Friday 2ndNovember

Resilience is a word that describes the experiences of so many of the children I work with.  I understand the word to mean the amount of personal challenges a child can endure and still be able to function, develop and overcome.

rescuedOur street team found a young boy wandering in the city streets the other day and brought him to our Centre.  It was clear he needed some medical treatment, a good shower, food and some tender loving care.  It seems he was abandoned in La Terminal by his father and the team discovered that there was an alert out for him due to the special needs the boy has.

Being abandoned must be one of the most difficult things to deal with as it must make one feel completely valueless and alone. I remember my early days on the streets of Guatemala back in 1993 and talking to a boy who had been on the streets for a few weeks at this point.  He told me his dad had taken him on a 16-hour bus ride from the countryside to the city and when they arrived in the early hours his dad took him to a supermarket.  “Wait here”, the dad told the boy.  He stared for a while and then said: “I waited there for three days and then realised that my dad was not coming back”.

Thankfully the boy we found this week was taken to the appropriate authorities that are now increasingly taking on the mantle of child protectors and are seeking to keep children safe.  I saw this for myself the other day when we discovered one of the boys we had helped leave the streets had run away from the children´s home and was now back into his old ways.

Carlos is a bright boy, and despite being 16-years-of-age he is still a young boy.  His level of resilience is one of the highest I have ever seen.  One day, when he makes it through this very challenging stage in his life, he will have one incredible story to tell.  It has been a real privilege being alongside him over the last 8 years and, when I sit down next to him, he tells me the exact day and year he met me.  It must have been one day to remember and I am honoured to think he feels I have played that special part in his life so far.

When a child goes missing in Guatemala, and there are many hundreds who do each month, a special alert goes out called an Alba-Keneth, named after the two children who were abducted and murdered in Guatemala nearly 10 years ago.

There was an Alba-Keneth for Carlos as he had escaped from a children´s home because some older boys had been placed there who were from a gang and started to intimidate the other boys and cause problems with the neighbouring homes.  I can understand why he ran away but glad he contacted us and asked for our help. Thankfully I have a very easy phone number for the kids to remember and so they call me at all hours when they need help.

carlos homeI went, with Ben, to see him last week, now happy to be back off the streets and in another home.  Despite the very basic setup, the home seems a good first stop for Carlos and as we sat and chatted he kept looking into my eyes and reminding me of the first day he met me.  Another survivor and another child kept safe.

Whilst on the topic of resilience I want to share some more good news with you.  You will remember that the group of boys I mentor has slowly grown to nine!  It does seem an impossible task as each boy requires personal time every week, but with very few men coming forward to mentor boys I feel I have to help those who feel alone and need the support and attention I can give.

All nine boys will pass their school year this month and move on to the next one, and some have been given special awards and have achieved things that has surprised us and their families.  I think of one 11-year-old boy who works on the rubbish dump and was keen to get through his school year in order to move closer to his dream of getting a well-paid job one day in order to support his mum so she doesn´t have to work 14-16 hours a day on the rubbish. Another has done so well that he can now go to a private school and benefit from a quality education and all the opportunities that will bring.  Another is struggling with school and finds it difficult but is determined to try and leave his abusive past behind and get to secondary school next year.

graduationIt has been a week of many proud moments, a week of invitations to school events and “clausuras” (end of term celebrations) and seeing nine boys standing proud and with hope that next year will take them a little step closer to their dream.

I invite them all to join me, my sister – who was visiting Guatemala last week, and Joseph Soden to a party at our Centre and to watch a video that included all the photos I have taken over the year of the various mentoring sessions.  I think they saw just how special this year has been and, thanks to your support, next year will one amazing adventure.

Thank you for sticking with us and for all you have done that has meant I could meet with them each week, take them on trips, visit their families and support in times of crisis, rush them to hospital when needed, look for creative ways to keep them busy rather than taking to the streets, signing them up for activities and courses that will develop their skills and personalities, sitting with them when they just want to give up on life and seeing them through to a new day, and exploring ways they can resist all the tough stuff the world throws at them.  Without your support we could not do this.  THANK YOU.

Monday 22ndOctober

We have had a very special time recently with the visit of Julio from Honduras.  Julio works for Proyecto Alas, a project that Street Kids Direct have got behind and which is the main project we are using in Honduras to grow the mentoring programme. Steve Poulson also volunteers with the project and so Julio came to Guatemala in order to receive training and support in the mentoring programme for children and young people who are at high-risk of taking to the streets in Honduras.

Despite the limited time I could personally give Julio, he was able to accompany me during a few mentoring sessions and see how spending time with a child and supporting them through some pretty difficult situations is vital to keeping them away from danger and helping them make positive life choices.

On one of the trips Julio helped Manuel, a 13-year-old boy who has been with me in mentoring for the last 2 years, make it safely back home.  I always try and walk each boy back home after mentoring and see if I can spend time with the family and in Manuel´s case it was with his mum.

I had received a call late the other night from Manuel because he was afraid his mum would take her own life and so asked me to go over and be with him.  I rushed to the little shack he lives in with his mum and found him inside sitting precariously on the end of the bed as his mum lay huddled up on the top half of the bed. About half of the bed was full of clothes as there is no wardrobe or shelves and leaving them on the dirt floor would mean they would get damp.  Not that they had many clothes to worry about anyway.

The house is eerily quiet and both are looking at me as I walk in and find something suitable to sit on, whilst leaning forwards to greet Manuel´s mum.  She is silent and has obviously been crying.  Manuel receives a hug from me and I sit and hold his hands as he begins to tell me how they are in debt for their rent and his mum had the money in the morning but, for some reason, it was either taken or she lost it from her pocket and now had to pay the following morning or they would have to leave their room.  The amount they owed was the equivalent of £40.

julioOver the next hour I talk with both of them, read the Bible and prayed with them, listened as both began to talk more about how they felt and then left with a commitment to join with them in finding a solution the following day.  Manuel´s mum had been talking about taking her life as she saw no way out for her and her son.  It was £40 I thought, is this what her life was worth?  It was profoundly moving to see how her desperation had turned to hope in that one hour.

Returning back the next day with Julio was a touching moment as Manuel´s mum was in tears again, but this time tears of joy.  The SKD team had managed to get money together and drop it into her as well as a food parcel and she could not contain her joy and thankfulness.  Julio was very moved by her story and wanted himself to help in any way he could. Manuel was, in typical teenage fashion, made to smile and gave us both a hug and said thank you.

As we walked back out into the early evening light we were greeted by around 15 small children who all wanted us to play “What´s the time Mr Wolf” and various other games and so we entertained them for a while before having to say our goodbyes and try and head to the next visit.  The kids were very keen on Julio, as his fun and caring nature means anyone warms to him instantly.  The photo sums up both Julio and the work and so share it with you here above.

Two other things I would like to tell you about before I have to crack on with another visit to the streets are my visits to Totonicapan and Panajachel.

Guatemala is one incredible country and being located in Central America means the climate is perfect for all-year-round sunshine, interrupted only by the rainy season.  But that is mostly comprised of short afternoon showers.  Sadly, I have not had the opportunity to see much of the Guatemalan countryside and so when one of the boys I mentor talked about how he and his family would love to visit their ancestral home I saw this as a great opportunity for mentoring and getting to know his family more.

Brandon is 11 and I took him on as one of my mentees last Christmas when I found him sitting on the stairs in our mentoring centre on Christmas Eve looking forlorn and with his head in his hands.  It turned out that his mentor had not showed up and when I asked him when he last saw his mentor, he told me it was three months ago. I was annoyed and wondered how someone could start a relationship with a needy child and then just not turn up. Brandon was clearly upset but I said to him that from now on I would be his mentor.  The thought of this brought a much-needed smile to his face and so began our friendship.

totonicapan1I have the car cleaned and filled with fuel and ready outside the room where Brandon and his family live at 6am.  It is a Sunday but the road is noisy and it was difficult to find a space to park as it is prime time for the market stall traders. The family live in the heart of La Terminal, a bustling market area in Guatemala City.  The younger children are hanging on the main doorway that leads to the street and I hear them shouting: “he´s here”, as they run back into the room to tell the family.  We load up the car and head off for our 5-hour journey to Totonicapan.

The story of this family is typical of so many we work with and, as the mum explains to me later in the car, it is almost impossible for people to live in the countryside without having family members living in the city or the USA and sending back money each month.  “When we lived here”, she tells me as she points to the little village where her and her husband grew up, “I could earn no more than £1 a day”. Her husband could earn maybe double that with some hard labour, but with a growing family it became impossible to find enough to eat and not once could they ever by a new piece of clothing.  Their children would wander to school without shoes and they were constantly hungry.

We arrive at her mother´s home and there is much joy and I am received like some King that has come to visit.  The grandmother has been up since the early hours preparing our lunch and so at 11am we sat down and ate the most delicious plate of chicken with vegetable soup I have ever tasted.  The family are excited to be together again as it has been nearly 3 years since they have been able to meet up, due to the fact that it costs so much to come by bus and both families work such long hours in order to survive.

It was a very special time and Brandon and his family were so pleased I had taken the day out to be with them and understand their world and enjoy together one unforgettable family event.

Panajachel2My second outing was to one of Guatemala´s top visitor sites – Panajachel.  The lure of this idyllic beauty spot is the lake that is sounded by volcanoes and verdant mountains.  Lake Atitlan is ringed by 12 Mayan towns, named after the disciples of Jesus, and each famous for a local craft, chocolate, coffee and the like.  The indigenous people know it as the “belly button of the world” as the lake is a mysterious body of water that still has not been fully explored, according to the National Geographic team that produced a programme from there last year.

So, it was a natural place for us to consider when we had been offered money to take the girls away on a camping weekend.  17 girls aged from 11-14 boarded the large minibus and headed for Panajachel, one of the main towns that access the lake, while Joseph and me got there early to setup the tents and cooking area.  Camping by the lake is quite an experience, but for the majority of girls on the trip who had never left the city before this would be a truly memorable adventure.

Panajachel1Our three days of swimming in the lake, exploring the huge waterfalls and lush rain forest, walking through the eco-park with its monkeys and other animals, playing on the swings and zip lines and then taking our 4-hour boat trip on the lake meant that this would be not just an incredible break for the girls from their lives in La Terminal, in the city, but also a chance for them to see life from a new perspective.

Turning the short videos we had taken during each activity into a movie was fun but time consuming, as anyone who has had to edit a video knows.  It was a funny time sitting with them a few days later to watch the movie.  It will always be an important reference point for 17 high-risk girls who needed to know they are loved, they are special and that they can make choices for their own lives and future and not be constrained by the norm to get pregnant by 14, drop out of school and spend the rest of their life bringing up small children whilst their boyfriends or partners come and go as quick as the seasons.  

young mumOn our return we found such a girl on the streets one evening with her new baby.  The excitement of having a baby I am pretty sure will soon fade into the reality of how to care for it, protect it and bring it up in such a demanding environment. Her life is now so very different and another reason to remind me of why I am here and why our work is so vital. 

Thanks to your support we can be here for her and help when she comes to the point where she can´t cope or where more babies come and they in turn will need to be cared for.  Thank you for being here to support this work, without you we just could not do this.

Monday 24thSeptember 2018

I knew it was going to be a long day, Saturdays usually are as they are the day I do a lot of mentoring and visiting families of the boys who are in the programme with me.  Saturday was no exception, but it was a rather special day and one that made me reflect a lot on a few other things that have happened this past week. I hope you enjoy the journey!

The day begins around 4am but soon I have caught up with all my emails and am heading out to collect the boys early, as two have football trials and two other boys have regular Saturday morning football. I remember the days of a youth worker in Amersham and taking kids to early morning football training and matches. The summer months, when there is not a lot of football on offer, was great.  However,  the cold winter months were a test of my personal commitment to a child.  My next job is to collect one more boy, who turns up with his brother, and take him to his very first art class.

football trainingWith all loaded in the car we head to the football training ground and the two who normally train here on a Saturday know the drill and crack on with running around the pitch after they have greeted every single boy and their football coach.  One of the many things I love about the Guatemalan culture is that you can´t just turn up to any event or meeting and just say hi, you have to go around and greet everyone my name with a handshake or a youthful form of it.

The two boys I have brought along today for their trials are Brandon, 11, and Kenedy who is 13.  Both quickly change into their shorts and it is clear their football gear is nowhere near the standard of the other boys who have professional boots, the club uniform with proper socks and everything!  But Brandon and Kenedy are not phased and just join in like they have been there for months.  Growing up in poverty gives you a certain level of resilience that some children just don´t have and these boys don´t mind what anyone thinks of them, they are here to play football and have fun, and fun they will have.

After an hour I have to take Fredy, 14, to his very first art class nearby.  It is only a 2-minute walk from the training ground and his younger brother accompanies us both as it is far more exciting than staying at home in La Terminal.  I noticed a while back that Fredy was keen on drawing but seemed ashamed to ask for help or say he was interested.  It just came up in one of the mentoring sessions and so I asked him if he would like me to take him to a professional art class.  He agreed and so this was going to be his special day.

We walk into the workshop and find lots of kids arranging their pencils, brushes and paints.  It is obvious that they are all coming from a very different social background to Fredy and his comment tells me he is uncomfortable when he says: “and they are all girls”.  Each one had walked in proudly holding an oil painting that looked like they had just bought it from the local art gallery.  It was intimidating for Fredy but I went in with him and settled him in. The teacher tells me the art class is £20 and the materials are extra.  How much extra I had no idea of until he took me downstairs to the art shop and piled up a few things by the till and said: “this should be enough for today”.  I am looking at the materials and wondering how much of my apartment I could paint with them!  Glad I have my credit card on me and I smile at Fredy like it´s no big deal and then he scuttles upstairs and I wonder how he will cope.

moises wristI walk back with his brother Jonathan to the football training only to find Moises sitting by the side of the pitch crying and holding his wrist.  The coach tells me that he fell over and was waiting for me to return.  Their “ring a parent if there is a problem” policy was obviously not working and I could see he was in a lot of pain.  Thankfully nearby there is a private medical clinic and it´s my only option as taking him to the main hospital would mean there was no hope of him being seem within 4-5 hours and then many hours of x-rays and all the rest would result in the day ending very late and with Moises not getting the care he needs.

Therefore, a quick decision to take him to the private clinic resulted in discovering he has a fractured wrist, but this is taken care of within an hour and he happily comes away with his very first cast.  His main concern is that he might not be able to go on a camp with me in three weeks’ time with the men´s group from my church to celebrate his 11thbirthday.  But I assure him that there will be many activities he could still do with one arm!

We make it back in time to collect Fredy from his art class.  To be honest I had high hopes for him but was not expecting too much from his first time at painting.  After all, he had only drawn a few things for me on a small drawing pad I bought him recently.  The older kids came down carrying more masterpieces and so I am prepared for whatever Fredy comes out with and will make sure we all encourage him and say we love his painting.

Fredy PaintingI was not expecting to see him with the painting he was proudly carrying and his art teacher tells me he was a good student and learned a bit about painting reflections and it would be good for him to come more regularly.  I was lost for words and kept asking him if this really was his very first painting and did he really do it all himself.  His brother had nothing to say and the other boys could not comprehend the significance of this painting.  How can a boy pick up a brush for the first time and paint something like this?  I am still in shock really and will see if we can find a way to get him more classes and discover what else he can do.  He and his family live in poverty and so maybe this could be a way he could help them by painting and selling his paintings. Just an idea.

Later that day, and after a very healthy lunch at the mentoring centre on the edge of La Terminal, I head out with Julio and five boys to my Saturday afternoon mentoring session.  We go to Cayalá, a rather exclusive shopping experience for the middle to upper classes.  Despite the opulence of the place, it is a great place to take the kids as it is only 10 minutes away, it is safe and you can rent bikes for £1.50.  There is also a cool coffee shop that allows us to sit for hours playing board games for the price of a bottle of water.

On the way there, little Jesus calls me to ask what I am doing. This is now becoming a daily occurrence and my question to him has the same reply every time: “and what are you doing Jesus?” I say, “nothing”, he replies.  Those of you who have been around Radio Christmas long enough would know that Jesus was loaned a camera a few years ago and asked to take pictures of his world on the rubbish dump.  The pictures were turned into a calendar by Willie Reid and sold on Radio Christmas to help support him and his family, which it did for just over two years.

skatingJesus was excited because the previous Sunday I had taken him, Cristian and Daniel to a kid’s park where they could enjoy skating, climbing walls and doing all manner of “extreme” activities.  I could tell they were excited when I picked them up as 9-year-old Christian could not stand still.  He just jumped up and down and clenched his fists and shook all over.  He could not contain himself.  On the drive to the park both Jesus and Christian told me of shootings outside where they lived like it was just part of their normal lives.

The park was everything I had hoped it would be and very cheap at 50p a game and since skating lasted nearly an hour it was a good deal. Not a bad use of 50p I thought and settled in to my role of photographer and encourager every time they came around to the place I had been told to stand.

Anyway, back to the previous story of my time with Julio and the five boys.  Julio, by the way, is Honduran and lives in Talanga, Honduras and is here for two weeks to be trained in the Street Kids Direct mentoring programme.  On his return he will be coordinating the mentoring programme in Honduras and so today would be a good chance for him to see some mentoring in action.

Julio takes the boys out on the hired bikes and then we head to our favourite coffee shop to play a board game and then review the last five weeks of mentoring.  Our theme was poverty and the boys had discovered that the secret to getting out of poverty is giving!  It sounds like an odd thing to say but each was given the equivalent of £2.00 and had to find someone they felt needed the money and give it away.  We discussed how they felt and what happened and then finished with a time of silence.  The silence was not planned, it just came out of my one-line explanation of what would be the next theme for our mentoring sessions – sex!

Dropping the boys off home later made me realise how important the mentoring programme is to them.  One silly thing, as we made our way home, led to another and boys being boys one ended up doing something that led to another thing and then to me having to have a “chat” with them.  This resulted in a few firm, but loving, words.  Making mistakes is OK, but when you choose to do wrong and then try and pin the blame on someone else then the issue needs to be addressed.  It´s one of the oldest tricks in history when a person can´t accept responsibility for what they have done.  The difference, I tell the boys, between a boy and a man is not what they think.  It is, in all honesty, the ability to take responsibility for one’s actions.  A good lesson to learn as they head home and ponder on what happened.

There is only one more thing to do before my evening meeting with Julio and that is visit a home of one of the boys as his mum called me earlier during the day in tears and asking for help.  We make our way to the home and find her still in tears over a water bill she just can´t afford to pay and if she doesn´t pay she and her son will have to find another place to live.  She seems devastated as the money she owes is just so far beyond her means. Julio and I are both moved by her story and her need to find £10 to pay for the shared tap in the middle of about 12 tin shacks.  It is humbling, but we are able to help and the gift of £10 brings her to tears again.

julio in guatemalaWe discover that her son, who is still thinking through his actions from the afternoon´s events, is not eating enough.  There is not an ounce of fat on his 13-year-old body and he tells me that he and his mum often have to go without food.  On further investigation I found out that he and his mum only eat 5 days out of 7.  It is heart-breaking and so some action will need to be taken in the coming week to provide a small parcel of groceries that will help a little.

As we leave the sun is already casting long shadows in the street and about 10 small kids are outside waiting for us.  Their outstretched arms and pleas to be swung around was my cue to tell them that Julio was an expert in this and so an orderly queue is instantly formed and Julio begins his swinging.  At one point I feel guilty and so help out with a few swings and then head to the car leaving Julio with 6 kids hanging around his neck and the others running around him.  He is a star and the kids are excited about his promise to return on Wednesday evening and swing some more when the team return for the usual kids’ club for high-risk children.

Now onto our serious meeting about the development of the mentoring programme for Honduras.  It´s a great time to be serving here.