Friday 26th May

“Amazing, disturbing, inspiring and depressing”. These were the words I heard from the Lord Bishop of Bristol, Rt. Rev Mike Hill, after his day with our project here in Guatemala City.

Bishop Mike Hill has been visiting us over the last few days and wanted to see for himself the work I am doing here with Mi Arca and so accompanied me on a whirlwind tour of our Centre, the new building we would like to use for the Protection Home and then onto the streets.

Mike in TerminalI was dropping Mike off, together with his armed bodyguard, at his hotel and Mike was reflecting back over his day.  He mentioned how it would take him time to process what he had seen and wondered how I was able to keep going with the relentless demands on my time, the pain of seeing so much abuse and the constant dangers all around on a daily basis.

I have known Mike since 1987 when I joined his staff team as a youth worker and then five years later left the parish in Chesham Bois to move to Guatemala and founded The Toybox Charity and the El Castillo project.

When Mike, his bodyguard, the Mi Arca street team and me headed to the streets I was sure he would find the afternoon and evening difficult.  No sooner as we arrived in La Terminal a man was shot in the chest and sadly Mike had to witness the guy fighting for his life as the municipal ambulance team tried to keep blood loss to a minimum.  The reality of the visit was hard for Mike, as it would be for any visitor, as it´s not everyday people from the UK see this sort of thing.

Mike at EmbassyThe following day, and with some time to reflect on his experience on the streets, Mike delivered a powerful message to a group of invited guests at the British Embassy Residence in Guatemala City.  The Embassy has always been very supportive of our work and had invited Mike and me to The Residence to talk about the work on the streets and for Mike to discuss “Spiritual life in public space” and guests included the pastor of my church, a Guatemalan Bishop, members of the British community, UNICEF, local VIPs and the Attorney General.  It was a very special time.

The photo shows me with Bishop Mike Hill and Chargé d’ Affaires of the British Embassy, Mr. Andrew Tate.

Over the last two weeks we have seen our two CMS missionaries, Mark and Rosalie Balfour, be taken to Mexico so that Rosalie can get urgent treatment on her leg after a fall here in Guatemala, Joesph Soden recover enough to return home to the UK and to welcome his brother Ben Soden to Guatemala.

streets with jospehOn one of the last trips to the streets with me Joseph was keen to say goodbye to the various groups of street youths and this photo was taken by one of the boys when we said our goodbye to the guys at La Casona. 

It was heartbreaking to find little Jonathan in La Casona abusing solvents.  You will see him in the photo and, like me, will struggle to understand how a baby-faced 10-year-old boy can live like this.  I have tried to get to know Jonathan over the last few weeks and am slowly building up a picture of his life in order to try and help prevent him living on the streets full-time.  It can become rather overwhelming seeing young children living like this but it only reinforces my determination to make a difference in his life.

welcome Ben


Ben arrived in Guatemala City to a mass of photos, applause, shouts of joy and tons of hugs from staff, volunteers and children.  Ben will spend two weeks studying Spanish in Antigua before moving to Guatemala City where he will begin working with the street team.  Ben´s gifts and skills will help him quickly develop the relationships that are at the centre of our work and I will help him take on the responsibility for coordinating the expansion of the street work in August this year.

It has been interesting working with the kids in the mentoring programme recently and it is so much fun being at the Centre when the kids pile in from school and seek that extra bit of support, a hug, some food and a place to belong.  Just as I was leaving the kids decided to gather around me (I was kneeling at the time due to my back issues) and pray for me.  What an incredible time that was!

Jesus birthdayLittle Jesus had celebrated his birthday in style with us and I had managed to find some extra money to buy him a cool present.  The resilience of Jesus and his brother Marcos never ceases to amaze me.  They have now moved from their home in the country to a room near the rubbish dump in La Terminal.  I know they miss the weekends at their old home as the fresh air and countryside was good for them.  But the fact they had to get up at 3:30am everyday in order to get the first bus into the city (a 2-hour journey) so that their mum could start work on the dump first thing while they walked to school was draining on them and I could see just how tired they were everyday.

Juan Carlos, another boy in the mentoring programme, told me recently that he had a dream of becoming a volunteer fire and rescue worker.  Los Bomberos, as they are called here, do an amazing job and seem to spend most of their time picking up dead bodies from around the city, but do offer immediate support to people every hour of the day and night.  Juan Carlos told me that he had learned in the Centre that we must help others and so he went home and told his mum about his dream. 

Juan carlos firetruckThat was many months ago and so after talking with him I spoke to a friend of mine who volunteers each week with Los Bomberos.  Byron, a friend from my church, invited Juan Carlos and me to the station to get to know their work and to talk with him about the junior brigade.  Juan Carlos was in his element as any 12-year-old would be in a fire and rescue station.  At the end of his visit Byron offered to sponsor Juan Carlos through his junior bombero training and so all that is needed now is for Juan Carlos to obtain good school results later this year.  Another child with his mind fixed on success.

This last week has been very stressful and tiring but I always count it a joy and privilege to work here in Guatemala and to serve these children.  One of the boys I work closely with is 9-year-old Moses who has been in a mentoring relationship with me for the last 3 years.  Over the last few weeks I have been exploring the mentoring module called “community” with Moses and it became very clear from the beginning that he saw community as a dangerous place.

moses mapOur first discussion around the idea included the drawing of a map of where he lives and since he lives between two family members, two maps were created.  On both maps large areas were identified with red marker pen as dangerous and only one place was coloured in as “safe”.  The safe place was our Centre and despite me asking him three times in different ways where he feels safe he replied: “only in The Centre”.  I am sure that is true for so many of the children who come everyday and so I wanted to take time here to say THANK YOU to all of you who gave so generously to get this Centre up and running over a year and a half ago.

As I was leaving The Centre today one of the boys came and asked to talk with me alone.  I thought he was going to talk with me about a gift he had just received from a sponsor in the UK, but when I looked into his luring eyes I could see that it was something rather more serious.  “I have nowhere to sleep tonight Duncan”, he told me. His face told me there was so much more to the profoundly heartbreaking statement and he looked at me with hope that I could offer him a solution.

Jony homelessMy mind immediately went to the Protection Home but had to discount that idea, as we have no adults there at the moment, just me camping in one of the rooms till I can find a more permanent place to live.  I offered him a night at the Centre, but that would mean me having to sleep there on the sofa to keep him safe.  But with my back the way it is right now that was not an option.  My only other idea was to talk with him about staying with his mum again but this would certainly mean more pain and rejection but it was better than the street.

I can´t leave him just there at the end of a paragraph as you will want to know what happened to him.  For the moment we are having to assess his situation daily and pray that one day we will find Guatemala families who will open up their homes and offer these kids a loving, caring and protective family.  After all, that is what they all want.  When I asked little Duncan in Honduras recently what he would prefer, a children´s home or a family, he said right away: “I want to have a family”.

One of the reasons we are exploring the idea of a Protection Home is not to create another children´s home, but rather offer a short-term space for the most vulnerable children we work with based on the UK boarding house model.  While they are able to stay in the home Monday to Friday our prevention team will work with their family in order to strengthen the family unit and help create a safer and more loving place in which children can grow up.  More about this in the coming months.

Tuesday 25th April

It was all going really well!

It had been a busy and challenging week as one of our British volunteers, Joseph Soden, had been complaining of feeling unwell and when I took him to the clinic his health deteriorated within minutes.  The next thing we know he is being rushed into A&E and then into hospital.  The last week has been spent at his side in the La Paz hospital in the city while doctors confirmed he has Typhoid.

breakfastAs the tests continued and more and varied drugs are given to him Joseph slowly recovered.  It all looked rather promising and on Sunday his health was looking so much better that he allowed me to bring some of the children to visit him.  It was a special time and when I asked the two girls who came with Moses if they would like a late breakfast their faces lit up and said, “yes please”.  Over breakfast in the hospital canteen (all rather posh in the private hospital) I asked the girls if they had eaten breakfast.  They told me that they hadn´t eaten since Friday and by the way they were eating I could see that this was probably true. 

I left Joseph on the Sunday evening and took the children home, as I wanted an early night and knew that Monday would be a long and busy day.  Joseph was doing so well and I was expecting him to leave hospital on Tuesday and then recuperate back at the house.

The girls were very happy when I dropped them off and as they climbed up the concrete bank to the building where they, their brother and grandmother live.  Despite being hungry they had both squirreled away some of their food for the grandmother and waved me off as I drove to drop Moses home.

Moses, the 9-year-old I am mentoring, is now living back with his grandmother who has moved house but still in the notorious zone 18 of Guatemala City.  The journey takes about half an hour as the Sunday traffic is much lighter at this time of day.  As we enter zone 18 my sense of security raises and both Moses and me are on our watch for gunmen on motorbikes, gangs and anyone acting in a way that would cause alarm.

el limonEl Limon is a conflict-ridden sector in one of the most violent zones in Guatemala City, Zone 18, and it´s in El Limon that Moses now lives.  We turn right into the troubled area and right away Moses begins to point out gang members and talks freely about armed attacks, murders and things that have happened to his family that I would rather not print here.

We make it through the narrow streets filled with people and the Guatemalan Army who have erected small outposts and sit nervously behind a huge wall of sandbags as they clutch hold of the type of armory that would expect to see in a war zone.

Moses´s grandmother was clear that he was to be dropped off at the top of the road as she didn´t want me to be in any danger but I really couldn´t do that and wanted to not only make sure he got home safely but that I could see where he was now living.  We park the car in a dead-end street and Moses keeps his eyes close to the ground and tells me that 3-4 of the boys we are now approaching are gang members.  The group of 6 boys are standing on the corner and watching us closely as we walk by.  The oldest is probably 8-years-of-age and I wonder, as I look at them and smile, how children so young can be involved in gangs.

The gang scene in Guatemala has increased dramatically since the late 90s and it is barrios and favelas like this where the gangs hold the greatest amount of control and to some degree respect.  The national paper ran an article this week on the increase in the number of bus drivers being killed, 62 already this year, in Guatemala City and this photo (Prensa Libre: Erick Ávila) is of the latest assassination of a bus driver in El Limon. 

bus attackToday I am sent a photo of a police officer that is lying dead on the ground and covered with a white sheet.  A young boy on a bicycle gunned him down as he crossed the road.  Gangs are using young boys more and more as they know that if the boy is under the age of responsibility there is little the police can do if that child is handed a gun and shoots someone.  Another death and another broken family but a young boy who can probably now be held in esteem in the gang for having killed a police officer.

Eventually we arrive at the house Moses’ grandmother is renting.  It´s super cheap and there is a reason for it.  It is brick built, single storey and is protected only by a simple metal front door.  All the windows have bars on them and inside there are no doors at all, just 6 empty rooms and a small sink in the patio at the rear.  There has been a mass exodus from Zone 18 over recent years and some parts of it resemble a war zone rather than a city suburb.

Moses´ grandmother welcomes us and looks up and down the street as she closes the door and offers me a drink.  It is clear she lives in fear and with good reason.  Every house in the area is now being numbered.  Neighbours are waking up each morning to find a number painted on their house.  The number corresponds to a property tax the gang are now extorting on every house and it won´t be long before they come knocking on the house where Moses lives.  No wonder he does not sleep well and can´t go out to play in the street.

On my safe return I prepare for the long day that is Monday.  The day starts at 4:30am as I head to our Centre for prayer and catching up with emails.  I need to leave at 8:30am to be one of the first in the queue at the bank in order to double check that the donations from the US and the UK have arrived in time to order the printing of cashiers cheques for the purchase of the house we will be converting into our first Protection Home.  The bank confirms the money from the US has arrived but the money from the UK is stuck between two accounts due a mix-up with some bank digits.  The news hits me hard as we have arranged the completion of the purchase with lawyers and the owners of the house.  All this will need to be cancelled while I sort out how to get the money to the right account.

Joseph in hospitalI then head over to the hospital to find Joseph in a lot of pain and the doctors working hard with more drugs and more tests.  He seems rather low and so I decide to cancel meetings for the following day and spend time with him and the doctors working on a solution.  Sort of makes me feel like Dr. House!  It was all going really well but the day was not shaping up as I had planned – what´s new.

On my return to the Centre I see that children are now arriving and so I begin by spending time with each one using a new app we have developed to get feedback from them on how they feel about the mentoring programme.  Some of the children are playing; others doing homework and some are cooking pancakes and seeing how high they can toss them in the air.  Such a beautiful time before I head to the streets and try and find Marcos and David.

pancakesI arrive at the rubbish dump in La Terminal and find Jesus doing some homework with one of the families that help support our work.  We sit down and chat for about an hour about what is going on in the dump and how Marcos and Jesus are doing.  Jesus is now keen to start the mentoring programme and the family asks about how Joseph is doing and if they can visit him.  As the clouds turn black it is looking like the rainy season is starting early and so I head back to the Centre to collect Victor, a teenage boy we are looking after at the moment, and head to the hospital with the oldest son of the family in the rubbish dump.

We try not to spend too long visiting Joseph as I know how tiring having visitors in hospital is.  The news seems promising but we will have to see how Joseph is in the morning and then makes plans.  I now have to take Victor to the supermarket so he can spend my money on food for himself over the next week, as he will need to stay with us in the house for a while.  I bump into a stand that is selling freshly cooked chicken and so decide to buy two, as we are very hungry and we could go back to the dump and share them with the family there.  The boys are very excited about this plan and so we head to the checkout and then the dump.

It´s now very dark at the dump and raining but there are still many people working there.  We are invited into a small shack and we sit down and share chicken and bread rolls.  It´s a special and intimate time and the family are so pleased we have eaten with them and offer whatever help we need when we open the new Protection Home.  We need to get home and so I climb in the car and Victor jumps in beside me.  As I turn on the engine the windscreen wipers remove the rain from my view and there in front of me, highlighted by the car´s headlights, are four small children.  The children can´t be more than 3-4 years of age and look like they have been working or playing on the rubbish dump all day.

The sight of them fills my heart with sadness as we have just sat and eaten a chicken and maybe we could have shared it with them.  Victor says to me as I comment on how sad this is that “this was me a few years ago”.  We seem to be frozen in time for a while and I find it very difficult to drive off and leave them.  Victor and me talk about his childhood for a bit and then we both drive back in silence.  Arriving back to the house is not easy as we have beds to sleep in and so the best thing to do tonight is to have a shower, climb into bed and cry.

Sunday 16th April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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