Being a street worker is certainly not the most glamorous or well paid of jobs. Street work is hard graft, dangerous, exhausting and messes with your mind as you see so much suffering. However, it is my calling and I LOVE IT! I love the fact that you can make a difference to someone´s life and when I say difference that could be to actually save their life. I love the banter of the street, I love the chaos, and I love the multi-faceted sub-cultures that are very evident in every visit. I love the welcome I receive from all those on the streets and love their acceptance of me and their willingness to share everything they have with me.
I was reminded again this week of the way street work can and does affect one personally. I don´t think you can be a street worker if you are not prepared to be hurt. A friend of mine who runs a project in Honduras for street boys wrote to me this week and said: “doing this work with a broken heart helps us get a better glimpse of our Father´s heart for them”. How true his words are and they arrived when I was at my lowest and trying to make sense of all that has happened this week and questioning God about why so many of those we work with die so young.
I have been grieving the loss of Gerson and so as part of my therapy I am writing to share his life with you in the hope that it will mean something. I hope too that out of his death will come a renewed passion to help the many who still live on the streets of Guatemala City.
Gerson was born on the 28th May 1997. His mum was just a teenager and clearly didn´t relish the fact that she had to now bring up a baby boy. Gerson´s grandmother told me that she remembers visiting him one day and found him lying on a mattress caked in his own excrement. He was only 4 years of age and so the grandmother tried to offer him an alternative family. This arrangement didn´t last long and Gerson soon went back to live with his mum.
At the age of six Gerson´s mother decided that enough was enough and that she wanted to do away with the boy. She tried to give him away to various people and then eventually found a lady in La Terminal who was interested in him. That was the last contact she had with him and he was handed over to a total stranger, but at least she felt free and, according to Gerson´s grandmother, never felt anything towards her son at all.
Gerson grew up with this lady and quickly learnt why she was interested in him. He was taught all sorts of things that children should not know about at the age of six and so suffered many years of sexual abuse and neglect before running away to live on the streets. The authorities must have picked him up at some point as he was placed in a children´s home for a couple of years before escaping and finding his way back to La Terminal in Guatemala City.
How was he expected to be a good boy? How was he expected to go to school and live a normal life after all he had experienced during those early years? He was alone, angry, and bitter against his mum and wider family and really hurt by how he was treated in the children´s home and so began to look for belonging on the streets. That is where I met him.
The early days of knowing Gerson were a mixture of fun, sadness and frustration. The frustration came from me as I could see a boy who had been through so much and, as a result, was closed to being helped and could not bring himself to trust an adult. I tried many times to help him consider another home but after hearing the horror stories of how he was treated when in the children’s home I could only hope that he would explore the option of living with his grandmother.
My connection with Gerson became stronger after every visit as he would often come and sit with me and look at me with those penetrating eyes and say that I was his Dad. He never remembered his father, who was killed when he was a much younger boy, and so latched on to me. He would beg at the traffic lights on the 6th Avenue and when he had a 25c coin he would call me. Often the conversation was about him asking how I was, what I was doing and when I would visit him next. This photo was taken a few years ago on what, gerson told me, was the happiest day of his life.
On my return from the UK in mid-June I visited the streets where Gerson was living because he called me the night I landed and asked if I would come to see him. He was angry with me for not being in Guatemala to celebrate his birthday and asked if I had brought him a present. Gerson was had just turned 20 but he still looked like a 14-year-old boy. I went to find him and eventually he came running to meet me and gave me a big hug, telling me he loved me and why did I miss his birthday.
It was clear to me that he was ill again and so I asked him if he would allow me to take him into hospital. It was a scenario that we played out many times. Gerson would get depressed, refuse to eat and then sniff solvents to the point where he would eventually collapse and, when he became unconscious, then could we take him into hospital. I can´t remember how many times I took him to hospital, visited him and helped arrange for a new life once he was thinking clearly.
The hospital visits increased and not just through solvent abuse. He was stabbed so many times one evening that we all wondered if he would pull through. When released he was hit by a car, which left him with difficulties in walking and talking and his hands would shake so much he could not drink from a cup anymore. His life took a turn for the worse and, once again, was rushed into hospital the day after I returned from a recent trip to Honduras.
The day began with me receiving two phone calls from people on the streets telling me that Gerson was seriously ill and could the street team come and take him to hospital. Ben Soden and Sony rushed to where he was while I went to collect Moses from school and then we would assess the situation. Ben told me later that day how distressing it was finding Gerson almost unconscious on the streets and how emancipated he looked. Ben and Sony (our administrator) asked the Municipal Bomberos to rush him to hospital but at first they were not interested. After pleas for their help they arrived on the scene and decided to take Gerson to hospital.
Ben watched as one of the Bomberos tried to grab hold of Gerson like he was a dog and drag him into the ambulance. This, according to Ben, was very distressing and made him angry and so pushed the Bombero away and, as carefully as he could, picked up Gerson and placed him gently in the ambulance. Sony then accompanied Gerson to the hospital and later that day I went to see how he was doing.
I know I have written about the main city hospital here in Guatemala City so many times before and so will spare you the stories. It takes me a while to eventually be allowed access to Gerson as I am told he is still in Emergency and that I would be allowed 10 minutes to visit him. I walk into the emergency room, which is absolute chaos, and step over a pile of blood and begin my search for him. It is a miracle this hospital can actual function as government funds are limited and most doctors tell me they don´t have painkillers or much in the way of basic medicines. The hospital makes you feel you have travelled to a war zone in the 1950s. Hope does not find a home here as I look around at the many on stretchers and even one patient lying on the floor with various family members trying their best to keep their loved ones alive. It´s distressing but eventually I find Gerson lying on a bed.
My first impression is that he is in a bad way. He is a bag of skin and bones and is being kept alive through a ventilator and has a concoction of drugs being fed into him through a vein in his neck. I have no idea where the drugs have come from, as I know how short they are and, according to one of the male nurses, would not normally “waste” drugs on someone from the streets. It is clear he is in a really bad way and so all I can do is be with him, hold his hand, pray with him and whisper in his ear.
Gerson spends the weekend in the hospital before I visit him on the Monday afternoon and see if any progress has been made. This visit I actually meet a doctor who knows Gerson´s situation and tells me that he does not think he will live for much longer. His words seem to come out really slowly and the thought of losing him begins to dawn on me. I manage to tell the doctor that I will contact his family and come back later or tomorrow to see how he is doing.
It takes a few hours to arrive at his grandmother´s house and I pass on the news and ask her to help provide us with legal papers should Gerson not pull through. If no legal papers can be presented when someone dies then they are disposed of as XX and you never have a chance of a funeral or to visit the place the body is “buried”. His grandmother tells me she will leave early in the morning and get copies of his papers and meet us at the hospital.
I arrive home exhausted and heartbroken and remain in prayer for Gerson and still hope he would once again pull through. Sadly this would not be the case and later that night he passed away and the next day I went, with legal papers, to collect his body from the hospital morgue. Dying in the hospital means he did not need an autopsy and then funeral arrangements were made and all those we knew who knew him were informed. It was a difficult time for us all, especially for Ben who had recently joined the street team and was only one year older than Gerson and had seen three deaths in the last 15 days. What a way to begin his work with us in Guatemala!
Gerson´s life was a troubled one and he saw his fair share of suffering and I hope that now he is at peace and with God. I knew that speaking at his funeral would be almost impossible and so I kept my words short in order to hold it all together and help the family know he was loved indeed. All I could say was etched on a plaque that was placed on his tomb: “You were never alone in this world Gerson even though the world hit you hard. I love you son and trust you to the mercy and love of God”. It was a tough day and one I know we will be repeating again unless a miracle happens and all those we are trying to help leave the streets.
I tried to be a Dad to Gerson and, in part, I succeeded in demonstrating to him that he was loved just for who he was. I will miss his phone calls and toothless smile and will now use my grief to fuel my determination to help many more Gersons. One such boy rang me today and asked how I was doing as he had accompanied me to the funeral. He told me he didn´t want to die on the streets like Gerson and like his Dad and was now ready to go into a home. I tell him I will see him later and will remind him of the words he said to me at the funeral and how Gerson´s death has made him want to change. Hope rises and I will keep you posted of his progress.
Dedicated to Gerson. A boy I loved as much as I could. A young man who knew he had a father who cared for him but who increasingly lived with a desire to be released from this life. I trust him into God´s mercy and hope that one day I will see him again.