Saturday 16th February 2019

I have often wondered how people are trained before, during and after they go into some of the most difficult and challenging circumstances around the world.  I was watching the news the other day and saw the faces of some very tired reporters in Syria and I could see that, despite their robust façade, there were moments of real strain and tears when they had time to reflect on what they were experiencing each day.

Terminale 36The question came to mind when I sat back last week in the comfortable chair next to my bed and wondered how what we see and hear on a daily basis here in Guatemala affects us.  Often, I am caught in the same conversation with Ben Soden, who coordinates the street work here, about how what we see each day would shock most people or that the reality of our world is so far removed from comfortable Amersham, in leafy Buckinghamshire in the United Kingdom.

Please forgive me sharing this with you all as I know it has become part of my way of coping with what happens here and hope that it will not traumatise you in any way, but help you understand that the cost of being here and doing this work is well worth it, and that without your support we could not do all we do.  So, thanks for sticking with us and helping to fund the daily work with vulnerable children and youth.

I had two visitors from the UK last week, Chris Dobson and Mike Hill.  Chris is an Anglican minister but also a very gifted photographer (all photos, apart from one, in this blog were taken by Chris).  Mike is a retired Bishop, but is invited to speak at many conferences and events around the world and was my first boss when I became a youth worker in 1987.  I had been taking them around the city and sowing them the huge contrasts in wealth and poverty and how we are trying to reach some of the most vulnerable kids and prevent them from taking to the streets.

cemetery blocks 7Despite the sadness of arriving at the grave of a child who has died on the streets, there is something rather comforting in the ritual of showing visitors a grave, talking about what that person meant to me and how their life was one of extremes, tinged with sadness but always with moments of hope, of joy, of fun visits and trips, and of many hours sitting in silence on the streets in the dark just looking at the stars.

It came to the day when I had invited them to join me for a visit to the city rubbish dump and central cemetery. It is never the most exciting of visits and leaves one always feeling rather numb and helpless at the sight of so much poverty, need and exclusion.  I wanted to show them the grave of Gerson, a boy we buried last year, as I often went there to put flowers on his grave and remember the very good times we shared together on the streets over the last 6 years.  Gerson was like a son to me and would call me most days and say “Papa, what are you doing today?”.  It was always good to hear from him and when his coin ran out in the phone box it was a sad moment indeed.

We drove to the spot where Gerson was buried and I got out the flowers we had bought on our way into the cemetery and thanked a man who had cycled from the entrance with a bucket of water to place in the flower pots either side of the plaque over his resting place.  In Guatemala, most people are buried in tombs, not so much in the ground. The tombs are then rented out to the family for a 7-year period and then they have to be renewed or the remains are removed and the tomb becomes available for the next occupant.

cemetery blocks 14My heart stopped as I knew exactly where Gerson´s grave was but it became clear to me that his body was no longer there.  His tomb had been occupied by another and when I asked the man with the water, who worked at the cemetery, what had happened, he told me that he suspected that it was in order to make more money.  I was numb and didn´t know if I should cry and get angry and tried to remain calm as our visitors had come to see Gerson´s grave, but I had to explain he was no longer there.

In the end it turned out that the cemetery had assumed that since he had no family registered to his grave, he was an easy occupant to remove.  We drove slowly back up the hill to the cemetery entrance and part of me had to deal with being the tour guide, while the other part of me was still in shock. The way Gerson was treated in his life was just the same as he was treated after his death.  It was not fair and despite my phone calls and pleas for help in knowing what happened, I knew it would not make any difference.  I had to remind myself that Gerson was now with God and that his body was no longer of any use to him.  But the sadness of losing him last year came back and slapped me again hard in the face.

It was another one of those times when I knew I would have to deal with this tragedy at a later stage, as there were too many other things to be dealt with right now.  I later had a few minutes at home to think about the day and wanted to just curl up and cry, but my phone rang. I could hear a young child crying and then an adult says: “please come and help us Duncan”.  I was asked to come to the aid of a young boy who was in great pain and apparently had been for the whole day.  He was clearly in need of help as I could hear him screaming and so took off to the Terminal and found him laying on a small bed in his mother´s arms and whimpering softly.  

Miqueo hospitalOn first inspection of him I could see no obvious reason why he was in pain and so we carried him into my little jeep and rushed him to a private hospital for immediate evaluation.  Just before we left the family asked me to pray for him and so I did that as quickly as I could because I wanted to get him to the hospital.  Miraculously he already looked better and had stopped crying, but I was still taking him to hospital to get him checked out.

As the hours went by we knew he was in good hands and was examined, x-rayed and blood tested in order to find the reason for his acute pain.  There seemed nothing wrong with him now and I did feel rather awkward bringing in a young boy in the middle of the night who was now looking fine.  We returned to their little room and spent ages trying to get back in as the other children had securely locked the door and were now fast asleep.

When I woke the next day I was feeling tired, but had to wake early to get Mike and Chris to the airport and then get on with another long day.  At least I was now going to start the day with our amazing team and spend some time praying for and discussing the various urgent situations.  Quite often there seem so many, but at least we can share out the load a little.

It is now lunchtime and I head up the road to collect little Moses and three other children from school and bring them back to our mentoring centre.  Moses needs some personal time and space and so our mentoring session does not last as long as it usually does.  When we finish I leave the door open in our small counselling room and then have a steady stream of young children coming in asking for my help, advice and prayers. I will just give you a quick overview of some of the stories I was told.  They are all very real and compound the pain I am already feeling and I desperately try and find strength to keep going and keep listening and supporting.

  • el centro 3One boy tells me that he has had thoughts of ending his life this week and found a busy road where he knew cars passed quickly and where he could best throw himself under the passing traffic.
  • A girl comes in and is struggling as there is not enough food to eat each day and asks me for advice to give to another girl who was ridiculed in school when she had her first period.
  • A boy tells me of a fight with his mum and how it got to the point where he picked up a knife to defend himself and nearly stabbed her in anger.
  • Another boy comes in to just cry and tell me that he does not know where he will live if his mum dies in hospital in the coming days from a minor operation. He feels alone and needs to know someone will care for him.
  • The last boy comes in and is struggling with the fact that his dad now has a court order for capture on him for robbery.  But he tells me his is pleased that he, his younger siblings and his mum have found a little room to rent and so they don´t need to live on the streets.  But there is a daily struggle for his mum to work and maintain the family as her ex-husband will shortly be arrested and put into prison.

I will stop there and remember that we can only do what we can do with the resources and time we have available.  I wish I could do more, but for now being available, listening, praying and giving the occasional cuddle is all I can do.  One day we will have more people working with us to help make a difference in the lives of these vulnerable children.

The drive home is long now as it is busy Friday evening traffic, and, as always, you are very aware of the risks of driving through a city like Guatemala City, as yet another ambulance forces its way through oncoming traffic to reach a person at the end of the road where our centre is, who has either been hit by a car or shot.  The light changes to green and we are off and I leave yet another tragedy behind and head to my little home and am glad to make it through another day.

Wednesday 30thJanuary 2019

I remember the many times, as a young child, I had learned to hold in what I was feeling rather than letting it out.  In those days the phrase “boys don´t cry” was all too real and spoken over me so much that I believed it.  When I became a Christian in 1981, my life changed and I began to unpack those harmful feelings in a loving and caring environment and learned that being emotional was OK.

So often, in my work with boys here in Guatemala, I still come across the phrase and try and teach boys that talking about and demonstrating their feelings is OK and healthy.  If the only feelings we guys show is our anger or passion for football then we are poor indeed.

The phrase came to mind again this past weekend when I came across Marcos.  Marcos is 14 and has always been rather withdrawn and despite my efforts to try and get to know him, he has always remained in his shell.  He has not had the easiest of lives and when I first met him on the rubbish dump in La Terminal, Guatemala City, it was clear to me that he was suffering from some form of emotional deprivation.

Marcos1Marcos’ mum works very hard indeed and usually starts work on the rubbish dump around 7am and finishes at 6pm.  In those days, Marcos, his mum and little brother Jesus, were living in a mud-walled “house” about an hour and a half outside the city. It was small, but large enough for a bed, a table, a small bookshelf and a couple of plastic stools.  On entering the house, one would go from bright sunlight to almost darkness and then you could walk through to the little patio at the rear.

As a family they had worked very hard over the years to keep the repayments on this plot of land and slowly started to save for various things in their home.  Marcos’ older brother was not around much, always preferring the streets and an easy life to studying and earning money to keep himself.  The two younger boys would get on the bus at 3:50am every day and arrive into La Terminal around 6:30-7:00am.  Their journey home was equally as long and prone to robberies.

Last year Marcos, Jesus and their mum managed to get a room near La Terminal and both boys continued to study in school.  We have been helping them over the last 6 years, as it has been a tough journey for the mum to provide for them.  One thing we have offered is the mentoring programme to both boys but only Jesus has taken up the opportunity and has done well at school despite frequent bullying and discrimination. Marcos has always put on his brave face and tried to maintain his tough posture until I spoke with him the other day.

Marcos4I had popped in to see their new home and see how the boys were doing with their new schools.  I walk up four large steps to a partly-open door and with an indigenous lady sitting on the doorstep looking vaguely into the street below.  I greeted her and was dragged inside by Jesus, who had seen me coming and smothered me with hugs and was now pulling me into the darkness of the little house.  We walk into the room that doubles as both bedroom and lounge for a family of about 6 people.  It feels awkward as we have to pass right through the middle of their home in order to get to the tiny patio where all the cooking is done.  A small shower and toilet shares the same space.  Jesus pulls back a curtain to reveal another room at the rear of the property.  This is their new home and inside is a double bed, a large gas canister and a shelf unit. In the corner is a sack, which I am guessing contains their clothes.  A tiny window is there only option for both light and ventilation, but it is home and they invite me to sit on what looks like an old school chair, which is rather too small for me but better than the floor.

Marcos5The family tell me that they have left most of their things in a previous room they rented last year and are planning on bringing it over little by little as they could afford.  It is only a 20-minute bus journey, but at the moment there is no money for the bus and so their belongings stay where they are.  I am told that their little home in the country is no longer available to them.  Apparently, the older brother was staying there and was getting high on drugs and turned into a zombie figure.  Neighbours became concerned when he started walking around naked and was vomiting a lot in the streets.  One evening he set fire to the house and they lost everything.  It was a sad and disappointing moment for them and they resigned themselves to starting all over again.

We have worked hard over the last few years to keep both boys off the street and in school and with caring people around them to help them make some positive decisions in their lives.  It has not been easy, but we are committed to helping them not take the same road as many other boys in their family.

I am shown by Marcos his new school book, which he has covered with plastic material to keep it in good condition.  I check over some of his work and comment on what a neat writer he is.  He tells me that he is saving to buy the other three books he needs for this school year.  “I think that you will look after them well and then pass them onto Jesus one day” I say. He looks to the floor and says nothing. I go on to say that I expect he has kept his other school books and it was at this point he just could not hold it in anymore.  He burst into tears and I moved from my little chair to sit next to him on the bed. Marcos grabbed hold of me and just let out years of suppressed tears and said that all his books had been destroyed in the fire.  Everything they had saved, all his clothes, toys and many other things were now gone.

Marcos3Many minutes passed by as he held onto me and me to him as we shared a special moment watched on by his mum and little brother, who said nothing as they entered into his pain and then his mum began to cry also.  It was important for Marcos to let this out and know he was in a safe place and that things could actually get better from here.  I asked if they had eaten and Marcos began to tell me how they had struggled to find food on the rubbish dump this past week.  It was not easy, he told me, to find something edible and something that would not make him ill again.  The competition on the dump was higher and so they came home with less each week, and with two growing boys, the mum then went on to tell me, it was tough.

When the tears had been exhausted I asked Marcos if he would like to go with me now to collect the remainder of their possessions. He perked up and gave me another hug and said thank you.  We left and drove only 10 minutes before arriving at the little room they used to rent.  A kind lady welcomed us in and knew we had come for the belongings.  I was wondering if I needed to fold the back seats down and make a few journeys but Marcos came out smiling and carrying a small wooden stool and two sacks of clothes.  “That is all”, he tells me and thanks the lady for looking after their things and climbed back in the car.

We head back to their room, but call past a supermarket and I ask him to help me shop for some things they most urgently needed. Marcos was very careful about what he chose and only selected things they actually needed right now.  With my encouragement we filled up the little basket and then headed back to his home.

Marcos2He was so happy and I gave him some money to buy his books and said I would like to help him whenever he needed me.  This time I knew that his heart was more open and since then I have received a few messages from him to say thank you.  As I left I asked him what his dream was, what he would love to be one day when he had finished school.  “If I can finish school”, he said, “I would love to do what you do, go around and help people”.  We said our goodbyes and I have mused on his dream and so wonder how I can help him become a volunteer with us to help our work with younger children.  I am sure that in looking after others with similar needs, this will help him develop and open up to an even more caring individual. For the moment he is grateful and happy and has had the opportunity to cry and talk about his feelings like never before. It´s a small step forwards, but one that I know has meant a lot to him.

Monday 21stJanuary 2019

The pilot announced that “we will shortly be landing in Guatemala” and immediately my heart skipped a beat as I had been waiting to hear those words for a very long time.

I had left Guatemala in late October and headed back to the UK to help set up and run Radio Christmas, as well as travel many miles around the UK to speak to supporters, churches and schools.  

luggageNow I was coming home and I can truly say this is home for me and I love living in Guatemala.  It is not the climate that attracts me, albeit a very pleasant one, but the people, the work and the sensation that I am part of something very special that is happening at this moment in the history of the world.

I manage to talk my way through customs, when they ask me why one small carryon case is full of chocolate and why I have two large bags full of rucksacks.  “It´s because I have 46 children” I tell them and continue standing there smiling.  The customs officer must have heard it all over the years, but never this!

I get a taxi and make it home in time to get the water turned on, connect everything including the internet and then unpack before falling into bed and into a deep sleep.

juan carlosThe next morning, I wake early, mainly due to my body clock still being in UK time.  They say that if you shine a torch behind your knees then you can reset your body clock and climatize quicker to the local hour.  However, I am keen to keep waking up at 3am for the moment as there is lots to do and today is no exception.

My goal today and tomorrow is to visit all the boys I am mentoring and their families and spend quality time with them and enjoy watching their faces as they open up the little presents I brought back with me from the UK.  I knew that each present would bring a huge amount of happiness to each boy as every present was chosen specially for them.  I am not disappointed, and so begins the walk from one place to another, with lots of hugs and screams of joy.


kidsgreetingAs I was leaving the little shack where Juan Carlos (photo above) and his mum live I am greeted by a gang of little children who had been waiting patiently in the streets to see me.  For them, playtime had begun!  They had missed me and I had missed them and so we chatted for a while about what they did for Christmas.  Most said, all at the same time, that they had done nothing, just played in the streets and let off a few bangers on the 24th.  Not one could tell me they had received a present, but they all told me how much they had enjoyed the big party the team had thrown for them in our Centre.  It was a momentous moment for them as they chuckled telling me who ate what and what games were played and who laughed when they saw Frank dressed as a pirate, and the stories went on.

Creating happy memories is what I love doing and it was amazing, during Radio Christmas, how many people came to the station, or found me in the streets rushing from one thing to another, to tell me how much they remembered the kids club we did years ago, or the camp they went on or the fun day out into London when they were small.

jhony jordiI have to move on as the next drop-in takes me to Santa Fas, a dangerous area on the outskirts of Guatemala City that had grown significantly in the mid 90s when the Municipal Government removed hundreds of families from little tin shacks on the now disused railway line near the centre of the city, and “re-housed” them in Santa Fas.  Santa Fas has a major problem with gangs and I have met so many kids on the streets over the years who started their life here in this area of the city.

Climbing down the side of the mountain was much easier now the rainy season has finished and the sun-baked land was hard and firm underfoot.  I had to check that I was not being followed and eventually made it safely to the tin shack where little Jhony and his family live.  Some might remember that Jhony is the boy who had been hit by a car and had broken his leg and needed our help to get him out of hospital and in recovery.  

Jhony was now walking, albeit with a very hefty limp, and tried to run to see me and give me a huge hug.  The rest of his family came out to say hi and invited me in for a drink and to hear how I had spent my Christmas.  I knew I could not tell them everything but did manage to show them some photos and talk about what it would be like to play in snow.  They were very kind and accepting and introduced me to an 11-year-old boy called Jordi.  Jordi, lives a short distance away from Jhony´s shack and so I am invited to go with the boys to visit his home.

santa fas1We clamber along the mountainside and come to three places where the ground has given way to landslides and those who live here have put up make-shift bridges so they can cross.  They are not at all safe and give in quite considerably when I cross – probably due to the number of mince pies I have eaten in the last month!  We arrive at Jordi´s little shack and are greeted by his step-mum.  The greeting is friendly, but I can see she is wondering why I am here and when I explain that I have come to get a copy of the list of things he needs in order to start school, she relaxes and thanks me.

The boys run back to Jhony´s shack where we go over the list and discuss what is going on in Jordi´s life and how hard things are for him right now.  The boys seem very concerned for each other and go to the same school and understand just how tough life is in this part of the city.  None of the shacks has any legal claim on the land, but the longer they stay there the longer they have a legal claim on it. 

Evidence of the gang is all around you and the boys are desperate to leave the area one day and get their families to a safer environment and have dreams of getting good jobs and never giving in to the daily temptations from the gang to be part of something exciting with easy access to cash and power. It is not hard to see how vulnerable boys like these succumb to the gang.  What they have seen is many of their friends join, get shot or die.  So many end up in prison and then their seal in the gang is complete and their prospects are few, and so life is tied to the gang with its short life expectancy.

I am hopeful that if we can keep these boys in school, off the streets and involved in sports and other activities they might actually make it.  I, for one, am determined to help make a difference in their lives and will be on the hunt for mentors for them in the coming weeks.

And now for some good news.  Over the past few days I have spent a good deal of time with the 9 boys I am mentoring and all have started school again and have been excited with their backpacks and starter kits.  Thanks to those who donated on Radio Christmas for the backpack appeal, we have been able to help 46 children in Guatemala start school and many more in Honduras.  The final number will be around 80 I believe.

KenedyThe Guatemalan government state that 73% of all children who start primary school pass their grade and progress to the next. If a child fails, and 27% obviously do, then then stay in that school grade for another year and try again. Many drop out if they fail the second time and despite the pass rate increasing over the last 10 years, it is still far from where we want it to be.  I am pleased to say, however, that of all the children in our mentoring programme in Guatemala, 98% of the children passed their school grade.  It is a massive achievement when you take into consideration all the risk factors that are in their lives and all they have to cope with.  

Mentoring really does change lives and can transform this nation.  If every high-risk child had a mentor in their life then we could expect their school grades to increase and for them to all pass their school year and enjoy a better chance in life.

Thanks to your support all this is possible.  The photo above is of 13-year-old Kenedy, who I walked to school last week.  We have managed to get him into private school this year and he is enjoying the challenge.  We chatted a lot as we walked from his house at 6:15am to his new school and he could see that his chances of making it in life had increased dramatically.  He is not one for smothering you with hugs, but he reached out his hand and grasped mine and together we walked to school.  Kenedy with a smile on his face and me feeling very proud.  Thank you all again for your amazing support during December.  Now the fun bit starts as we use the funds to change lives.