Sunday 12th February

Many of you will remember me coming up with this crazy idea of walking through Central America last year.  The 1200km walk took nearly five weeks and raised a considerable amount of money for the work in Guatemala and Honduras.

Walk1Soon after the “Camino por Amor” walk was completed I planned to return to the road and visit all the families that had never met us before but offered us accommodation and support.  This time I was not planning on walking, but rather driving back along the same roads I had walked upon in July and August last year and to surprise people with a small box of groceries each and to let them know that Jeony and me actually made it to the finishing line in Guatemala City.

I was not alone on this trip as Alex Soden and Matt Levett, from the UK, had wanted to come on this trip with me for many months and so at 3am we set off on our road trip through five countries, passing by some of the most dangerous parts of Central America.  The scenery is just stunning and Alex kept asking me to pull over so he could take in the views and snap away on his phone.

24 hours later we arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica, having to navigate very diplomatically through the borders.  At times we wondered if we would get through as the bureaucracy is unbelievable and, at one stage, I was asked to produce a letter from me telling me I could drive my own car!

A quick turn around in San Jose saw us heading back up the Pan American Highway at a much slower pace while I remembered all the places we stopped and were given food, water and shelter.  Our first stop in Costa Rica was to see a family on the border with Nicaragua who offered us a place to stay and who gave up their evening meal so we could eat and continue our walk last year.  As we pulled up outside their home they started to come out of the house as not many people visited them at 6:30am!  I opened the car door and was welcomed with shouts and laughter and they were so pleased I had come back to say thank you.  We shared with them, prayed with them and left them a gift that I know would be used well over the coming weeks.

After getting through the Nicaraguan border we found a small village and walked to a house where we had been invited to stay the night on the walk.  I remember when arrived from a long walk from Costa Rica the family could not believe we had walked that far.  Despite us being very tired and hot they begged us to help them run a children´s party that afternoon.  It was a memorable time and so going back with Matt and Alex was very moving as we presented the family with a large box of groceries and a donation to encourage them.  They were very affectionate and pleaded with us to come back another time and visit them again.

Walk2We moved on to visit an inspirational project on the shores of lake Managua run by a female pastor and her daughter.  Jeony had been given a contact last year as we made our way through Nicaragua of a pastor who could probably put us up as we walked North.  The pastor´s name is Sarah and I had already warned her we were going to visit as she was now a friend of mine on Facebook.  Her posts were amazing and demonstrated her passion to help high-risk children in the area.  What we didn´t know at the time was that Sarah sustained her ministry of feeding 120 children a day by washing other people´s clothes.

There was lots of beeping of the car horn as we drove into the project and Sarah came out to see us pull up outside her church building. We were taken round to the rear of the building to see her plans for the building of rooms for volunteers and talked about her dreams of building a children´s home.  The more she talked the more emotional she got as she told of her own personal story of growing up in an abusive home.  This was one of the factors that drove her to do what she does - so that other children don´t suffer what she suffered.

She then told us the story of one of the mums who came along to her church one day with her young son in order to get some food, as they had nothing.  The mum was desperate and after a few weeks of coming along was told that her son needed an operation on his legs.  She had no money for this and the hospital had taken x-rays of the boy´s legs as he couldn´t walk.  The doctors said he legs would need be broken in several places and then reset.  The length of recovery was long as well as painful and so she came to ask for prayer.  Sarah then burst into tears as she told of the day the lady went to the hospital with her son and they took another set of x-rays.  The doctors then ran around and spoke a lot behind her back, checking x-rays and examining to boy over again. It seems that on that day a miracle took place and the boy´s legs were totally normal and he began to walk.  It was an incredible story.

Walk3Leaving was not easy and we were keen to see if we could help provide funding one day to help with the feeding centre for 120 kids a day.  But we did need to move on and visit more families and drop off more boxes of groceries and this took us into Honduras. Our penultimate stop in Nicaragua would be to visit a family who had offered us a place to pitch our tents back in August 2016.  It was a memorable afternoon when we first arrived as we found three women and two children trying to exist on next to nothing.  We had asked for water and they glady gave us water to shower with in the corner of their field and then we saw them using a rope to pull the water from the well.  It was hard work and so we pitched in.  This time I wanted to see how they were and if they were still pulling water from the well as we had tried to fix an easier extraction system before we left.  What we had fixed did not last long and the women were back to pulling a long rope from the well many times a day.  Matt, alex and me took time to help fill up all their water tanks and left them with a large box of groceries.

We had planned to visit one more family who lived near the border and who had offered us support last year.  They had set up a project in a mining town in, what we thought, was the middle of nowhere.  However we got lost and before we knew it we were at the border!  So we decided to continue to through to the capital, Tegucigalpa, where we met with the AFE staff and to see how the work was going.

AFE is a project we have supported for about 13 years now and they work with children who live and work in the city rubbish dump.  The school that has been built over the year, just across the road from the dump, is now offering quality education and a hot meal each day to 140 children.  Due to lack of funds the school had not opened as planned at the end of January but knowing that funds were now on the way, thanks to donations from Radio Christmas, the school could open its doors and so we climbed up to the dump to recruit children for the new school year.

JimmyAs we walked through the piles of rotting rubbish and trying not to get knocked over by rubbish trucks coming and going, as well as avoiding the violent gang that now runs the dump, we cam across Jimmy.  Jimmy was born here and has grown up among the rubbish and was working here today and looking forward to school starting back.  It is so hard for 17-year-old Jimmy who, like all those on the dump, have to work four hours a day for the gang and then are allowed 4 hours to work for themselves.  When they sell what they have scavenged for, they have to sell to the gang who pay a fixed price.  This means they now earn half the money they used to earn and get even less from what they gather each day.

Jimmy talked about his brother as I had asked if he was working with him.  Little Dennis was not well and Jimmy said they had no food in the house and that he had borrowed money to pay for some tests for his little brother at the hospital.  As he talked I then realised that that box of groceries we had in the back of the car was actually for him and his brother and so we drove him home, dropped off the groceries (photo) and gave him a few bags of crisps and things we had left in the car and paid off his debt so that his brother can get the treatment he needs.

DuncanHondurasThe last part of our journey took us to the Manuelito Children´s home.  Fortunately we had three days here and this was good news to little Duncan (photo with Alex and me) who was pleased his dad had come to stay.  The home is an oasis of calm (most of the time) and a place of tangible love that can overwhelm even the hardest of visitors.  Our three days were spent just hanging out, playing games, chasing kids, pushing them on swings and in meetings to talk about finances, plans and reporting.  The later being the business side of things but the former being the most fun!

We returned to Guatemala with one very dirty car but with grateful hearts and so many stories to tell that will have to put into a book one day.  The walk did so much for so many people and I am thankful to God for giving me the strength to get through.  It was so rewarding to revisit the route and thank all the families who had supported us along the way.  If you have not seen the daily blogs from last year´s walk or wish to revisit them then please do check out the YouTube channel

Wednesday 1st February

The flight seemed much longer this time.  I was desperate to get back to Guatemala and having been on a whirlwind trip I was exhausted but could not sleep on the plane because I was over-tired and in a lot of pain due to a fall on my back a couple of weeks before.  But it was worth it.

I had returned to Guatemala after nearly 3 months in the UK for Radio Christmas and on arrival back in Guatemala City I was informed that I needed to return to the UK again to receive an MBE from Her Majesty the Queen.  It was not in my plan but I could not refuse the invitation.

Gerson2Before I headed back across the Atlantic I visited Gerson in hospital as his health had taken another nose-dive while I was away.  This time he had become unconscious, fallen badly and the fall had left him with a severe head wound.  He was rushed into hospital and they managed to keep him alive and eventually he was moved from casualty and into the men´s ward.

I went with Hector and Emma, two of our volunteer street workers, to collect him and take him into a refuge.  It was not easy convincing the refuge that he would behave and participate in all activities, but they allowed him to come as they heard of his story and wanted to help.

On arrival at the hospital and making our way through security and the usual queues, we walked into the men´s ward on floor 5.  To describe what this is like is not easy but will try and give you an idea.  A wall, about 5´tall, divides the dimly lit ward in two with about 20 beds in each half.  The rusty beds are pushed as close together as possible and some men lie there fully naked waiting to be cleaned or dressed while visitors wander through the ward and find their loved ones.  The mix of young boys and old men is not a good one and some of the younger patients not only seem to be in a lot of pain but also distressed by all they are seeing around them.

Gerson1We notice Gerson who is sitting hunched up on a bed and wearing nothing more than a nappy.  He is rocking on the bed and pulling at his hair.  He is obviously not in a good place but does look up and notice us and then places his head on his knees and continues to rock.  The nurse tells him that we have come to take him away and asks if we have brought him any clothes.  We are told he still can´t walk and so will need a wheelchair.  We try and engage Gerson in a conversation about where we would like to take him while the nurse tries to see if any clothes are available.  These are usually taken from people who have died on the ward or in casualty and so don´t fit him, but at least he is somewhat decent and able to leave.

He does not want to talk and so we just chat to him about the things we have been doing and how we have been concerned for him.  I notice that a large patch of hair is missing from the back of his head.  The nurse informs me that his hair might not grow there again due to his accident but that he was also loosing some hair because he was pulling it out.

It is so hard to walk him out to the car and think that we now have a boy who just wants to die, who has no desire for anything in particular and gives a nonchalant shrug as we place him in the car and take him to a refuge.  Thanks to Hector and Emma, who drive him to the refuge and settle him in, Gerson is given another opportunity of recovery and to start a new life.  We hope he manages to do that and wish him well.

Saturday 28th January, 2017

It was mid-afternoon in early December when I got the call.  I was sitting at a desk in the Radio Christmas studio when the phone rings.  I answer it and discover that Tom Carter, the British Ambassador to Guatemala, is calling me.  He begins his call with the words “I have some good news for you”, and I immediately think that he would like to offer his support for the radio station.  Both Tom and his wife Carolyn, who is the British Ambassador to Honduras, have been very active in their support of the charity and were going to record some special messages for us to play on Radio Christmas.

Tom goes on to tell me that his news is very exciting and that he and Carolyn are very proud of me.  He informs me that I have been nominated to receive an MBE for my work with street children over the last 25 years.  I sit back on the desk and try and take in the news.  He stresses to me that I am sworn to secrecy until it is confirmed in the London Gazette and the Times at the end of the month.  If I tell anyone then I would be locked up on the Tower of London!

MBE1To be recognized by Her Majesty the Queen for the work is quite an honour and I quickly reflect back on the last 25 years of work, the turmoil, the pain, the joy, the many deaths and those children who have grown into quite outstanding adults.  I am brought back into the real world and the needs of Radio Christmas by a conversation with someone who would like to have a show the following week.

It was early in the morning of the 31st December that I started to receive calls and messages from people who had read about the MBE from the national press and wanted to congratulate me.  It then went mad on Facebook and Twitter! I was walking, at the time, from Banchory to Aberdeen and staying with some very good friends in Scotland called John, Esther, Luke and Brianna Hughes.  On arrival in Aberdeen the Hughes family met me and had heard about my award and wanted to treat me to a great Scottish breakfast.  Thank you John, Esther, Luke and Brianna, it was a very special day indeed.

On my return to Amersham I discovered an email informing me that later in the year I would be invited to the Palace to receive my award by either the Queen or Prince Charles and that I could take three guests with me.  I began to plan and wonder what one wears on such occasions and how the day would play out.  I imagined myself sitting in the Palace chatting with the Queen about the work and her placing a medal on my chest.  Silly thoughts!

MBE2On my return to Guatemala I am told that I need to return to the UK to receive my award and so quickly plan the trip back and I am thankful to a friend who calls to say he would like to cover the cost of the flight.  I have now invited my sister Michelle, who is flying over form Australia, Alexis Curson, who allows us to use her home for Radio Christmas every two years, and Celia Banner who has been my spiritual mother since my early days of becoming a Christian.

The actual day begins with us arriving at the Palace, having taken the train from Amersham.  We hailed a cab and I was just waiting for the driver to ask where to go, and replied in a very casual manner, “to the Palace please”.  He seemed not phased but did ask why we were going there and my sister could not stop talking about how proud she was of her brother who was getting and MBE and all his work with street children.

We arrived at the Palace and, given the fact that we were obviously dressed to meet royalty, became the focus point for quite a few cameras!  After passing through security we are led into the inner courtyard and then up the main steps into the Palace.  We are invited to leave mobile phones, cameras and our coats (and my top hat) in the cloakroom.  At this point we continue to walk up a deep red carpet where those receiving awards turn right and guests continue forwards to be seated in the ballroom.

I am greeted by a kindly-faced lady who congratulates me on the award and invites me to have a drink and to wait for further instructions.  The room is decorated with large portraits, intricately painted ceilings and huge doors that seem to extend right up through to the ceiling.  There are three large TV screens and a previous award ceremony is showing, probably so you get the idea of how to approach royalty, how to curtsy or bow and then how to shake hands and leave so the next person can receive their award.

MBE3About 60 people are in the room at this point and then in walk Ant and Dec, two TV celebrities who are receiving their OBE´s today.  I manage to shake Ant´s hand and congratulate him and he in turn congratulates me and wishes me well.  All of a sudden everyone goes quite as two highly decorated officers come into the room and explain the morning´s proceedings and begins to call groups of ten people forwards.  They all march in line to the ballroom and then stand in front of HRH Prince Charles to get their award.

It is quite nerve-racking waiting in line and as the line slowly moves forwards I get a glimpse of Prince Charles and wonder if I will get a chance to talk and what he would say to me.  Eventually my time comes and I give the customary bow, move forwards as indicated while someone comes from behind him and whispers in his ear.  He smiles and learns forwards and places a medal on my suit. “So I hear you have just flown over from Guatemala”, the Prince says.  “Yes”, I reply, “it was a long journey”.  He thanks me for coming over and asks me to tell him more about the work I do with street children.  It is clear he seems interested and questions me further about some of the hard things I have seen and the progress that has been made and finishes by saying that what I do is “truly inspirational”.  He thanks me again for coming, congratulates me on the MBE and wishes me well.  His hand stretches forward and that is my queue to shake his hand, step back, bow and then turn and leave.

The day was a very special one for me and I felt a great sense that what I was receiving this day was on behalf of an amazing team of people who have worked closely with me to reach out to children that most people consider disposable.  I also wished that Jenni and Katelyn could have accompanied me as they remain a very special part of my story and work.

May I take this opportunity to thank everyone who is taking the time to read this blog, for your love, support and prayers.  Some have joined the journey recently and others have been with me for over 56 years.  It has been an honour to serve God and I am always amazed that I can be used to help vulnerable children and young people.  Here´s to another 25 years!

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