Saturday 14th October, 2017

moses duncanIt certainly does feel a lot longer than a week, but I have been back in Guatemala for one week now and on my return jumped right in with mentoring as the day after I landed in Guatemala City it was Moses´s birthday.

Moses, as the regular readers will know, is the youngest boy I mentor and has been with me in the mentoring programme for the last 4 years.  I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I had to be back in Guatemala for his birthday.  Moses turned 10 and as I look back on his life I am very excited to see how much he has coped with all the world has thrown at him.  He is a survivor and his resilience is high but still needs people in his life who will care for him, cuddle him, tell him he is amazing and help him navigate the next few years of change and growth.  Mentoring is extremely rewarding but is also a challenge and a commitment that often goes beyond what is expected.

Moses´s birthday was a lot of fun and he wanted to take a few friends from school and his teacher plus two boys from our Centre to the cinema to watch a film.  You would think this would be easy enough to organise, but here there seems to be so many aspects of the trip that would cause even the most successful event planners a huge headache.  The day ended well with Moses going home one very happy boy and realising that he has people around him that care for him and think he is very special.

firetruckThe next day I was mentoring Fredy, 13 years, and his brother Jonathan, 10 years.  Both boys are relatively new to the mentoring programme and I am supposed to be looking after them until two male mentors are found for them.  This will take a while I expect and as time goes on their attachment to me will also grow.  In the meantime I am trying to get to know them and it is great to be with two boys who just love being together as brothers and really encourage each other.  They don´t seem to remember a time when they fell out or had a fight, so already we are starting on a good platform.

Fredy and Jonathan live in La Terminal and have been assessed by the team as needing to be in the mentoring programme due to the risk factors in their lives and their connection to the streets.  Evaluating children is always tough as we try not to make decisions based on emotions but each child does need to have a certain number of points in order to be deemed applicable for the mentoring programme.

Our time out together lasts nearly three hours and this week we go bowling as I wanted to do something special since I have been away for three weeks and the boys have missed me being around.  I love the way they both respond to anything I do for them and always say thank you for everything they get and then make me cards or write me letters in the week to tell me how much they appreciated our time out of La Terminal.

There seems to be more children in our Centre on my return and Monday afternoon was spent hanging around in the Centre, recording a video for a school in Scotland, sharing with the children a little of my trip to the UK, handing out chocolate and sweets (a twice-a-year treat) and seeing how much progress has been made.  The noticeboard in the dining room was covered with names and a message to welcome me back and an envelope was left hanging on one side that held a ton of letters, notes and cards from the kids to make me feel bad for going away!

jose karla2My last two mentoring sessions of the day were with Oscar, who is turning 18 this year, and 10-year-old Jose.  I am hoping that Oscar passes his school year, as this is a crucial year for him in passing his basic school studies that will enable him to go into vocational training or get a job.  I am very proud of what he has achieved with his life to date and am hopeful he will go on to great things.  Jose, on the other hand, is still a little boy but with the mindset and street awareness of an older teenager.

Jose lives with his sister Karla (photo) and his grandparents in La Terminal.  His grandparents run a bar and so are always working hard to try and support their two grandchildren.  Both children have a very high connection to the streets and yesterday Karla went missing again and I found Jose lying on the ground being beaten in the head by another boy.  Breaking up the fight was not that easy as Jose was eager to get his own back and I am sure would try and do so today.  Holding on to him meant I felt how hard his little heart was beating and despite his many attempts to get away from me quite liked the idea I was trying to keep him safe.

I took Jose to a shopping mall the day after I arrived back and could not stop looking at his little face gaze on all he saw.  His mouth was wide open in awe and wanted to see this place, then this shop window, then go up the escalator and then return in the lift.  It was a special time and we found a large slide he could go down three times for £1.00.  It was my cheapest mentoring session ever and when I asked him this week what he would like to do this coming session he said: “can we just do the same as last week, everything exactly the same”.  Bless him.  So, another £1 slide is on its way!

Monday 2nd October 2017

Returning to the UK to help organise the Big Sleep is always an exciting opportunity to help children and adults experience something of the discomfort of sleeping rough on the streets and raise some funds for the work in Central America.  This year´s Big Sleep in Amersham on Saturday 23rd September was a tremendous success and about 40 children and adults spent the night outside St.Michael´s Church in Amersham exposed to the cold night or tucked away inside a cardboard box. 

bigsleep1Many thanks to all those who got involved, helped with the technical side of things, made refreshments, provided donations of food and drink, organised the programme, kept us all safe and helped with the registration.  As well as all our volunteers we had many supporters who came along to hear the great news release at 9pm and all those that came to sleep out.  THANK YOU everyone for coming to support and many thanks to the church for allowing us use of their facilities and forecourt.

Our next event is Radio Christmas, which will run from the 12th to the 24th December from both Guatemala and Honduras.  Steve Poulson will head up the broadcasting from Honduras and I will run things from Guatemala with the many UK volunteers who will be working in Guatemala City then or visiting us for the Christmas period.  Please do stay tuned to the Radio Christmas website and please do share it with your family and friends when we go live in the 12th December.

It has been a very special time travelling around the UK to speak in schools and churches and to be invited to speak at a variety of meetings in both England and Scotland.  One of the highlights was being invited to meet with Street Invest in Maidenhead, speak at Banchory Church in Scotland and to speak to and hang out with the Dirty Dozen in Essex.  dirty dozenThe Dirty Dozen are a group of men whose lives have been dramatically changed since becoming Christians. Their backgrounds would surprise you and it was incredible meeting people who have served time for all manner of crimes.  These East-End boys have a notorious past that means they are now seeing life from a very different perspective.  Spending time with them was such an encouragement and they are hopeful that they will be able to help us at some stage in the future.

Meanwhile back in Guatemala and Honduras the work continues.  The news that we released on the Big Sleep was a shock to many people and so I thought I would explain it a little more here for those who have missed it.  You might like to watch the short 1-minute video I have produced to demonstrate the news and then share it with friends.

When I left the UK 25 years ago little did I think the work would lead us to where we are today.  In September 1992 I had my bag packed and had sold all my possessions and was ready, with my wife Jenni and our baby daughter Katelyn, to set off on an adventure of a lifetime.  Neither of us knew how it was going to work out, how we would cope, where we would live and what exactly we would be doing.  But I was sure that God had placed a called on my life and so had to just act in faith.

EvermanThe BBC Everyman documentary “They Shoot Children Don´t They” had impacted me profoundly and recently it was released on Vimeo and can now be downloaded or watched online here.  The narrator starts by saying: “There are 5,000 street children in Guatemala City.  Each day they set out to literally live or die on the streets.”  The numbers of children living and dying on the streets were huge and when I began my first day on the streets I was totally overwhelmed by the desperate need I saw all around together with the sheer numbers of children taking drugs and living rough on the streets.

Given the statistic from Casa Alianza that 5,000 children were living on the streets of Guatemala in the early 1990s, I knew it would be challenge to be a part of the solution and help reduce those numbers over the next few years.  Many children sadly died on the streets, many went into homes or back with their families or simply disappeared and some remained living on the streets and are now in their late 30s.  I have seen how the demographic has changed over the years as well as their habits and customs.  It has been both challenging and depressing and hugely rewarding to serve on the streets for the last 25 years.

statsOver the years we have taken many surveys of street children and youths and tried to understand the changes and how our response continues to offer an affective solution to street life.  Our most recent survey, mainly through personal observation, led me to suggest that no more children were living full-time on the streets of Guatemala City.  This is where I need to make sure I clarify what I am saying.  From my own experience and that of our street team, we came to a point a few weeks ago where we could not name one child who was living full-time on the city streets.  Now, I would be the first to admit that I don´t know everything.  There might be areas, streets or places where children are living independently on the streets and I don´t know it, or there might now be children living on the streets who did not a few weeks ago. But the good news is that a massive change has happened over 25 years and even though we might still get children taking to the streets we know that there is now a team of committed people who can help them, services they can benefit from and a social and legal structure that is slowly adapting to their needs.

So where are we today?  The short video graphically demonstrates that from our own experience and research there are no more children living alone on the streets of Guatemala City.  If we find children now living alone on the streets we will offer them consistent support in order to help them enjoy a better life.  But to be able to say, after 25 years of very hard and often dangerous work, that we have achieved what we setout to do in 1992 is an emotionally charged statement for me to make.

david amanda

Our focus now is on the hundreds of high-risk children who are at very high risk of taking to streets.  The mentoring programme is impacting so many lives and we are committed to expanding this programme in order to offer a trusted, caring adult in the life of every child at risk.  Our aim is to work hard over the next 5-10 years and help the Guatemalan authorities develop systems and programmes that will also help at-risk children and youth and robust framework that will help keep them safe.

The Mi Arca street team continues to impact lives and I was really pleased to get this photo of David and Amanda and their baby daughter.  The young couple took the brave decision to leave behind their desperate lives of living in a tin shack in La Terminal, Guatemala City, and start a new life and business in a new area of the capital.  We wish them well and it felt so good to offer them some seed money for their new business and home.  Your support means we can do this often and we love giving young people the leg-up they need when starting out afresh.

parenting classesFinally, I was encouraged to receive this photo from one of our team in Guatemala as it demonstrates our work with families at risk.  Every weekend we are now running parenting classes for the parents of the children in our mentoring programme.  There has been much progress and we have explored various topics with parents who are not ashamed to receive some extra help and support.  I am hopeful that this will grow and become more of a home-based programme over the coming year as we develop a new programme of family support.

On Thursday I head home to Guatemala and can´t wait to get back into the work and celebrate with the Mi Arca team the success of the work and plan for the next few years.  Your support is vital and much appreciated and so thank you for sticking with us and helping us impact the lives of so many children and their families.

Sunday 10th September

Happiness for me is walking the streets of Guatemala at night.  There is something quite special about walking at night as life takes on a new perspective and those who can remain hidden during the bustle of the day become more visible.  Often we find more young people on the streets at night as during the day they are often walking around begging, watching cars or maybe working.  So, when we find young children alone on the streets late at night it tells us that something is not right.

I was heading back to our Centre after a couple of visits to see some families we are supporting when I spotted two young children hiding between the last few parked cars in the road.  “Hola”, I called out and began to open the door to our Centre.  Karla popped her head out and said in a cheery tone “hola” before running over to give me a hug while her brother ran off around the corner.

Karla has now been in the mentoring programme for a couple of months and has a great mentor who is trying to help her understand the consequences of staying out on the streets late at night.  Our team had noticed her hanging around the streets more and more and so began to engage with her and eventually was introduced to her grandfather who runs a local bar.

Terminal2After my hug from Karla I asked why her brother had ran off.  I only guessed it was her brother as I know that she had told us that she often would hang out on the streets with her brother.  The street team had tried, on a few occasions, to engage with her brother but he had always run off. 

It was a cold night and the flimsy clothing nine-year-old Karla was wearing made her rub her hands up and down her arms to keep warm.  It was also eerily silent and not even our friendly-armed guard from the neighbouring building was out on the streets.  Karla asked me if I would like to meet her brother and without waiting for my reply turned and ran off after him, shouting back “he always hides from people”.

Our little jeep was nearby and so I decided to use that to follow Karla and see if she could locate her brother.  No sooner had I turned the jeep around and headed slowly the wrong way up the one-way street I heard Karla shout and then noticed her holding on to her brother and calling for me to come over.

I parked the jeep in front of the two children and decided to stay in the car and act calm towards her brother in order to gain his trust.  I said “hola” and introduced myself to him while reaching my hand out in the hope of shaking his hand.  He pushed his sister aside and reached out his hand to me.  I asked if he would mind if I got out of the car and spoke with him.  He just smiled and so I took that as a yes and got out and asked him his name.  “I´m Jose”, he said and asked me if the jeep was mine.  The jeep is Suzuki model 1987 and is a great vehicle to use on the streets as its tough, small and doesn´t really matter if kids climb on it, lean on it or throw up in it.

The barriers were being broken down and so I asked him if he would like to sit in the driving seat and drive it around the block.  I knew that he was not able to drive and I wasn´t going to give him the keys, but make believe is still a powerful world with children despite their age and experience.  Jose is just 10-years-old and both seemed to relish the idea of going on an imaginary journey in the car despite it being parked on the corner of our Centre.  Jose climbed in and placed his hands on the wheel and I closed the door but left the window open.  He was feeling comfortable and so this gave me an opportunity to talk with him about our concerns for him and his sister being on the streets so late and all the risks involved, especially in La Terminal where so many bad things happen every day.

We talked about many things and joked about before I asked if I could drop them both home and then visit the following day to talk to their grandparents.  If was as if I was offering them a huge bowl of sweets as their faces lit up and so the 100m drive was over in less than a minute but for Karla and Jose it was a special moment.  We said our goodbyes and I agreed to visit them the next day and talk with Jose further about the mentoring programme.

The next day came soon enough and with the hot sun beating down on us we made our way from the Centre to the “cantina” (bar) where Jose and Karla live.  The children were obviously excited about coming to our Centre as they were heading up the road and we were heading down it.  On seeing us they ran up and embraced us with tight hugs and Karla asked if her brother could now start the mentoring programme and come into the Centre.  I explained that I would need to talk with their grandfather first and then see what we could do.

I asked Jose if he wanted to come with me to his home so I could chat with his grandfather.  He nodded and took my hand and led me down the busy road.  Karla and Jose have no mum and dad.  From what we know they both died a few year ago and I guess they were killed.  They were left in the care of their aging grandparents.  Their grandmother sells various items on the streets and their grandfather runs a bar.

On arrival I can see the bar is very open to the public.  There are four small wooden tables lined up against the wall where men sit and drink bottles of bear and spirits and even some have crashed out and are sprawled across the table with arms dangling down on the floor.  It´s a pitiful sight and the blearing music and three flashing lights continue to tempt more lonely souls in to take refuge in the welcoming arms of an alcoholic beverage.

Jose´s grandfather shuffles over to meet me when he sees that Jose is at my side.  I introduce myself and explain a little about our concern for Jose and how we could offer him a place in the mentoring programme.  His grandfather seems pleased by the opportunity and thanks me for my concern and I promise to keep him posted on any progress.

jose karlaJose has a smile on his face that tells me this will be an exciting opportunity for him and so we walk back to the Centre, with Jose skipping alongside me and talking to me about what his sister has told him about the Centre and what is available there.

Since no mentor is available to take on Jose I have offered to meet with him regularly when I return from the UK.  It´s another commitment but I don´t want him to be without a caring adult in his life.  I can see that he is a lonely vulnerable boy who could be easily and quickly tempted into the many vices that are on offer in La Terminal.  At least he is in school and as soon as I return to Guatemala I will be seeing how his schoolwork is going and what support we can give to provide a structure in his life that could mean he will spend less time on the streets and more time in education and in positive activities.

On arrival back at the Centre I manage to grab a few minutes with Jose and Karla to record a special message for all those attending the Big Sleep in Amersham on Saturday 23rd September.  We will be making a very exciting announcement on the night and so hope you can come and join us and also hear the message from Jose and Karla at 9pm.  

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