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  Marcos is 14 and has always been rather withdrawn and despite my efforts to try and get to know him, he has always remained in his shell.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.

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.