completing the paperwork, taking the body out and to the funeral directors, attending the body, dressing the body, organising the wake and funeral seems like a normal event for me these days.  The wake goes on all night and the following day we carry his body to its place of rest and I am called on to officiate in some form.  It´s such a sad loss and we still have no idea why he took his own life but I do know he had received threats, probably from one of the gangs.

A week seems a very long time in Guatemala City and I was deeply saddened to find little Jonathan now sleeping on the streets.  It was not something I wanted to see as we had hoped that he was the last child we had helped leave the streets but here is displaying his abandonment for all to see. It is a distressing scene as he is just 10-years-of-age and his connection to the streets has steadily increased throughout the year and I have had to have that difficult conversation with him about what happens to him when he goes to sleep.  He shrugs his shoulders and lifts his little hand to his mouth and inhales from a solvent-drenched rag and then smiles at me as if to say “I know, but this is my life”.  We would love to take him in and offer him the love he is so desperately seeking.

Wednesday 1st November 2017

This time of year is one of mixed feelings for the children with whom we work.  Most have now finished school for the year and have started the long winter break. In Guatemala all children have to pass their school year in order to go into the next grade, failure means you having to return back to the same school year until you pass.  A pass is based on your attendance, homework and tests and the failure rates in Guatemala in first grade have dropped dramatically (by 18.6%) in the last four years.  Sadly just over 37% of children do not pass their first grade and the older they are the higher the dropout or failure rate is.  It gets worse when you look at Guatemala´s  Ministry of Education data and see that on 41% of primary school student reach national standards in mathematics and only 50% reach national standards in reading.  [Statistics from USAID and the Guatemala Ministry of Education]

The children who now attend our mentoring programme have done very well indeed this year and even though we are still waiting on all the results to come in, the early indications are that we have bucked the national trend spectacularly.  Considering the multiple deprivations our kids have to cope with, the fact they stay in school and thrive is a miracle. 

brandon trophyTwo boys came to my attention the other day when I was sitting on the floor of our Centre in Guatemala City and listening to them share with the other children how well they have done in school this year.  Both our girls and boys have achieved much and there are a couple who have not passed but could do so with the extra support Marleny will now give them.  Marleny is one of our most dedicated volunteers and commits herself to running our Centre 7 days a week.  She is an inspiration.

Marleny had invited any of the children to talk about the things they have faced in school this year and to share their personal victories. 9-year-old Brandon is one of the first to step up and tell everyone he passed his school year.  His victory needs some explanation as you could be encouraged to just clap and say well done but that comes nowhere near what level of recognition this boy deserves.

Brandon has grown up in poverty and lives in La Terminal in Guatemala City with his older sister and two younger brothers and younger sister.  Coping with life is a challenge as they all live in one room with an older cousin and their parents who work long hours.  Brandon sleeps on the floor and has little time and no resources to study in the dimly-lit room and so works hard each day when he comes to the Centre.  This year has been a tough one for him and his family who have been through some of the most challenging experiences any family can go through.

Given all this you would be amazed that he has even managed to get through his school year intact.  But Brandon is a fighter and talked with Marleny about his personal determination to get through his education so he can get a “good job” and support his family.  Not only has he passed but has done with exceptional grades and was top of his year and had a trophy for his sporting achievements.  Normally children will want to bring their trophies and medals along to show the team and other children but Brandon is just happy to stand up and say he has passed his school year.

melvinThe next child up is Melvin who sways from side to side as tells everyone he has passed his grade and is looking forwards to next year.  8-year-old Melvin came into the mentoring programme this year when a friend brought him along, as the Centre is “cool”, according to his friend. However when Marleny explained that unless he was in the mentoring programme he could not attend the Centre but that we would look into his situation and see what we could do.  The following day he came back and Frank, who runs the mentoring programme, opened the door and was told that Marleny said he could come today, so he walked in.  The next day Marleny opened the door to him and Melvin explained that Frank said he could come back, so was allowed in.  As time went by Frank and Marleny discussed Melvin´s situation and realised he had been playing one against the other in order to come into the Centre each day.  It was quite funny really as he is quite a cheeky little chap.

When he was confronted about this he cried and said he felt safe here and that he didn´t want to be on the streets every afternoon after school.  Both Frank and Marleny told him that he could stay but that we would need to discuss the situation with his mum.  Melvin´s mum works up the road from our Centre selling fruit to those getting off and on the buses on the busy 5th and 2nd intersection in La Terminal.  Melvin has to be there at her side from the early hours till the evening but takes himself off to school around 7am every day.

His mother was shocked by the news that Melvin had passed his school year and seemed to struggle with the words to encourage him.  Melvin proudly declared that he had passed and knew that his mum wasn´t expecting him to pass but said: “you see, I told you I would pass”.  Without the support Marleny and his now new mentor, Sony, gives him he would not have passed I am sure.  I can´t believe the amount of homework the children get each week and with an increasing demand on investigations that most children are unable to do.  Investigations are small research projects that you can only really do if you have an educated parent and access to the internet and a colour printer.  That means most children we work with won´t pass unless we provide that level of support on a daily basis.

Melvin, and the other 40 children attending the Centre and enjoying the mentoring programme, will now be able to enjoy their winter break and we are trying to sign them up for sports and other courses to keep them occupied in positive activities till we get to the fun two weeks of Radio Christmas (live from Guatemala this year) and the Christmas celebrations.

There have been other amazing successes over the past two weeks and I hope these stories encourage you to know that we are using our time well and ensuring that every penny of every donation is used to impact children´s lives.  Thank you for your regular support of our work that makes all this possible.

dunc daniloDanilo is 13 and came into the Centre the other day and gave me a big hug.  His face was a picture as the beaming smile and smart clothes told me one thing – he had passed his school year.  But Danilo had passed through his primary education and was now on course to start secondary education.  Only 40% of children manage to achieve what Danilo will achieve when he starts secondary school in January as the remaining 60% have either dropped out during their primary education or are unable to start secondary school due to finances or having to work full-time.

I hadn´t realised the commitment the other young people had made to support Danilo until Jonathan, our volunteer coordinator and youth worker, told me the story.  Danilo lives in poverty and so when he prepared for his graduation ceremony all he had to wear was his worn-out school uniform.  The other teenage boys got together and one loaned him the shoes, another a shirt, another a pair of trousers and so Danilo went to his graduation looking very smart indeed.

I remember the day I first met Danilo on the rubbish dump.  I had gone there to talk to his mum about his younger brother David, who was now at high risk and spending more and more time on the streets.  I was explaining that David could be included in the mentoring programme and what support we could offer him.  “It´s Danilo I worry more about”, she said and went on to tell me that he was now being lured into drugs and other things that were not appropriate for his age and was returning very late at night to their room on the outskirts of the notorious “Limonada” in zone 5 of Guatemala City. 

I am very proud of Danilo and all he has coped with and achieved this year and know he will start his secondary education with our full support.

daniel bedWe had the chance to help a boy who will now be entering our mentoring programme due to the things that have happened in his past and the risk factors in his life.  Daniel is 10 and used to be in the same school and class as little Moses but when Moses changed school this year we lost contact with Daniel.  However a series of circumstances brought me back into contact with Daniel and I found out that he had no bed when I visited him at his new home.  Without going into the details Daniel needed a bed and so I went and spent £100 on a bed and Moses and me loaded it into the little jeep and headed over to his house.

I was not sure who was more excited about the bed, Moses or Daniel.  Watching both boys carry the bed into his room and screw in the legs was fun and as soon as the bed was in place and the bedding fitted it became the best place to be.  I recorded a short video of the visit and hope you can see the difference a donation of £100 can make in the life of a child.  Daniel told me the next day how much he enjoyed sleeping in his bed, but now he could sleep there every night.

daniel bikeFinally, another boy called Daniel had his life changed around when I took him, his brother and a friend to a posh area of Guatemala City where you can rent bikes for £1.50 for half an hour.  Daniel and his brother Carlos are now spending each day on the streets, doing drugs and getting into all sorts of situations that put their lives at risk.  Their little friend, 10-year-old Jonathan, is also in the same situation and is now sleeping rough as well.  They seem so tiny and vulnerable and their early experiments with crack will only lead them to an unhealthier lifestyle with all the possible negative heath outcomes we know that result from this type of drug taking.

But Daniel, Jonathan and Carlos had left all that behind for a few hours and were just enjoying being children.  It was comforting to watch them cycle around and see the smiles on their faces.  I know these experiences are short-lived and probably won´t result in them exploring other options for their lives, but might play a small part in the rescue process or help them see that another life is possible.  Please do pray for them and let´s hope we can have the strength to keep demonstrating love even when no success is visible.

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