Monday 20thAugust, 2018

There are days when emotions are very close to the surface and the smallest thing can bring me to tears.  And it was one of those days on Monday when I spent the evening visiting many of the families of the boys I mentor to see how they are doing.

My first stop is to visit two brothers who were deemed at high-risk and so entered the mentoring programme two years ago.  They came into my care as no male mentors could be found for them at the time and they are still with me now.  My visit to their home, a small room measuring 3m x 4m, was unexpected as the family of 8 were sitting on the double bed that is also their table, sofa and play area, and eating a huge cream birthday cake.  It was one of the youngest children´s birthdays and I am invited in to enjoy a large slice of cream cake and sing happy birthday.

The main reason for my visit is to check on the health of the mother, who, according to the two boys, is causing them concern. We discuss the pains in her shoulders and back and how long she has been suffering and the various cheap clinics she has been to with no progress or medical diagnosis.  I offer to pay for a private clinic and the boys look relived and the mum is very grateful.  Wasting no time, I make the appointment on line with my phone and confirm her appointment for later this week.

school marksI pop into to see a couple of other families and then end up visiting one the families I know is of great concern to me and the team at the moment.  It is now dark and the market (La Terminal) is starting to slow down and many of the stalls have now closed, leaving piles of rotting vegetables and fruit in the street. I climb through the mess in the street and push open a large black metal door that takes me into a dark corridor where various rooms are located.  In each room is a family and some have just a curtain up as their front door, due to the heat, while small children sit and play with marbles and mums are either washing clothes in the only sink that is shared with the various families there or cooking on make-shift stoves in the corridor.

Doña Luisa is leaning over a small charcoal fire that has been made out of an old car wheel, but it seems rather effective and is warming up a cooking pot – it´s today´s main meal for the family.  The younger children hear my voice and come running out to greet me and the smallest two hold up their arms, inviting me to pick them up as they snuggle into my neck and just hang there as I talk with the mother.

Things seem more settled now for Doña Luisa since her husband decided to leave.  He calls me now and again to tell me he misses his family and is sorry for the violence and abuse and hopes one day to sort out his life and come back and see his family.  For the moment they are all safe, but struggling without his income.  Doña Luisa starts work at 5am every day making tortillas and returns home at lunchtime in order for two of her children to go to school.  The two oldest girls’ study in the morning and the two boys in the afternoon, leaving just the 4-year-old at home under the supervision of whichever siblings are not studying.

I am now invited into their room and the children sit on the bed and ask about the belt I am wearing around my waist.  It is a utility belt and holds two first aid kits, a dog repellent spray and a pouch for a couple of games, a torch, a notepad and a pen.  We take out a game and begin to play.  The oldest girl, who is clearly loving this new game of tossing two small rubber pigs on the ground which determines their score, gets out her school bag and hands me her school results card.  I pause the game and we all look at her card and I am just bowled over by her results.

Lucia is 13-years-old and is loving school.  She is in grade two, due to the fact that she never had the chance of going to school before she started the mentoring programme.  Her results are incredible and as I look down the list of 100% marks and then look at her, she smiles and turns her head to one side, unsure of how to accept praise. She is clearly doing really well and my emotions are stirred and my mind skips back three years ago when Frank, one of our team here in Guatemala, turned up at our newly opened mentoring centre with Lucia and her four younger siblings.  She had been wandering around the streets and tells Frank that she spends every day now on the streets as it is not safe to stay in their room when the mum and dad go off to work.

cooking potI remember Lucia sitting in the corner of a room in our mentoring centre with her head in her knees whilst keeping an occasional glance over her younger brothers and sisters.  Going to school was not an option for her and all she wanted was that we got her siblings into school as soon as possible, in order, according to her, to keep them safe and help them achieve something with their lives.  When we started to teach Lucia to read she just came alive and slowly we convinced her she also could start school.  That was three years ago and now she has been in school for two years.

Looking over her school report made me think of the day she and her siblings stopped wandering the streets all day and started the mentoring programme.  She has come a long way and is obviously going to go far with her studies.  All we need to do is keep her safe, encourage her in school, help with her homework and I know she will do the rest.

It´s time for me to go now as the mum wants to feed them all and so I leave them to their evening meal.  As I lift up the curtain that separates their room from the dingy corridor I look into the pot to see what is for dinner.  My heart breaks and I am overcome with sadness as I place the lid back on the pot and say goodnight and wander out into the street.  I lean against the wall outside and try and hold it all together.  In the cooking pot, the main meal for a family of six, are 8 tomatoes.  The world seems a very unjust and cruel place right now and my determination to make it all right, at least for this family, makes me walk at speed back to the centre to see what we have available to donate to them in the morning.

I head home to eggs on toast and, once again, feel guilty for what I have and go to sleep with more than a tear in my eye.

Thursday 24th July 2018

I had hoped that after three days of rest, which included washing two weeks’ worth of clothes and running around shopping and clearing up everything from the sponsored walk from Honduras, I would be ready to take on the challenges of the day-to-day work.  The opposite seemed to be the case as I met with our team and then headed out on the streets with Ben and had to deal with a few situations that will, I am sure, probably depress you while making you aware of the challenges we all have to face in the work here each day.

Juan carlos schoolMy day starts by collecting Juan Carlos, one of the boys in the mentoring programme with me.  Today I will be walking him to school and using the opportunity to talk about his schoolwork, commitment to studies and the obvious benefits for those who have completed their primary and secondary studies and then go on to university. Meeting his teacher and talking through his educational needs, whilst being swamped by other children wanting to come and say good morning, was helpful for us all and a new commitment seems to have been made.

On return to our mentoring Centre, situated in the boundary road of La Terminal, there was lots to do including the shaping of the manual and protocols for the new Protection Home.  Once completed the home will be able to offer short-term protection to children and their families in crisis as well as offer support to the most vulnerable children in the mentoring programme while they are going through a challenging time.  Our hope is that the home will be completed by mid-August and ready to take in children from September this year.

Its days like this that, when I eventually get home, I wonder how it is possible for children to cope with all that is happening in their lives and still manage to function, let alone smile.  The building of resilience due to childhood crisis, neglect and abuse is something that I know all too well and also know how these early adverse childhood experiences can build that same resilience and lead to either great hope or great sadness.

centro julyI first hear about one of the boys in the mentoring programme that has just returned from a neurological scan and the first results have showed that his brain development has been altered due to abuse and neglect and how this could easily lead to him becoming more violent or taking his own life. Luis is a ruddy 11-year-old boy who wears the same clothes every day.  He looks like he has the word “abandoned” written all over him and the whole team would love to see him take a long shower where he can be scrubbed clean, given new clothes, a big hug and a good meal.

Luis has grown up in the care of grandparents after his parents were killed and he and his younger sister have tried to cope with the way life throws you one challenge after another.  Luis is becoming more violent and fuelled by, we believe, his abusive childhood, possible brain damage and a frustration that no one really understands him and his needs.  He told the neurologist, after he had studied his first scans, how his grandfather would beat him and then hang him up from their little shack perched on top of a small shop below that sells alcohol all hours of the day and night.  Once, he said, he was left hanging there all night long.  His view of life is rather different from ours and he sees everyone as a threat and so becomes aggressive or runs away to the streets.

Spending a few moments with some of the children helping them build lego structures is cut short when I am asked to come into a meeting with one of the younger boys in the mentoring programme whose mother works on the rubbish dump.  He is unable, as usual, to sit down and wanders around the office moving chairs and touching computer screens till I walk into the room and greet him. His mother and brother are all now sitting down around the team meeting table and have obviously been talking for a while.

The mum thanks me for coming and the little boy comes over and places his head on my side, takes my arm and places it on his chest and then snuggles in for the rest of the time we talk together.  The story unfolds of how the three of them received death threats and the explanation of what happened is followed by the mum bursting into tears and the little boy holding me even tighter while his 14-year-old brother buries his head in his arms and disassociates himself from the conversation.  It is hard to listen to the reasons why a person would want to kill this seemingly loving, hard-working mother and her two boys, but listen we must in order to take this further and offer whatever protection and support we can.

When the meeting is over and the older boy heads home on the bus and his mum returns to her work on the rubbish dump while the little boy tells me how worried he is and starts to cry when other children come up and say hi to me – usually with a huge hug and sometimes a kiss on the cheek. He is struggling to make sense of his life and wonders how long it will continue.  It is hard to say goodbye at the end of the afternoon but goodbye leads to the next part of the day – street work.

ben streetsBen and I head with heavy hearts to a place called La Casona, a corner of a busy intersection that has become home to around 80 street children and youths over the last 8 years, but now the population is no larger than 10 young adults with a few hang-around-the-edges children.  We meet Vicky who is back on the streets after her boyfriend is released from prison and has become violent again, Manuel who is clearly not happy on the streets and is always talking of another chance to leave it all behind and start a new life, Mauricio who is still homeless and still looking for work, Jenny who has been beaten again and needs first aid on her infected leg and swollen face, Marcos who has lost his job and been thrown out of home by his wife due to his behaviour and lastly Selvin who tells me about how he stabbed his brother with a broken bottle and was now waiting for the consequences.

Our attention, if this was not enough, was caught a little later by what was transpiring across the road.  Ben noticed that the family we have been helping over the last few weeks with accommodation in the builders’ mess of a Protection Home, was sitting on the steps that lead to their home.  They had needed help due to their carer/grandmother being hit by a car, which had left her with fractures, bruises and in a great amount of pain.  She is nearly 70 and spends her days on the streets looking after parked cars in the hope the owners might give her a few pennies at the end of the day.  The three children she is looking after don´t know she was rushed into hospital and the news is broken to them by our team when they come out of school.  They have nowhere else to live and so we take them into the downstairs part of the new Protection Home while the builders continue their hard work of getting the first floor ready for the grand opening in August.

Sitting on the steps and looking around means one thing - the pickup that has been booked to take their treasured possessions to a new apartment in the centre of the city has not materialised.  The team had spent a long time finding them alternative accommodation as part of a new plan to look after them after the grandmother´s accident and release from hospital because they were unable to continue living in the home they had camped out in for the last few years.

Lucas move2Ben tells me he is worried and so we walk over to see what is happening and are told that the transport has not come and that it might come tomorrow now.  This is frustrating for us and for the family who have packed up their meagre possessions into various rubbish sacks and have them piled up by the communal door that leads to the main street.  Their trusted dog, Rex, stands guard over it all and wags his tail at us as we enter into the door and climb up the rickety wooden steps that lead to the room they have lived in over the past 10 or more years.

The building is crumbling all around them and the room they all live in is now fairly bare and a few wires hang down from the ceiling.  At least the light works, but the water has been cut off a long time ago due to non-payment. The children don´t want to leave despite the awful conditions as they don´t know the new place at all as it had only come up the previous day and we had to say yes right away.  We have no idea where the money is going to come from to pay for the rent or how we will now get the children to school each day and help support them while the grandmother recovers, but we can´t just do nothing and so decide to move forwards in faith that it will work out somehow.

As the minutes pass we have to decide what to do as the family need to move, but we have no transport.  So, a quick walk around the terminal at 7pm at night leads us eventually to a man with a pickup who, for £15, will transport the family and their possessions to zone 1.  We help as much as we can and at least our little jeep can accommodate the children and their grandmother while Ben clings onto the back of the pickup till we get to their new home.

Lucas move1The two girls and teenage boy carry in their bags of clothes, pots and other various household goods while the two beds, which look like they have been rescued from a rubbish dump, are taken into their new two-room house.  There is a mix of sadness and excitement and I wonder how awake the children will be for school tomorrow, as it is now late and they still haven´t eaten.  I drive with Ben to buy an easy meal solution of pizza while they try and accommodate themselves.

The good news is that one of our team is living just down the corridor and so is on hand should the family need help.  This also will put pressure on our team member who used to go home to relax and be with his wife but is happy, as always, to put other people´s needs first and comes out to see all is well.  I am surprised to see him as he had spoken to me in the early hours of the morning, which now seem like a week away, to tell me his wife has just miscarried and they have lost their first child.

Going home tonight will be tough for both Ben and me. It is not easy to accept that we have a bed to sleep in and food, albeit some fruit and bread, in the fridge. Whatever we thought our problems were at the beginning of the day have been dismissed and we are grateful again to God for allowing us to serve those whose lives teeter on the knife-edge vulnerability.  Thanks to your support we can do this work, because without it I can´t begin to imagine what it would be like for those we love to serve.  THANK YOU.

 

Saturday 21st July 2018

I can´t say I ever get tired of walking.  There is something quite freeing about being alone on a road or footpath and enjoying God´s amazing creation and the ingenuity of man.  Ever since the first Camino por Amor walk in 2016 I have enjoyed walking throughout Central America, exploring new areas, meeting hundreds of new people, shared some quite unforgettable memories and seen how my stress levels and general health improves dramatically by just walking.

camino1The Camino por Amor walk last week was another opportunity to enjoy all of the above as well as generate interest in our work and funds for the various projects we partner with in Central America.  It was my third walk and this one was yet another challenge with Steve Poulson for the first to finish and the team that got the most votes in our music video challenge contest.  I will explain what happened in a bit and I am hoping that, when I get time, to make a short video of the walk and give you details of the more challenging walk coming for 2019!

The plan WAS… for me to walk from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to Guatemala City and for Steve Poulson to walk from Guatemala City to Tegucigalpa.  The plan WAS… to walk 90km per day for six days and then walk about 65km on the last day to our final destination.  The journey would take us through the Valle Seco (Dry Valley), which spans from the capital of Honduras to the outskirts of Guatemala City.  It would be a mainly uphill walk for me, with some days having to walk up more than 2,800m on hot roads and with little shade, while Steve would be walking downhill, which challenges on the body in many ways.

camino walk7At the point where both Team Guatemala and Team Honduras crossed over in order to get to our starting points, we met for lunch to discuss plans, tactics and to reveal the half-way challenge, which we would have to complete before we met again on our return.  We also took advantage of the meeting to show off each other´s support vehicles and decided to make our own Camino por Amor Top Gear Special.  Our half-way challenge was to make a music video, which we would upload when we met together again and then allow people to vote which one they liked the best. Needless to say Team Guatemala won that vote with a superb music video based on the song “Más que Nada”.

From day one both myself and Steve realised that walking 90km in one day is going to take its toll on your body.  Getting up at 3am on day two and trying to walk another 90km was going to be a challenge but we were committed to it despite the way our bodies were saying “hang on a minute, you need to rest”.

Steve posted photos of the state of his feet followed by more photos of the state of his walking mate Julio´s feet.  It was not a pretty sight and we realised that from day two Team Honduras were not going to make up on lost ground due to injury and so we could either press forwards to a massive victory to be humble and work as one team.  We decided on the later and so discussed with Steve the way we could accommodate his bad feet and try and walk as much as possible each day and then walk the 65km on the last day but agreed there and then on a draw.  It was now set!

camino walk5Despite the changes to the challenge of walking this distance and team Honduras´ health problems, we struck difficulties on day two when my back just froze up and cried out “take me to hospital”.  (My back was still not right after a fracture last year.) My support vehicle had gone off to buy fuel and ice and so I sent out my distress message and location and waited for their rescue.  It didn´t take long before the magnificent Ford Escape climbed the hill and within seconds the team, consisting of Ben and Joseph Soden, had the exercise mat out and started to apply all sorts of creams to my back while trying their best to cool my body temperature.  I thought I was heading to hospital, but with a short rest and some medication and massaging I was ready to walk up the never-ending hill.

As the walk progressed we started to settle into a pattern of walking the first 25km, then breakfast, then walking 10km before a short rest, stretch, re-fuel the body with water and then repeat.  Each 10km was very different and I had planned about 10 hours of music to listen to each day that fitted in roughly with each 10km. Little treats were planned for 65km, like a Coke or a chocolate bar but by then it was already dark and we were thinking of finding somewhere to stay the night and desperate to get into a cold shower and then hit the bed.

Each day started with “Video killed the radio star” a track that was just the perfect beat for walking about 4.7 miles an hour. The track fitted in with the movement of my walking poles and that set me up for the rest of the day but by day 7 it was becoming rather annoying.

camino walk8The fun came when Team Honduras came up the hill I was walking down and our half-way point was reached and celebrated with lunch and a quick look at the England match.  We then showed each other our music videos and laughed at Steve´s Barbie girl section of their video and knew this would be a tough competition indeed. Later that evening as Joseph and Ben were unloading the support car when it decided to die on us.  This was met with the obvious rejoicing by Team Honduras and, after we discovered they were not to blame for our dead car, we knew we had a much bigger problem on our hands.

The Team Guatemala car, together with its neat flashing light and mobile communications centre that would rival anything NASA could come up with had died.  There was nothing happening at all, not even a spark or glimmer of hope from our look under the bonnet (hood).  I was not sure what I was looking for but there was no life and since the brakes and transmission are electronic it really was a dead duck in the water. Thanks to my car insurance a recovery vehicle was on its way to take it back to Guatemala and our friend and team worker, Sony, hired a car in Guatemala and headed over to us right away. It would mean that we would miss a few hours of walking time but would have another vehicle to support us walking all the way back to Guatemala City.

camino walk1The following day was different without our usual car by the side of us but we had a new team member and renewed energy after a longer than planned rest the previous night.  We pressed on and saw that Steve had been taken to a clinic as he was suffering from more pain in his knees and feet.  We were not without our challenges this day as I got to just over our half-way point and the pounding heat on my head and back started to drain me of all energy.  Ben and Joseph told me how they saw me walking “rather strangely” as I lunged from one side to the other and started to feel very light-headed and was unable to feel my legs or the pain in my back.  I was very dehydrated and needed to be cooled down as the temperatures were now nearly 30 degrees plus the reflection off the road increased the actual temperature to unbearable limits.  I almost collapsed but was able to find a tiny try that gave me some shade and bend over and wait for help to come.  Once again, my team were able to get me going again and I then started to think more about the reason I was walking and the faces of the children together with the little book they had made me to read on the journey that consisted of short messages and photos.  Furthermore, I had either Ben or Joseph walking with me now to encourage me and be there to support for when my body started to fail.

camino walk3As we approached the border of Honduras and Guatemala on day 5 we were celebrating my birthday and Steve had left a present with me with instructions to open it on my birthday but film it at the same time. I had no idea what it was and when I opened the black rubbish bag I found a huge pink hat with a large flower at the front that I had to wear for the day.  It was hilarious and caused no end of laughter and comments from police and members of the public as we walked along the road and crossed the border.  A fun interlude that got us to day 6 and that would lead to day 7, which was our last day and final push up into the mountains to Guatemala City.

We were joined on the last day from friends from my men´s group in church and then later by two busses of children from La Terminal in Guatemala City, all of which would be benefitting from funds raised on the walk.  

camino walk4The triumphal entry into Guatemala City was one of high emotion and to walk up the last bit of the hill and see all the children with their banners and screaming out my name and Camino por Amor was almost overwhelming.  The city had sent some police motorcycle outriders to accompany us to our final destination and near to the finish we were joined by more friends from Guatemala City and the British Ambassador to Honduras and British Ambassador to Guatemala.

Walking around the corner into the street where our mentoring centre is situated was an adrenaline rush as we saw all the children, who had been bussed to the finish to save their feet, screaming and waving while firecrackers were lit that made a statement that no amount of words could. It was the end, it was time to stop walking and lie down on the floor, enjoy a cold drink and the applause and hugs from everyone there.  It was mission accomplished and now, the thing we had talked about every day on the walk, was about to happen.  Ben, Joseph and I headed for a comfortable hotel swimming pool, hot tub and then a large steak and cold drinks.

We are so grateful to the thousands of people who watched our videos, all those who donated, for those who followed every step of the gruelling journey and for the hundreds of comments each day on our Facebook and Twitter pages.  Job done!