Why volunteer - an insider’s experience in Guatemala.
Have you ever wanted to make a difference? Have you the courage to try and open your heart to people you have never met in a land far from home, if so then consider volunteering with Street Kids Direct in Guatemala city – an experience which will take you to the very heart of humanity.
12 years ago I met its inspirational leader, Duncan Dyason and I made a promise that one day I would come and work alongside him and his amazing team. One week after my arrival I write of my experience.
It seems a life time ago since I touched down in ‘Guate’ having left the ordered world of the UK far behind. While feeling somewhat bedraggled after the long flight, the warmth of the greeting that met me was immediate and sincere. In the depth of night I arrived at ‘El Centro’ (the youth centre), which was to be my home for the next 10 days. The centre was within metres of the ‘Terminal’, a zone where tourists dare not venture. Yet by morning, under the close supervision of the team, there I was in amongst the vibrancy of it all. The hustle and bustle of street life was mirrored with fumes from vehicles, all with horns blazing and a swell of people going about their daily lives in the heat of the street markets. Yet so many stepped over bodies asleep on the ground whom my team continued to work steadily towards. Here in the grime and filth of the city were the unwanted, unloved and often terrified clusters of ‘street children’.
Within minutes the team greeted each one by name, feeding their dogs and sharing pure Christian love and friendship with them all. ‘Papa Duncan’ and the volunteers tended to their wounds, listened to their many needs and stepped in to help; practical help to draw those away from the streets filled with crime, guns, prostitution and drugs. All were fearful of the gangs and the authorities but not of the ‘Equipo de la Calle’ team. Here respect over time has grown and in turn enabled numerous individuals to re-find themselves and move forward with their lives.
Over the coming days I was able to step into their world and follow the trail of development and tension which unfolds. Where to begin? Perhaps it is why the street people are there – young and old alike, some with babies, live in clusters or families and many I discovered did not have the identity papers they needed to find work. Why you might ask. Well first many did not know their age, their parentage or have the money to secure it. Others were tainted by gang culture and others were trapped in the world of solvent abuse and Class A drugs. And here the team began, gaining trust, solving such fundamental issues such as a home or school; co-ordinating with other charities to improve health and welfare issues and gradually drawing some away from the streets.
Four children made it off the streets this week and the team were thrilled as each one reflects months of painstaking work. In a good year 20 – 30 might escape from the streets.
Children are placed in school, others into care or rehab centres and all receive one to one support. An extremely well-tailored programme ensures that each individual is encouraged, supported and guided towards a better world by their mentors. Mentors support homework activities in the centre, together with a host of ‘normal’ family fun events such as games, cooking and film nights. Gradually the children begin to experience a world where they feel safe and can be guided about how choices and responsibilities are made. Don’t get me wrong, the process is far from easy and not all succeed as emotional and sexual abuse issues are prevalent and trauma exists in many. The ‘streets’ draw many back but the mentors return again and again to encourage them back, and further success follows.
As part of my experience I witnessed at first hand the various rehab centres, homes and schools and the contrast in many instances left me quite stunned and often close to tears. It was a world away from ‘the streets’; children were smiling, regularly eating, physical health was better and specialist support guided individuals away from abuse in all its many ugly forms. For those on the streets the option to go home was not an option. Many spoke of beatings and brutality and other horrors beyond, and again support follows.
Further down the line education took on real purpose and the chance to dream and aspire was returning into lives previously lost in a world of fear. Today one boy was able to visit a helicopter centre as he seeks to work in aviation. Others talk of becoming musicians, teachers, shop keepers and engineers and why not. So many of the ‘street ‘children’ are not without intelligence or talent but they have never had a chance to use it; home often included beatings and the streets was not much better. Yet many have found faith in God and themselves through Street Kids. To have witnessed many choosing to come to church on Sunday and engage in the diverse programmes that exist, would if you met them leave you unaware of their grim pasts. Yet here they were focused, sincere and moving forward with their lives.
The team’s work so often engages with the most vulnerable taking a school classroom on to the streets, running weekend sports and camping events and all do so because they care. I have witnessed volunteers coming in on their day off, spending hours with individuals just so that they can make some small difference. They are a remarkable group of individuals who have taught me which of life’s priorities really matter. It has been a humbling, soul searching experience and one which has left me with much to reflect upon – if you try it and I guarantee that it will change your perspective on life, for ever.
Peter Rushforth, February 2016