Tuesday 15th May 2018

z11flatIf I told you I was invited to dinner by an Ambassador, a Bishop and a police officer then you would think a joke was on its way! Well, I suppose that now and again my odd life here in Guatemala goes from one extreme to the other.

We had been welcoming various visitors to Guatemala over the last few weeks including Bishop Mike Hill and Dt Sgt Sarah Elliott from Suffolk Police.  Mike was in the US and so managed to get a flight down to see the work and was particularly interested in the progress being made on the massive rebuilding of a derelict home in Guatemala City for the next stage of our work – the provision of a short-term Protection Home for vulnerable children.

 

S ElliottThe work on the home stopped briefly two weeks ago due to lack of funds and so we continue to pray for the money needed to get this exciting project towards the grand opening day for late July or early August. A special giving page has been created for this and more information is now available on our website including the plans for stages 1 and 2 or the development.

Our other visitor was Dt Sgt Sarah Elliott (photo) who had come to Guatemala representing both the Forge Church and Suffolk Police. Sarah was invited to give a morning´s training to the various agencies in the Guatemalan Government responsible for the safety and protection of children.  The training was a great success and those who attended benefitted from Sarah´s vast experience in child protection and shared with everyone the processes and procedures that Suffolk Police have in place and showed how the police deal with allegations of abuse including photos of the interview and investigative process.  THANK YOU, Sarah, for coming and also for your work in our mentoring centre in Guatemala City and many thanks to Suffolk Police for their support also.

trainingWe have been busy with training days for the staff and volunteers in Guatemala and have been working hard on refining our processes for working with children and handling volunteers.  Our big review of our child protection policy and its implementation has led us to start work on developing a special module to help children understand child abuse.  We are coming across more and more cases where children are sexually abusing other children and how social media has started to play a part in this.  It is deeply sad to have to work on this and face the realities of our modern world, but we are committed to providing a safe and secure framework for children to grow and develop and provide those same children with tools that will help keep them safe.

 

parent meetingThis has led us to start a series of meetings with parents of the children we work with.  Thanks to Lorena, who moved here with her two children from Honduras last year, we have managed to bring together parents who seem really committed to the welfare of their children and will work with others to help them move in this direction.  We do know that working with children in isolation will always lead to a very weak network for the safety of the children. Our plan is to encourage all the parents to get involved in family support networks in order to develop a more robust and caring environment for children to develop and thrive.

The street work continues to inspire and motivate me massively but it is an area of my work that has been affected by the actual running of the organisation.  My heart has always been on the streets and having done this for the last 25 years I know it is very much a part of who I am.  But with the growth of the work in Guatemala and the need to care for and direct the various teams of staff and volunteers this has meant my time on the streets has been limited over the last few months.

carolinaOn one recent trip we came across Carolina who was celebrating her 16thbirthday on the sreets.  Her story broke our hearts and we always wonder how much is actually true as her story of abandonment, trafficking and sexual abuse is far too shocking to be repeated here in this blog.  This is where you feel most helpless and vulnerable as there always seems so little you can actually do to make a real difference to her life.  I know that having a street team who head to the streets every day will mean she can access our support and maybe benefit from it in some way until she makes the decision to leave the streets and either return to her father, who she tells us is a caring man, or goes into a rehabilitation programme.

 

balloonsI return now to one long but special day yesterday as we continued to celebrate Mother´s Day with a dinner and film for some of the mums we work with and an afternoon of fun at our Centre for the children in the mentoring programme.  Thanks to our newest volunteer, Laura Evans from Amersham, we have been treated to a full programme of special activities for the children every day.  Yesterday the children enjoyed a science experiment and were captivated to watch their balloons self-inflate and then explode. We so love seeing them so happy and learning new things and many thanks to Laura for the amount of work she has put into preparing these activities and for her commitment to being here for the next few months.

 

Cada NinoOne of the things I have always wanted to have is to find volunteers who could help introduce the children to the technical world around them and see the potential that computers can offer rather than just games and printing out homework.  Yesterday I had the privilege of visiting a project in an area of Guatemala City that is well known for its gang violence.  

The project is called Cada Niño and I had taken David, a 15-year-old volunteer, to see how a computer lab works and what software was being used to teach the children.  One boy, who was only 12-years-old (blue t-shirt), was showing us how he had designed websites from writing in computer code and then explained how he teaches the children robotics.  Just one inspiring boy indeed and I hope the visit will motivate David in his volunteering role and may lead us to develop such a programme at our Centre one day.

Saturday 28thApril 2018

I only have one memory from my childhood of going to the beach.  It seemed to take such a long time to drive there in a car my parents had just acquired. In those days you had to take all sorts of precautions before travelling more than an hour in a car and we must have stopped at least 3-4 times to check the tires, oil and water.  But eventually we arrived at the beach and my eyes were opened to the big wide world. Before this moment I had only seen the beach in photos and heard about it in stories and now I was jumping around with joy and splashing about in the salty sea water.

Last week I imagined what it would be like for the four boys Joseph and I had planned to take to the beach.  This would be their first experience of travelling to the sea and I wondered if their excitement, which was evident now in the car as we drove the two and a half hours to Monterrico, would surpass that childhood joy I felt when I saw and ran down the beach somewhere on the south coast of England.

beachOn our arrival the boys could not contain their joy and squealed as they got into their shorts and headed for the sea.  I needed to explain to them that the red flag flying in the sea breeze meant a warning as the current was strong and that we could not go far into the water.  Without being shown how to behave on the beach the boys started to build sandcastles with passion and dig holes in which they sat while others covered them in sand.

Needless to say, they absolutely loved it and slept well on the way back.  The comments the following day about it being the happiest day of their lives confirmed to Joseph and me that we had made the right decision to take them there and open their eyes to the much wider world they had only heard about up to this point. Mentoring can be hugely rewarding and tons of fun but the reality of returning to La Terminal, as we approached in the car that day, was palpable.  The silence in the back of the car spoke to me of how they were now trying to adjust to their real life which has led, since then, to discussions about how they want to study in order to get a great job, in order to leave the Terminal and offer their families something better.

The joy of that special day faded too quickly as the next day as I was called to help a family in distress.  I took Joseph with me and we headed for one of the rooms in La Terminal where a family of 7 live huddled into a space a little larger than the size of my car.  As we walked in the dimly-lit corridor we could hear the shouting.  The youngest child, a girl aged 4, comes running down the corridor towards me with her arms open wide.  I scoop her up in my arms and give her a little cuddle as she points towards the curtain that separates the corridor from their room.

Despite the years of dealing with family conflict it never gets any easier and always leaves you somewhat spent afterwards and, as you play back the events later in your mind, you can´t help but consider how you could have acted better or been more loving and accepting.  This altercation, however, ends very differently from the ending I had now started to play out in my mind.

corridorYou can´t knock on a curtain and so I just called out and, as I did so, noticed that the base of their double bed is perched up against the wall.  The mum and dad are shouting at each other and slowly the children come out to greet us and the mum is crying and asks me to help her as she has had enough with the cycles of a drunk husband, no money and the inevitable violence.  Sadly, we have been here many times before and each time she takes her husband back after complaining about his drinking and violent behaviour.  But not all is as it seems!  It quickly becomes clear that the mum started hitting her husband after he came home drunk. The argument becomes inclusive of me as I am invited into their room and both ask me to understand their point of view and take sides.

I have learned to never take one side or the other, but to try and help each party to understand the other and look for common ways forwards.  I step back out of the room and talk with Joseph who is standing by the shared washing sink that is next to their room and used by about 6 families.  People are coming and going and then the 11-year-old boy comes out and grabs hold of my waist while his older sister is crying uncontrollably back in their room.  The 11-year old boy pleads with me to take him and his brother and sisters to the Protection Home.  The thought had occurred to me earlier and so had phoned Lorena and asked her, in the midst of a major reconstruction project, to try and prepare some beds for the children.  Once finished the home will be able to offer a safe place for children in situations like this.  All I can do at this moment is invite Joseph to pray with me and trust in a miracle to change this horrible situation around.

My focus returns to the mum and dad who have now moved into a dangerous stage of their conflict.  The mum is now threatening to end her life in the streets and the dad is saying he will leave and sleep in the streets.  It all seems desperate and I need to now take a little control and speak quite strongly with both parents about putting aside their difficulties for the moment and focus on the needs of their children.  The prayer we have just prayed is instantly answered as both look at each other and ask for forgiveness and within a few minutes we are standing together and praying.

Joseph and I leave after helping provide a little food for the family to enjoy together and return home tired but happy.  If only all family conflicts could end like this we would be able to prevent even more young children taking to the streets.

Monday 23rdApril 2018

I sit down and write this blog with real excitement in my heart as the last two weeks have been of such encouragement to me and I hope that reading this blog will also encourage you to know that when you make a donation to Street Kids Direct it REALLY DOES change lives.  Thank you for being there and for all those who donate and share the work with family and friends.

I recently returned from a 4-day trip to Honduras.  Due to time constraints and security I had to fly down to Honduras this time rather than endure the 12-hour drive to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.  Last time I was there the city seemed to be in a state of siege and this led to disruptions as well as many deaths throughout the country.  Driving down was still a risk even though many people told me that is was now safe.  Flying would not only be safe but also it would gain me two days that are usually spent travelling to and from the country.

I drove to meet Steve Poulson, who is now a full-time volunteer in Honduras for Street Kids Direct.  Steve had been helping the three charities we support in Honduras but had come to a point where he needed my help and advice as all three were going through difficult times.

Duncan MarchOur first meeting was with the Board of the Manuelito Children´s Home and that was followed by a visit to the home for three days and two nights.  Little Duncan was very pleased to have his Dad around again and stuck with me every minute he could.  His attachment to me is powerful and very moving as he sees me as his legitimate father and is heartbroken when it comes to the moment I have to say goodbye and head home to Guatemala.  This trip was hard for him as he had imagined I would be with him for three whole days and was upset when I had to take off for a couple of hours to visit the mentoring programme in town. He is a dear little boy and is affectionate and very protective of me but has his struggles and difficulties like any other kid.  He is doing well and loves my encouragement to keep choosing a more positive path in his life as an 11-year-old boy.

The Manuelito Children´s Home changes each time I visit.  The first phase of the building of the school is almost complete and is now in daily use. When windows and doors go in this will help classrooms become a little more personal as the open feel of them is not always conducive to effective learning. One more school building is already under construction and when this is complete all the children will have the right number of classrooms and toilets.  It will be a delightful place to study with impressive views of the countryside all around them.

Talanga ClubMany of the children who come to the school at Manuelito are in desperate need of a caring and consistent mentor in their lives. This has led a small group of local people to launch the Street Kids Direct Mentoring Programme in the town.  It is early days but the group of about 25 children are meeting once a week for a kids club and as relationships are developed and trust is gained then mentors will be assigned to each child and the mentoring relationship can begin.  This is a very exciting development for us as more programmes are now adopting the mentoring programme we have developed.

The next visit was to a new project we have been asked to link with on the outskirts of the capital where the mentoring programme has started with a couple of kids in a town called Ciudad España.  The town has its share of challenges but Jen, an American missionary, has moved in to the town and has opened her home to kids at risk of going into gangs.  Steve Poulson helps here each week now and has started mentoring an 11-year-old boy called Christian.

One of the things I most enjoyed about this project was the raw nature of it.  Jen´s house is a beacon of light and the simplicity of the place is charming and helps kids feel at home from the minute they walk in.  The gang there have accepted Jen and she has developed a good relationship with them.

steve c.espanaChristian came in after school as I was meeting with Jen and Steve and complained of a stomach ache.  Street Kids Direct has helped sponsor five children here with a full-time education.  Christian is one of those benefitting from our sponsorship and he is clearly in need of a medical check-up, but, for the moment, is keen to spend a couple of hours hanging out with his mentor, Steve.  I suggest a cooking activity and within minutes Steve and Christian have been and bought the ingredients to make chocolate crispy cakes.  It is a simple recipe but one that is accessible to Christian who tells me he can´t cook but enjoys mixing melted chocolate and cornflakes together.

It was a special time sitting watching what happened in this front-line work and seeing the reactions of Christian and others to the love that was being demonstrated all around them.  The project is not dotting every I and crossing every T but it is moving just watching what is happening here and feeling a special part of it all.

camino promoSteve and me had spent time also planning our “Camino por Amor” sponsored walk for this summer.  Our original plan was to walk the length of the United Kingdom (there and back) but Steve was unable to travel and so we have decided to put that on hold until next year.  This year will now be a walk that will challenge us both in many ways.  Steve will start his walk in Guatemala City and walk to Tegucigalpa and I will start in Tegucigalpa and walk to Guatemala City.

The Camino por Amor walk will mean we will have to walk 80km a day for 6 days and on the seventh day walk nearly 120km.  With high temperatures, gangs and dangerous roads it will be quite a challenge and since it will be a race the idea is to see who arrives at their destination first.  Obviously, that will be me but Steve and me will be keeping supporters updated daily with our progress.  

Please do check out the promotional video of this year´s walk and share it with all you can and direct them to the website where a special giving page will soon appear.  Our target is to raise £10,000 for the new Protection Home in Guatemala City and the projects we support in Honduras.

glassesOn my return to Guatemala I was given plenty of hugs and kisses at the Centre by the kids who were telling me how excited they were at having their eyes checked after being through a month of treatment. Over half of the children needed glasses and we had been given funds by generous donors to buy each child that needed them a pair of glasses.  One boy (photo) kept taking his off and looking around.  “I never realised”, he told me, “that the world was so blurry”. This was the first time he could see properly and I know that having glasses will also help him loads at school. 

The only bad news that came in over the last couple of weeks was when we heard there was another fire in La Terminal.  The proximity of so many families living in cramped conditions juxtaposed to businesses is not the greatest recipe for either.  An electrical fire started in one of the rooms where a family lived and quickly spread to other rooms and businesses.  

terminal fire aprilWhat we didn´t know at the time was that the room where the fire started is where one of our boys live.  He came to us soon after as he was now homeless (again) and had lost everything. All his schoolwork, shoes, bed, clothes and personal possessions were all gone.  Not that he had a lot anyway, but all he had was now a pile of smouldering ashes and so he reluctantly resolved himself to starting all over again.

We have managed to buy him some clothes and shoes and some items for washing etc.  He has temporarily moved into a room with his mum and younger brother and sister but has no bed and so sleeps on the floor (again) until a longer-term solution can be found.  

I met his Dad the other evening on the streets and saw how badly burned his arms were, but he was full of thanks for being alive and for our support.  “I might not have a home now or any clothes”, he said, “but I am alive and full of thanks for all you have done for me and my family”.  Sometimes our lives are so full of things that we forget the fact that every day is a blessing just to be alive.