Friday 1st March 2019

I grew up enjoying movies about pirates and always had a romantic view of them until my adult life told me a very different truth. Modern-day pirates are ruthless killers and devastate lives and communities and this is no different from the piracy of the late 1600s.

Roatan1Why, you ask, am I talking about pirates in a blog on street kids?  Well, I have just spent 5 days in Roatan, a small island of the coast of Honduras. When I say small, it is in fact 36 miles long and 5 miles wide, with a population of 109,000 and 48% is under the age of 18. Roatan is an idyllic Caribbean island that most would expect to see featured on the front of any travel magazine.

The outstanding natural beauty and golden sandy beaches can easily hide the communities of black indigenous people living in poverty. The history of Roatan is one of pirates, the slave trade and then much later the British and Spanish conquistadors who settled on the island and began to develop it into a retreat for those with the money to enjoy such an island of paradise.  In 1920 Archaeologist Mitchell-Hedges moved to the island and began to explore.  He found several pirate chests gold and silver and snuck them off the island and sold them in England.  Many still believe there is treasure to find on the island, but few would consider that the greatest treasure there today are the children.

Roatan2Steve Poulson and I had been invited to visit the island to help advise a young family - Justin & Ashley Guest and their two boys - who have moved there as missionaries and were keen to explore how the Street Kids Direct mentoring programme could help vulnerable children on the island.

Our Sunday arrival meant that the roads were quieter and we are driven to the east end of the island where very few tourists venture. On arrival in the area of Punta Gorda we came across a group of people cleaning the beach.  Justin explained how these were the new community leadership group they had helped bring together to look at the various issues the local people felt were their major concerns.  With an extremely high level of diabetes, 85% unemployment, youth and children at high social risk, pollution and lack of drinking water, there was certainly a great work to be done.

Roatan3Walking around the less-developed areas of Punta Gorda, which is almost all of it, you start to meet people living in the most basic conditions.  Many come out of their little shacks and wooden-built homes that perch on top of large supports driven into the sandy ground to greet us or just to see what we are doing.  The interesting mix of three languages, English, Spanish and Garifuna, means communication is fun and often takes you by surprise when young children blurt out an hilarious mix of all three.

It becomes increasingly clear that there are many needs in this community and helping the most vulnerable children is what Justin and Ashley are keen to do.  Together with the stories of many male abandoned homes and statistics of children living with numerous risk factors (abuse, neglect, violence) in their lives it leads to discussions about whether the mentoring programme will be able to change the outcomes for these children.

Roatan4We are invited to meet a small group of leaders in the community and explain the mentoring programme and what is needed to put it into effect.  Then we are invited to a much larger meeting of around 35 people, all of whom are keen community leaders and with a passion to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable children in their community.  When Steve and I stood up in front of the group to explain the 10 adverse childhood experiences we use to help define a vulnerable child and asked each person to think of one child in their community they know to be at risk. All those present said that every child they thought of had at least 5 of those factors in their lives, which suggests that their future health outcomes are not that good.

We would like to begin a series of studies to help identify the demographic and understand the social needs of the population and how many vulnerable children there that would benefit from the mentoring programme. This will mean Steve will have to return there at some point for more formal evaluations and training, but for now the ball has started rolling and we are excited that more children will soon benefit from having a caring, consistent adult in their lives.

Your support makes this possible and it exciting to see how the programme is beginning to grow to other places.

Tuesday 26thFebruary 2019

It was a fairly short walk to collect Brandon and I knew that at 5:45am La Terminal would be already heaving with traffic and commerce and a lively place to walk through.  The sun was just about to peak through the tallest buildings on the far side of the Terminal and illuminate my path a little better, but for now the dimly-lit street lamps and passing traffic will guide me. However, the flashing lights ahead and the crowd of people blocking the road could only mean one thing, and as I approached I could see the dead body of another person who had been assassinated by, we can only presume, the angels.

terminalLa Terminal is a noisy and over crowded market area that turns over $4 million, mainly in cash, per day.  With just over 40,000 traders jostling for trade in an area the size of a large village and with 500 lorries loading and unloading at any one time it certainly is a place that demands some form of control.  Traders pay into a scheme whereby they are kept safe from thieves and extortion by the contracted services of “The Angels”, who are a group of contract killers and they diligently patrol the Terminal day and night.  

In one of our recent visits to La Terminal we met two of The Angels. One was keen to show of his full magazine for his semi-automatic, while angel number two discussed the shift patterns they work and what challenges they face. Quite a surreal moment in a busy day, but on the whole, we know they are not planning to harm us as they have many years seeing the work we are doing to help children here.

I walk on past the dead body and turn the corner into a road that leads to Brandon´s house. Brandon is 12 and today I have arranged the personal trainer from the gym to spend time with him before I take him to his dance class.  I squeeze my way through the market traders, mothers dragging children along while carrying huge baskets of fruit and vegetables on their heads, and numerous people looking for the day´s bargains.  The entrance to the room that Brandon and his family live in is always dark and if you didn´t know about the step halfway along the pitch-black alleyway then you would certainly end up on the floor.

Brandon hears me coming and pops his head around the corner where the “pila” is and smiles.  The pila is a large outdoor sink and Brandon tells me he has to wash all the pots, plates and cups from the previous day before he is allowed to go out. This provides me a good opportunity for helping him wash the pots whilst chatting about his week.  It is amazing just how meticulous he is with the washing and how carefully he uses water.  Here water is costly for these families and so it all has to be used sparingly.  We chat as we wash together and I help stack the washed items neatly in a large bowl that Brandon then lifts into their small room where his brother and sisters are asleep.  He grabs his shorts on the way out and we head back to where my car is parked outside our Centre.

brandon trainingDespite it being 6:15am we arrive at the gym, change and arrive in plenty of time for his one-on-one session with Vincent, the trainer. Our trainer has given up his Saturday morning rest to setup the dance room with cones, steps, mats and balls. It looks alluring for Brandon and he begins to run around and shows Vincent some of the dance moves he has been learning. Having huge mirrors along one wall makes this the most ideal place for the boy and he revels in the attention he is getting.

When the training session is over, and I am exhausted as he is, we head for breakfast and then to the dance studio.  I watch him like an anxious but very proud parent. This is now his 4thdance class, funded by Mike and Chris who visited Guatemala recently.  They left enough money for me to pay for his classes for the next two months.  After that I am not sure where the money will come from but I am keen to encourage his desire to dance.

Mentoring, as we say rather a lot, changes lives. Seeing how Brandon´s life has changed since joining the programme is so rewarding.  I remember his first days with us and can only imagine what his life would be like if we had not come across him, his little brother and three sisters in the streets one day.  They are all now in school apart from the youngest, Jackie, who is only four. Jackie told me back in December how she was now working in a kitchen for 10p a day, and yes I did say she was only four! We know she has been spending more and more time in the streets and so this week we are getting her legal papers in order so that we can put her into nursery and keep her off the streets.

Brandon is loving the dance class and it seems that this is most favourite time of his week.  He loves the attention and support and it makes me so happy to see him enjoying his dream and growing in confidence and ability.

A good day ahead as I have been invited to take the 5 boys I mentor on a Saturday, which includes Brandon, to a pool in the afternoon with Russell and Joanna Soden who are visiting Guatemala for the next two weeks. 

Good news and good times at last and this weekend I will be heading to Honduras to meet with Steve Poulson to introduce the SKD mentoring programme to a community living in poverty on an idyllic island on the Caribbean coast that was once infamous for pirates and slaves.  My next blog should be interesting!

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.