Sunday 23rd March - A Little Shack

Mario (name changed to protect him) is 16-years of age and has recently returned to living on the streets of Guatemala City.  I wanted to tell his story here because I believe it is important and that his experiences are saved somewhere.  I am afraid that we will lose him to violence or that he will take his own life and pray that he will make it through to tell his own story one day.

I remember meeting Mario´s father when he was just 14.  He had grown up on the streets from the age of 9 and was now very much part of the street scene and had 5 years of drug abuse, sexual abuse and many days of constant physical abuse to contend with.  We tried to keep him safe as much as we could but it was a constant struggle.

MarioStory3At the age of 14 Mario´s father (photo) was living with a much older lady in a little shack in La Terminal and started to provide her with children.  Both of them were often drunk or high on drugs and so it would be expected that their children will probably be taken away from them at some point. They both went through times of real depression and short moments of feeling good, particularly when another child was born. Mario´s father suffered greatly on the streets and was once stabbed several times in the stomach and almost died.

Mario grew up into a very confusing and harrowing family life filled with drugs, early sexual experiences, abuse, neglect and violence.  I remember the many evenings we spent together playing simple games in La Terminal and trying to convince him that going to school would help get him out of the cycle of life he hated so much.

He grew strong and learned the techniques any child growing up there needed to in order to survive. What he didn´t count on was being violently attacked one day by a man who took sexual advantage of him when he was only 10.  He became withdrawn and tearful and it was hard to engage him in conversations and any attempt at showing genuine love for him were, understandably, rejected quite firmly.

Thanks to the help of another partner organisation we got Mario plenty of help and support and in the meanwhile the investigation into his assault came to nothing until his father said he knew the person who had abused his son.  He confronted him one day and made it clear he was going to inform the authorities, maybe in the hope he would confess.  Sadly, confessing was not on the guy´s mind and a few days later Mario´s father was found shot dead in the alleyway near their little shack in the middle of La Terminal.

MarioStory1Everyone knew, but no one said anything and so his murder was attributed to “the angels”, the contract killers who patrol La Terminal and receive payments for keeping business interests safe.  For Mario it was another blow and this one hit him hard and led to a real fear for leaving his shack and venturing out for school, the toilet or to the shops.  Our support of him and the family was difficult, but we gave it our very best.

The last few years have been ones of massive ups and downs for Mario (photo - child in red polo shirt) and then when he entered the mentoring programme we could see real change in him.  It was like watching a flower bud and this beautiful young boy, full of potential, love and talent came to life.  Mario enjoyed so much his mentoring sessions and committed himself once again to going back to school and making positive life choices.

MarioStory2The onset of his teenage years brought Mario into another difficult phase as his sisters were now regularly selling their bodies to local strangers and coping with it by sniffing solvents and experimenting with other drugs.  His young brother and sister, both under 10 years, were now coming to an age where they also wanted to try out sniffing solvents and found in them a comforting release from the daily stress of life in this little shack.  Visiting the children would leave you numb and confused and coming home afterwards was a struggle as you had witnessed some of the worst conditions and abuse you would ever see here.

Our tears and frustrations were so mixed together and sometimes we even made knee-jerk reactions in the hope that this or that decision would keep them all safe.  The desire to gather them all up and take them home with me was so strong that I almost did one night.

I saw Mario recently as he often calls me every day or two to tell me how he is and ask how I am and tells me that he cares about me and to thank me for all I do for him and his family.  Instead of making me feel good the calls just make me feel rubbish and hopeless, as I keep having these dreams where I am burying him and it is rather too much at times. I told him today I was concerned about his welfare and safety and all he could do was to rest his head on my shoulder and hold one of my hands.

What upset me most recently was when he phoned late one night to tell me that he didn´t want to live anymore and was considering ways to end his life.  I went to meet him and took him out for a drink of coffee and he just sat opposite me and cried.  The next part of the story unfolded and it left me very weak indeed.

MarioStory4His mum has found a new boyfriend, a much younger man and one just a few years older than Mario. The little shack has one bunk bed and so there is little room as it is for Mario, his sisters and their mum.  This meant that Mario was relegated to the dirt floor where rats would run amuck all night long.  Then last week Mario got upset with his mum as she was getting very drink with her new boyfriend.  It was not the fact that the little money they had for food was being wasted by the consumption of alcohol, but that his mum and new boyfriend would belittle Mario.

The argument that followed led to Mario´s mum saying that he had to leave the little shack and that she never loved him and that his mum died many years ago and so never to come back home again.  She picked up a knife when he refused to leave and tried to stab him.  Fortunately, he managed to flee in time only to be met by four men who set upon him and stole his phone.  

Mario called me, still shaking and with a massive amount of blood covering his face.  He had no idea what to do apart from calling me and so I went to his aid and found him in the most vulnerable of states.  He was just 16 and young at that, but had lived the life of a 50-year-old.

The story does not yet a happy ending yet.  I spent time with him today and once again convinced him that street life and drugs are not the answer and once again he promised me that he would leave it all tomorrow and start a new life.  Rehab centres for young people are sparse here in Guatemala and the many we know of are violent and lead many back to the streets at their first opportunity of escape.

Maybe you could pray for Mario and hope with me that this story, one day soon, will have a happy ending where he indeed lives happily ever after.

Friday 1st March 2019

I grew up enjoying movies about pirates and always had a romantic view of them until my adult life told me a very different truth. Modern-day pirates are ruthless killers and devastate lives and communities and this is no different from the piracy of the late 1600s.

Roatan1Why, you ask, am I talking about pirates in a blog on street kids?  Well, I have just spent 5 days in Roatan, a small island of the coast of Honduras. When I say small, it is in fact 36 miles long and 5 miles wide, with a population of 109,000 and 48% is under the age of 18. Roatan is an idyllic Caribbean island that most would expect to see featured on the front of any travel magazine.

The outstanding natural beauty and golden sandy beaches can easily hide the communities of black indigenous people living in poverty. The history of Roatan is one of pirates, the slave trade and then much later the British and Spanish conquistadors who settled on the island and began to develop it into a retreat for those with the money to enjoy such an island of paradise.  In 1920 Archaeologist Mitchell-Hedges moved to the island and began to explore.  He found several pirate chests gold and silver and snuck them off the island and sold them in England.  Many still believe there is treasure to find on the island, but few would consider that the greatest treasure there today are the children.

Roatan2Steve Poulson and I had been invited to visit the island to help advise a young family - Justin & Ashley Guest and their two boys - who have moved there as missionaries and were keen to explore how the Street Kids Direct mentoring programme could help vulnerable children on the island.

Our Sunday arrival meant that the roads were quieter and we are driven to the east end of the island where very few tourists venture. On arrival in the area of Punta Gorda we came across a group of people cleaning the beach.  Justin explained how these were the new community leadership group they had helped bring together to look at the various issues the local people felt were their major concerns.  With an extremely high level of diabetes, 85% unemployment, youth and children at high social risk, pollution and lack of drinking water, there was certainly a great work to be done.

Roatan3Walking around the less-developed areas of Punta Gorda, which is almost all of it, you start to meet people living in the most basic conditions.  Many come out of their little shacks and wooden-built homes that perch on top of large supports driven into the sandy ground to greet us or just to see what we are doing.  The interesting mix of three languages, English, Spanish and Garifuna, means communication is fun and often takes you by surprise when young children blurt out an hilarious mix of all three.

It becomes increasingly clear that there are many needs in this community and helping the most vulnerable children is what Justin and Ashley are keen to do.  Together with the stories of many male abandoned homes and statistics of children living with numerous risk factors (abuse, neglect, violence) in their lives it leads to discussions about whether the mentoring programme will be able to change the outcomes for these children.

Roatan4We are invited to meet a small group of leaders in the community and explain the mentoring programme and what is needed to put it into effect.  Then we are invited to a much larger meeting of around 35 people, all of whom are keen community leaders and with a passion to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable children in their community.  When Steve and I stood up in front of the group to explain the 10 adverse childhood experiences we use to help define a vulnerable child and asked each person to think of one child in their community they know to be at risk. All those present said that every child they thought of had at least 5 of those factors in their lives, which suggests that their future health outcomes are not that good.

We would like to begin a series of studies to help identify the demographic and understand the social needs of the population and how many vulnerable children there that would benefit from the mentoring programme. This will mean Steve will have to return there at some point for more formal evaluations and training, but for now the ball has started rolling and we are excited that more children will soon benefit from having a caring, consistent adult in their lives.

Your support makes this possible and it exciting to see how the programme is beginning to grow to other places.

Tuesday 26thFebruary 2019

It was a fairly short walk to collect Brandon and I knew that at 5:45am La Terminal would be already heaving with traffic and commerce and a lively place to walk through.  The sun was just about to peak through the tallest buildings on the far side of the Terminal and illuminate my path a little better, but for now the dimly-lit street lamps and passing traffic will guide me. However, the flashing lights ahead and the crowd of people blocking the road could only mean one thing, and as I approached I could see the dead body of another person who had been assassinated by, we can only presume, the angels.

terminalLa Terminal is a noisy and over crowded market area that turns over $4 million, mainly in cash, per day.  With just over 40,000 traders jostling for trade in an area the size of a large village and with 500 lorries loading and unloading at any one time it certainly is a place that demands some form of control.  Traders pay into a scheme whereby they are kept safe from thieves and extortion by the contracted services of “The Angels”, who are a group of contract killers and they diligently patrol the Terminal day and night.  

In one of our recent visits to La Terminal we met two of The Angels. One was keen to show of his full magazine for his semi-automatic, while angel number two discussed the shift patterns they work and what challenges they face. Quite a surreal moment in a busy day, but on the whole, we know they are not planning to harm us as they have many years seeing the work we are doing to help children here.

I walk on past the dead body and turn the corner into a road that leads to Brandon´s house. Brandon is 12 and today I have arranged the personal trainer from the gym to spend time with him before I take him to his dance class.  I squeeze my way through the market traders, mothers dragging children along while carrying huge baskets of fruit and vegetables on their heads, and numerous people looking for the day´s bargains.  The entrance to the room that Brandon and his family live in is always dark and if you didn´t know about the step halfway along the pitch-black alleyway then you would certainly end up on the floor.

Brandon hears me coming and pops his head around the corner where the “pila” is and smiles.  The pila is a large outdoor sink and Brandon tells me he has to wash all the pots, plates and cups from the previous day before he is allowed to go out. This provides me a good opportunity for helping him wash the pots whilst chatting about his week.  It is amazing just how meticulous he is with the washing and how carefully he uses water.  Here water is costly for these families and so it all has to be used sparingly.  We chat as we wash together and I help stack the washed items neatly in a large bowl that Brandon then lifts into their small room where his brother and sisters are asleep.  He grabs his shorts on the way out and we head back to where my car is parked outside our Centre.

brandon trainingDespite it being 6:15am we arrive at the gym, change and arrive in plenty of time for his one-on-one session with Vincent, the trainer. Our trainer has given up his Saturday morning rest to setup the dance room with cones, steps, mats and balls. It looks alluring for Brandon and he begins to run around and shows Vincent some of the dance moves he has been learning. Having huge mirrors along one wall makes this the most ideal place for the boy and he revels in the attention he is getting.

When the training session is over, and I am exhausted as he is, we head for breakfast and then to the dance studio.  I watch him like an anxious but very proud parent. This is now his 4thdance class, funded by Mike and Chris who visited Guatemala recently.  They left enough money for me to pay for his classes for the next two months.  After that I am not sure where the money will come from but I am keen to encourage his desire to dance.

Mentoring, as we say rather a lot, changes lives. Seeing how Brandon´s life has changed since joining the programme is so rewarding.  I remember his first days with us and can only imagine what his life would be like if we had not come across him, his little brother and three sisters in the streets one day.  They are all now in school apart from the youngest, Jackie, who is only four. Jackie told me back in December how she was now working in a kitchen for 10p a day, and yes I did say she was only four! We know she has been spending more and more time in the streets and so this week we are getting her legal papers in order so that we can put her into nursery and keep her off the streets.

Brandon is loving the dance class and it seems that this is most favourite time of his week.  He loves the attention and support and it makes me so happy to see him enjoying his dream and growing in confidence and ability.

A good day ahead as I have been invited to take the 5 boys I mentor on a Saturday, which includes Brandon, to a pool in the afternoon with Russell and Joanna Soden who are visiting Guatemala for the next two weeks. 

Good news and good times at last and this weekend I will be heading to Honduras to meet with Steve Poulson to introduce the SKD mentoring programme to a community living in poverty on an idyllic island on the Caribbean coast that was once infamous for pirates and slaves.  My next blog should be interesting!