Saturday 25th August, 2018

“I really love you Duncan”, little Cristopher said to me while giving me a hug and planting a kiss on my cheek.  He then continued with “and when you die I am coming to your funeral”.  It made me laugh and I would rather him have stopped at the first bit, but kids do say the funniest things.  I have no idea what he had in his mind but Cristopher was enjoying himself and having the best day of his life, his words not mine, during a mentoring session with me.

Cristopher is an adorable 9-year-old boy living at very high risk and who has entered into the mentoring programme.  Since there are no male mentors to keep up with the new kids coming in I am having to look at 8 boys at the moment, which is beginning to take its impact on my life, but it is a joy to see the change that happens when you demonstrate love, care, concern and value.

The other day I decided to take Cristopher to school. He has not been in a while and trying to get his mum to take him every day has been a challenge.  His 11-year-old sister is not going to school at the moment, something I am hopeful we can change over the coming days.

corridorI climb the steps to Cristopher´s room from the now-bustling street in the heart of La Terminal and the stench coming from the pile of rubbish that has accumulated in the stairwell is rather overpowering.  It is 6am and the noise of the busy market in the street blends in with the shouts and cries from those I meet and make their way to work as I make my way through the corridors to where Cristopher is living. 

School starts early here in Guatemala and for those children who have to walk a long way to school, like little Christopher, it is a challenge for any kid to be up and ready for 6am.  I approach the metal door of his home – which is just a small room with no ventilation or windows.  His mother is already up and showering in the corridor outside their home. She finishes quickly and invites me in to help get Cristopher ready for school.  He is half dressed and just needs to find a t-shirt, socks, shoes and then wash his face and comb his hair.  We are nearly there!  I help find his t-shirt and then help him put it on as he still seems half asleep.  The only bed in the 2m x 4m room is covered with clothes and his older brother is fast asleep on it while his sister and two other young children are asleep on the concrete floor.

I walk with him to the corridor and help pour some cold water over his head while he washes his face and wets his hair.  The mum explains that they can´t afford water and so they collect rain water and try and use what they have sparingly.  The murky water in the bucket is last night´s offering from the heavens and Cristopher tells me they can use about two-three cupfulls of water for a shower.  He uses about half a cupful to wash his face and wet his hair.  His hair has to look good of course and in the style any 9-year-old boy would consider makes him look cool.

school1Success, I now have a clean boy, dressed for school and with a small quantity of school books in his little rucksack.  His mum and I begin the long walk to school.  It takes us a few minutes to get out of the terminal and then we head down one of the main streets that has a cycle path and walkway for pedestrians.  Cristopher holds my hand and we chat as we walk along the path, being very careful not to tread on any of the cracks as we go.  He enjoys this game and it takes his attention off the long walk, but eventually we arrive at the school and Cristopher tells me he is hungry and has not had breakfast.  Fortunately, there is a lady outside the school selling sandwiches and so I buy one for him and one for his mum.  

The school is a government school and this is clear by the austere building that has been painted government blue and named City School number 64.  A lot of thought must have gone into that name!  The old lady at the gate opens it enough for us to squeeze through and wait for Cristopher´s teacher to arrive.  Meanwhile we sit down near the playground and his mum tells me why Cristopher´s sister stopped coming to school.  She points to a small boy, aged about 9, who threatened Cristopher´s 11-year-old sister in school one day, saying he would be waiting outside school to stab her to death.  True to his word he was there with knife in hand ready to stab the young girl. Thanks to some adult intervention she was saved from the attack and the boy was asked not to bring a knife into school.

school2Eventually, the teacher arrives all flustered and apologetic for being late.  The two large padlocks on the classroom door come off and the door is flung open to welcome the five children waiting outside.  I introduce myself and tell the teacher I am looking after little Cristopher in mentoring until a mentor can be found for him.  Cristopher quickly settles into his seat and gets out his books while the teacher tells his mum and me that she is so pleased he is now back in school.  It is unlikely he will pass the school grade this year, which means he will have to repeat it next year.  I look at him sitting there with a huge smile on his little face and wonder if he will stick at school, given all he has to deal with each day.  I am sure he will not want to repeat the school year with younger children but all I can do is encourage him to do so while looking at options for a much better school for him.

It has been an eventful morning and I arrive back at our mentoring Centre feeling like I have already completed a day´s work. However, there is much to do today as we have more school visits, street work and then mentoring in the afternoon and evening.  I love days like this and hope that, come Monday, Cristopher is back in school and focussed on his education.  He knows I am expecting great things from him and can see, from his parting smile, he loves the idea of having a male in his life who cares for him.  Hope has been sowed.

Monday 20thAugust, 2018

There are days when emotions are very close to the surface and the smallest thing can bring me to tears.  And it was one of those days on Monday when I spent the evening visiting many of the families of the boys I mentor to see how they are doing.

My first stop is to visit two brothers who were deemed at high-risk and so entered the mentoring programme two years ago.  They came into my care as no male mentors could be found for them at the time and they are still with me now.  My visit to their home, a small room measuring 3m x 4m, was unexpected as the family of 8 were sitting on the double bed that is also their table, sofa and play area, and eating a huge cream birthday cake.  It was one of the youngest children´s birthdays and I am invited in to enjoy a large slice of cream cake and sing happy birthday.

The main reason for my visit is to check on the health of the mother, who, according to the two boys, is causing them concern. We discuss the pains in her shoulders and back and how long she has been suffering and the various cheap clinics she has been to with no progress or medical diagnosis.  I offer to pay for a private clinic and the boys look relived and the mum is very grateful.  Wasting no time, I make the appointment on line with my phone and confirm her appointment for later this week.

school marksI pop into to see a couple of other families and then end up visiting one the families I know is of great concern to me and the team at the moment.  It is now dark and the market (La Terminal) is starting to slow down and many of the stalls have now closed, leaving piles of rotting vegetables and fruit in the street. I climb through the mess in the street and push open a large black metal door that takes me into a dark corridor where various rooms are located.  In each room is a family and some have just a curtain up as their front door, due to the heat, while small children sit and play with marbles and mums are either washing clothes in the only sink that is shared with the various families there or cooking on make-shift stoves in the corridor.

Doña Luisa is leaning over a small charcoal fire that has been made out of an old car wheel, but it seems rather effective and is warming up a cooking pot – it´s today´s main meal for the family.  The younger children hear my voice and come running out to greet me and the smallest two hold up their arms, inviting me to pick them up as they snuggle into my neck and just hang there as I talk with the mother.

Things seem more settled now for Doña Luisa since her husband decided to leave.  He calls me now and again to tell me he misses his family and is sorry for the violence and abuse and hopes one day to sort out his life and come back and see his family.  For the moment they are all safe, but struggling without his income.  Doña Luisa starts work at 5am every day making tortillas and returns home at lunchtime in order for two of her children to go to school.  The two oldest girls’ study in the morning and the two boys in the afternoon, leaving just the 4-year-old at home under the supervision of whichever siblings are not studying.

I am now invited into their room and the children sit on the bed and ask about the belt I am wearing around my waist.  It is a utility belt and holds two first aid kits, a dog repellent spray and a pouch for a couple of games, a torch, a notepad and a pen.  We take out a game and begin to play.  The oldest girl, who is clearly loving this new game of tossing two small rubber pigs on the ground which determines their score, gets out her school bag and hands me her school results card.  I pause the game and we all look at her card and I am just bowled over by her results.

Lucia is 13-years-old and is loving school.  She is in grade two, due to the fact that she never had the chance of going to school before she started the mentoring programme.  Her results are incredible and as I look down the list of 100% marks and then look at her, she smiles and turns her head to one side, unsure of how to accept praise. She is clearly doing really well and my emotions are stirred and my mind skips back three years ago when Frank, one of our team here in Guatemala, turned up at our newly opened mentoring centre with Lucia and her four younger siblings.  She had been wandering around the streets and tells Frank that she spends every day now on the streets as it is not safe to stay in their room when the mum and dad go off to work.

cooking potI remember Lucia sitting in the corner of a room in our mentoring centre with her head in her knees whilst keeping an occasional glance over her younger brothers and sisters.  Going to school was not an option for her and all she wanted was that we got her siblings into school as soon as possible, in order, according to her, to keep them safe and help them achieve something with their lives.  When we started to teach Lucia to read she just came alive and slowly we convinced her she also could start school.  That was three years ago and now she has been in school for two years.

Looking over her school report made me think of the day she and her siblings stopped wandering the streets all day and started the mentoring programme.  She has come a long way and is obviously going to go far with her studies.  All we need to do is keep her safe, encourage her in school, help with her homework and I know she will do the rest.

It´s time for me to go now as the mum wants to feed them all and so I leave them to their evening meal.  As I lift up the curtain that separates their room from the dingy corridor I look into the pot to see what is for dinner.  My heart breaks and I am overcome with sadness as I place the lid back on the pot and say goodnight and wander out into the street.  I lean against the wall outside and try and hold it all together.  In the cooking pot, the main meal for a family of six, are 8 tomatoes.  The world seems a very unjust and cruel place right now and my determination to make it all right, at least for this family, makes me walk at speed back to the centre to see what we have available to donate to them in the morning.

I head home to eggs on toast and, once again, feel guilty for what I have and go to sleep with more than a tear in my eye.

Thursday 24th July 2018

I had hoped that after three days of rest, which included washing two weeks’ worth of clothes and running around shopping and clearing up everything from the sponsored walk from Honduras, I would be ready to take on the challenges of the day-to-day work.  The opposite seemed to be the case as I met with our team and then headed out on the streets with Ben and had to deal with a few situations that will, I am sure, probably depress you while making you aware of the challenges we all have to face in the work here each day.

Juan carlos schoolMy day starts by collecting Juan Carlos, one of the boys in the mentoring programme with me.  Today I will be walking him to school and using the opportunity to talk about his schoolwork, commitment to studies and the obvious benefits for those who have completed their primary and secondary studies and then go on to university. Meeting his teacher and talking through his educational needs, whilst being swamped by other children wanting to come and say good morning, was helpful for us all and a new commitment seems to have been made.

On return to our mentoring Centre, situated in the boundary road of La Terminal, there was lots to do including the shaping of the manual and protocols for the new Protection Home.  Once completed the home will be able to offer short-term protection to children and their families in crisis as well as offer support to the most vulnerable children in the mentoring programme while they are going through a challenging time.  Our hope is that the home will be completed by mid-August and ready to take in children from September this year.

Its days like this that, when I eventually get home, I wonder how it is possible for children to cope with all that is happening in their lives and still manage to function, let alone smile.  The building of resilience due to childhood crisis, neglect and abuse is something that I know all too well and also know how these early adverse childhood experiences can build that same resilience and lead to either great hope or great sadness.

centro julyI first hear about one of the boys in the mentoring programme that has just returned from a neurological scan and the first results have showed that his brain development has been altered due to abuse and neglect and how this could easily lead to him becoming more violent or taking his own life. Luis is a ruddy 11-year-old boy who wears the same clothes every day.  He looks like he has the word “abandoned” written all over him and the whole team would love to see him take a long shower where he can be scrubbed clean, given new clothes, a big hug and a good meal.

Luis has grown up in the care of grandparents after his parents were killed and he and his younger sister have tried to cope with the way life throws you one challenge after another.  Luis is becoming more violent and fuelled by, we believe, his abusive childhood, possible brain damage and a frustration that no one really understands him and his needs.  He told the neurologist, after he had studied his first scans, how his grandfather would beat him and then hang him up from their little shack perched on top of a small shop below that sells alcohol all hours of the day and night.  Once, he said, he was left hanging there all night long.  His view of life is rather different from ours and he sees everyone as a threat and so becomes aggressive or runs away to the streets.

Spending a few moments with some of the children helping them build lego structures is cut short when I am asked to come into a meeting with one of the younger boys in the mentoring programme whose mother works on the rubbish dump.  He is unable, as usual, to sit down and wanders around the office moving chairs and touching computer screens till I walk into the room and greet him. His mother and brother are all now sitting down around the team meeting table and have obviously been talking for a while.

The mum thanks me for coming and the little boy comes over and places his head on my side, takes my arm and places it on his chest and then snuggles in for the rest of the time we talk together.  The story unfolds of how the three of them received death threats and the explanation of what happened is followed by the mum bursting into tears and the little boy holding me even tighter while his 14-year-old brother buries his head in his arms and disassociates himself from the conversation.  It is hard to listen to the reasons why a person would want to kill this seemingly loving, hard-working mother and her two boys, but listen we must in order to take this further and offer whatever protection and support we can.

When the meeting is over and the older boy heads home on the bus and his mum returns to her work on the rubbish dump while the little boy tells me how worried he is and starts to cry when other children come up and say hi to me – usually with a huge hug and sometimes a kiss on the cheek. He is struggling to make sense of his life and wonders how long it will continue.  It is hard to say goodbye at the end of the afternoon but goodbye leads to the next part of the day – street work.

ben streetsBen and I head with heavy hearts to a place called La Casona, a corner of a busy intersection that has become home to around 80 street children and youths over the last 8 years, but now the population is no larger than 10 young adults with a few hang-around-the-edges children.  We meet Vicky who is back on the streets after her boyfriend is released from prison and has become violent again, Manuel who is clearly not happy on the streets and is always talking of another chance to leave it all behind and start a new life, Mauricio who is still homeless and still looking for work, Jenny who has been beaten again and needs first aid on her infected leg and swollen face, Marcos who has lost his job and been thrown out of home by his wife due to his behaviour and lastly Selvin who tells me about how he stabbed his brother with a broken bottle and was now waiting for the consequences.

Our attention, if this was not enough, was caught a little later by what was transpiring across the road.  Ben noticed that the family we have been helping over the last few weeks with accommodation in the builders’ mess of a Protection Home, was sitting on the steps that lead to their home.  They had needed help due to their carer/grandmother being hit by a car, which had left her with fractures, bruises and in a great amount of pain.  She is nearly 70 and spends her days on the streets looking after parked cars in the hope the owners might give her a few pennies at the end of the day.  The three children she is looking after don´t know she was rushed into hospital and the news is broken to them by our team when they come out of school.  They have nowhere else to live and so we take them into the downstairs part of the new Protection Home while the builders continue their hard work of getting the first floor ready for the grand opening in August.

Sitting on the steps and looking around means one thing - the pickup that has been booked to take their treasured possessions to a new apartment in the centre of the city has not materialised.  The team had spent a long time finding them alternative accommodation as part of a new plan to look after them after the grandmother´s accident and release from hospital because they were unable to continue living in the home they had camped out in for the last few years.

Lucas move2Ben tells me he is worried and so we walk over to see what is happening and are told that the transport has not come and that it might come tomorrow now.  This is frustrating for us and for the family who have packed up their meagre possessions into various rubbish sacks and have them piled up by the communal door that leads to the main street.  Their trusted dog, Rex, stands guard over it all and wags his tail at us as we enter into the door and climb up the rickety wooden steps that lead to the room they have lived in over the past 10 or more years.

The building is crumbling all around them and the room they all live in is now fairly bare and a few wires hang down from the ceiling.  At least the light works, but the water has been cut off a long time ago due to non-payment. The children don´t want to leave despite the awful conditions as they don´t know the new place at all as it had only come up the previous day and we had to say yes right away.  We have no idea where the money is going to come from to pay for the rent or how we will now get the children to school each day and help support them while the grandmother recovers, but we can´t just do nothing and so decide to move forwards in faith that it will work out somehow.

As the minutes pass we have to decide what to do as the family need to move, but we have no transport.  So, a quick walk around the terminal at 7pm at night leads us eventually to a man with a pickup who, for £15, will transport the family and their possessions to zone 1.  We help as much as we can and at least our little jeep can accommodate the children and their grandmother while Ben clings onto the back of the pickup till we get to their new home.

Lucas move1The two girls and teenage boy carry in their bags of clothes, pots and other various household goods while the two beds, which look like they have been rescued from a rubbish dump, are taken into their new two-room house.  There is a mix of sadness and excitement and I wonder how awake the children will be for school tomorrow, as it is now late and they still haven´t eaten.  I drive with Ben to buy an easy meal solution of pizza while they try and accommodate themselves.

The good news is that one of our team is living just down the corridor and so is on hand should the family need help.  This also will put pressure on our team member who used to go home to relax and be with his wife but is happy, as always, to put other people´s needs first and comes out to see all is well.  I am surprised to see him as he had spoken to me in the early hours of the morning, which now seem like a week away, to tell me his wife has just miscarried and they have lost their first child.

Going home tonight will be tough for both Ben and me. It is not easy to accept that we have a bed to sleep in and food, albeit some fruit and bread, in the fridge. Whatever we thought our problems were at the beginning of the day have been dismissed and we are grateful again to God for allowing us to serve those whose lives teeter on the knife-edge vulnerability.  Thanks to your support we can do this work, because without it I can´t begin to imagine what it would be like for those we love to serve.  THANK YOU.