Wednesday 7thNovember

I know my memory is not that good at the moment.  I am over-tired and have been working too many hours each day for far too long now.  Retaining things in my head or recalling things is more of a challenge right now!  So, when a message came through on my phone saying “I had an accident and now I am in hospital” from an unknown number, I was trying to remember if someone had told me about a child who had been taken to hospital.  I guessed it was not a child and presumed it was one of the older guys off the streets who had remembered my number.

jhony legI have to now ask each caller who it is as many children just assume I will know their voice and remember the number of the phone box they are calling from.  I was then told “yer, I have been here three days now”, which didn´t help me to identify the person on the other end of the messages.  I asked the name of the person and was told “It´s Jhony”.  Well that was a good start and since I know many boys called Jhony and each with a different spelling I needed further clarification as the conversation got into details of how he had fractured his leg in an accident and could I go and visit him.

In order to discover which Jhony was messaging me I asked him if he could use the phone to send me a picture.  What came back made me laugh so much.  I had assumed he would take a picture of his face so I could recognise him.  Instead he took a picture of his leg!  There was no way I could identify a boy just from a leg and so asked him to take a photo of his face.  Another picture came through of the top part of his eyes and forehead.  It was enough to locate him and remember the boy who Ben and I had visited a few months ago in the market.

Jhony has grown up in real poverty in a settlement called Santa Fas, on the outskirts of Guatemala City.  I have been working there for 25 years and have seen the community of displaced street dwellers from the city centre grab land that most people would not consider any value and build a basic structure and call it home.  In one of those structures, a tin shack with dirt floor and sewage running alongside the outdoor sink that is used for washing and drinking water, Jhony and his family live.

His story is one of survival in the face of overwhelming odds.  The gang that control the area are heavily recruiting young boys into the gang and intimidate and threaten those that don´t join. Sometimes this leads to their torture and murder or the murder of family members until the boy gives in and joins the gang.  This was the main reason Jhony stopped going to school and tried to stay at home.  But, with the hot sun beating down on the tin shack it becomes unbearable to spend time there during the day and so the streets are a cooler alternative and this leads to greater risk of gang involvement.

Jhony hospitalHaving located Jhony and his family in my head I asked if I could visit him on the next open visit and he said I could but didn´t know if he was going to have his operation and how he was going to cope.  Thankfully his mum took the two-hour bus journey to be with him each day and so he had her phone and could contact me and also enjoy her company and care.

My sister has been visiting Guatemala and so was invited to join me as I headed to the main city hospital that is struggling to cope with very few resources, out-dated or no equipment, limited staff and unsanitary conditions.  We find little Jhony in one of the men´s wards and a huge smile comes across his face when he sees us.  He managed to have his operation due to family members joining the long early morning queues outside the hospital in order to give blood.  If your family and friends don´t donate blood, and often medical supplies, then you can´t be operated on.  Jhony, however, had made it through and was now, in his doctor´s opinion, ready to go home.

Picking him up from the hospital is an ordeal in itself.  His mum had managed to borrow a wheelchair which got him to the entrance. He was in a huge amount of pain and as soon as I picked him up he was in tears.  Keeping his leg straight whilst not touching it and lifting him at the same time was quite a challenge but eventually I get him in the car and we set off for Santa Fas.  As we arrived in Santa Fas I knew that carrying him down the steep hillside to his shack was going to be hard work and I could see in his face he knew the pain that was coming.

santafasEventually, and after many tears, we got him onto a small metal bed that is precariously held up on blocks of concrete and wood on a dirt floor.  His main concern, as I struggled down the hillside, was for my back rather than the pain he was in.  The dimly-lit shack was going to be a tough place to recuperate and how I wished all had gone to plan with the refurbishment work at the new Protection Home. The home (photo right) would have been the ideal place for Jhony, but it was just too dangerous and we were still unable to use the toilets due to the construction of a whole new drainage system being put in. It will be great when finished but I would love it all done now so we can take care of kids like Jhony.



Damaris partyReturning to Guatemala City, I did manage to honour my promise of celebrating Damaris´ 14thbirthday.  Damaris is a quiet and caring girl who has come through some really tough stuff in her life.  She was so excited when I turned up with my sister and a few presents, followed by a few members of the SKD team.  Damaris and her mum had worked hard to get the room, which is their house, ready for the party.  The bed was stood up against the wall and the floor decorated with pine foliage and a line of borrowed tables and chairs had been placed in the centre of the room.

We thoroughly enjoyed celebrating Damaris´ birthday and her brothers and sisters, all of whom are in the mentoring programme, seemed amazed that we were prepared to eat food they had so lovingly prepared for us.

goodbye2A few days later I am sat with the children at the Centre who are all excited to say their goodbyes to me and pray for me as I return back to the UK.  The highlight of the afternoon with the children was the showing of the two videos of the boys and girls camps a few weeks ago.  The kids were glued to the screen and laughed throughout and remembered some very special times indeed.  

It will be hard to leave them and get on the plane and head back to the UK, but head back I must as I focus on the 10thanniversary of Radio Christmas and the many presentations and school assemblies to speak at over the next few weeks.

Please do follow the station, tune in and get involved as we celebrate all the incredible things that have happened over the last 10 years.  We will be based at Café Africa in Amersham this year and will have live broadcasts coming from the USA, Guatemala and Honduras.  It will be a special time and we hope to break 10 Guinness World Records at the same time!  Stay tuned.

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.