Lessons learnt in Guatemala

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Lessons learnt in Guatemala

by Molly Jones

Guatemala, 1989. With more than 5,000 children living on the streets and the country ravaged by many years of civil war, it certainly wasn’t a place you’d want to go to for your summer holiday. And yet, five years ago, the number of street children there had shrunk to zero. You may think there is no longer a cause to write an article about Guatemalan street children, but lessons learned from the many children who lost their lives in that country say otherwise. 

Thirty years ago, it would have been normal to walk the streets of Guatemala City and see children stealing, being subjected to violence and abusing drugs by sniffing bags of glue. There were many reasons why children ended up in this situation. Often, they faced abuse at home, and couldn’t access an education. There were so many stories of murder and torture of street children, often by the police themselves, that it was easy for many people, with hard lives as well, to be desensitised and view such children as just another problem for their dilapidated country. 

But over the years, a few dedicated people started working and living alongside the street children. They set up homes and structures to help support them, recruited more volunteers, and began educating people about the issue. It has been a long, hard struggle. Often the children they had helped went back on the streets, and slipped back into their lives of drug-taking, crime, and frequently eventual death. Yet the kids who had given up on life had the opportunity to begin a new start. 

Now, the testimony of these workers’ efforts is showing. The number of children on the street has shrunk from an estimate of 5,000 in 1989 to virtually none living there permanently. It’s amazing this has happened in a relatively short space of time, and this change can provide hope to other countries where the problem of street children is still widespread. 

El HoyoOne of those who has worked in Guatemala long-term is Duncan Dyason, who was born in Canterbury and grew up in Britain, becoming a Christian as a young man. He flew to Guatemala in 1992, after watching the shocking documentary ‘They shoot children, don’t they?’ He first set up The Toybox Charity, and then Street Kids Direct in 2000. His work and leadership has contributed massively to the reduction in numbers of children living on the street. The story of his early time in Guatemala is told in the book ‘Miracle Children’. It was easy for him not to have hope when he first arrived. There were so many children in need it was hard to know where to start. But through persistence and hope, he has managed to make a difference to so many children’s lives. 

At first, getting to know the children was hard. They were naturally wary of strangers, given their past experiences and found it difficult to trust Duncan and his team. But they persisted, opening youth clubs for the street children, and establishing regular contact with many. Over time, they set up safe and caring children’s homes. 

Duncan’s work in Guatemala shows the importance of having systems in place locally. If there were better legal protection and if homes for children had been more caring and safe, the streets would have been a less attractive option. With the right processes in place, such as regular checks of all children in their development and growth, and access to support, advice and education, children wouldn’t have to live on the streets.

As the example of Duncan shows (together with that of the many people from the UK and other nationalities who have gone out to help him as volunteers), there is much we can do to help. Instead, at government level, we have cut the foreign aid budget and focused more recently on our own problems, rather than what we can do to help other countries. In Guatemala, the USA is helping to fight corruption. Australia is helping with more agricultural trade. At the same time, it shouldn’t be entirely up to governments to provide assistance. 

Not everyone will be as willing as Duncan to dedicate their life to improving conditions for street children, but there are still things we can do to aid places and people through our collaboration, such as giving our time and support, rather than ignoring issues and hoping things get better.

Any help has to be carefully planned out to avoid later obstacles and what could ultimately do more damage than good. In Guatemala, an example of this cited by Duncan has been the response of some charities to street children. One charity closed the children’s homes it had previously opened for boys and girls and sold the properties to the directors of the charity. Even today, some of these homes are still owned by charity directors, and were not given back to the children who lost their home. 

The amount of abuse that can go on in children’s homes, Duncan says, can be horrifying, with few in authority facing any consequences. He also suggests that there is a danger that charities may choose to use street children and their suffering to raise money through stories and photos, but that much of the money raised does not go to help them. Duncan thinks the best way to help street children is by “helping small and local organisations that have volunteering at the heart who really impact lives, and then working with the government to offer training and resources that create robust structures for the better care and protection of children”. We need checks and regulations to ensure that charities are running properly and that most money goes to help children in the right ways.

The emotional lessons learnt from the street children of Guatemala have been the most important: how they value relationships, and how even though they have experienced abominable amounts of abuse from family and rejection by friends, they still want this human connection. For street children, they never know if today is their last alive. They make no plans for the future, just live in the moment and appreciate the things they have, which for them is very little.

We, who have so much more, are often dissatisfied with our lives, searching for the next thing to bring us pleasure. So let’s be more willing to help, hope, sacrifice, and value the time we have with people we love. The street children of Guatemala show us we’re lucky to have these opportunities.

Schooling begins in Guatemala

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Thanks to your support we have been able to educate the 65 children in our mentoring programme in Guatemala City as the national schools continue to remain closed.

Your support means we have employed two new teachers this year to help supply the ISEA homeschool programme in our mentoring centre.  The children come from Monday to Friday and complete all their schoolwork and homework in the centre, leaving plenty of time for play and for those who have to work to support their family.

We are hopeful that the national schools will return to normal in 2023 and so we just need to get the children through until the school year finished in November this year.

Due to extra expenses we have incurred in setting up this programme we have a financial shortfall and so please would you consider making a donation to help us keep the kids in school?



New Centre opens in Honduras

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We are very excited to announce that the Proyecto Alas programme in Talanga, Honduras, has opened a new mentoring centre in the middle of the town.

The new centre is part-funded by a coffee shop that is located above the mentoring centre and a new child-sponsorship programme will soon be launched to help fund the work with the children.

The Proyecto Alas programme was started by Lorena Guzman and Steve Poulson in 2018 to help reach at-risk children in Talanga, a market town about an hour from the capital Tegucigalpa.

Lorena has lived in the town most of her life and became aware of the many vulnerable children in the town that were in the park or begging outside the town´s supermarket. She soon galvanised the support of local churches and together with Steve Poulson from Street Kids Direct, was able to launch the mentoring programme.

The centre now welcomes around 40 children every week and supports them with counselling, homework help, family therapy as well as providing a range of fun activities every day.  The project also provides training and courses for the parents of the children and visits them all in their homes every week.

Your support really does make a difference and is helping change the lives of 54 children and youth.  Thank you


proyecto alas3

Child migration in Central America

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The school day starts like any school around the world.  The children arrive, they play with their friends, they greet staff and settle into the school day once they have been registered as present. We can all remember school registration time and the moment when a child´s name is called out twice and there is no response.  All heads turn to seat they would normally sit at and we all begin to wonder why they are not in school today.

This was the case of 13-year-old Estefany who hadn´t turned up for school for the last three days and so the team went to her home to see how she was.  Her home is a small room over a busy market in Guatemala City.  There are no windows in the room, just brick walls, a door and tin roof.  At this time of the year the temperature become unbearable in the room and so Estefany spends her days on the streets when she is not in school.

It takes three visits to find her mum at home and the team ask why Estefany is not attending school.  The team are told that she has gone to the United States!  A few more questions and we discover that she has decided, prompted by her family we assume, to make the 1,400 mile journey on foot to get to the border of the US.  We asked: “surely she is not going alone?”, and was told: “oh, no”.  The mum then added: “she is going with her two cousins".  Her cousins it turns out are aged 3 and 4 years of age!

We were shocked to hear this and Estefany joins the growing population of children who are leaving Central America to head to the US in search of a better future.  The problem is that they do it illegally, there is no guarantee you arrive safely, you are at the mercy of everyone along the road (and some will take advantage of that), crossing the border is fraught with difficulty and if you do make it across the chances of you been arrested and sent back are high.

Estefany is not the first child to make this trip and probably won´t be the last.  Our work with vulnerable children forced our hand into investigating more about the child migration problem and how, as a charity, we could respond.  We were also keen to learn from those working along the border and become better informed of the situation so we can continue to convince children here that Guatemala has it all.  There are opportunities, there is work and you can live a good life here if you are supported to make good choices for your life. Soden and I headed to San Diego in California and spent a day there meeting projects working along the border with homeless youth and one charity offering legal support for “illegals” in the US and who have come into contact with the authorities.  The project that stood out for us was the inspiring work founded and run by Eric Lovett from Urban Street Angels.  I was surprised, first of all, that the guy who runs a huge programme for homeless youth had time to give to us. Secondly, we left all fired up as Eric is a hugely motivational person and showed us around the programme and spoke with such love and passion you couldn´t help but be drawn in to him as a person and the work he so faithfully leads.

The next day we head on the train down to the border with Mexico and arrive ready to cross over.  The train seemed to carry mainly workers who live in Tijuana, but work in the US. The train is cheap, efficient and is the means by which thousands of people travel between the two cities each week in order to work, visit family and friends and shop.

Getting into Mexico takes under a minute and the guard glances at our passports and waves us through.  We are now in Mexico and come out and take a taxi to our hotel where we leave our luggage and begin our exploration of Tijuana.

Being the furthest northern city on the west coast, we selected Tijuana due to the reports of huge migrant camps and lone children trying to cross the border.  It is also an interesting city to begin our research as, unlike other larger border cities, Tijuana is safer and has the iconic shots of the border wall going into the sea. becomes clear that just a few weeks ago the migration camps were cleared and migrants “re-housed” by the Mexican government. In the camps they did find children who were alone and had travelled great distances to get to there.  Some might actually make it one day, but in the meantime they are processed and will probably be in short-term care until a family member comes to claim them and take them home.

The best lead we had in Tijuana was with a charity we have supported in Guatemala and visited several times.  The Casa de Migrante (The Migrant House) is a beacon of hope to all those making the journey throughout Central America as they provide short-term accommodation and find you work in order to cover your costs.  The children are cared for while the adults are working and if adults refuse to work then they are asked to move on.  No one turns down work, however, and the home has a beautiful feel about it and it feels safe and comfortable.

We move on to what is one of the highlights for both Benjamin and myself as we are led to visit a refuge for women and children.  The home is run by a nun and the minute you walk in you feel that this is a very special and holy place indeed. We are made to feel very welcome and slowly the whole story of their work unfolds through painful anecdotes of the lives of desperate people on the run from gangs, drug lords, abusive husbands and violence.

One woman was taking refuge in the home with her young children and opened the small window in the main door one day as someone rang the bell.  At the door was a well-built man who was clearly a member of the gang that she had fled from.  Due to her wearing a mask he didn´t recognise her.  He asked her, showing her a photo on his phone, if she knew the whereabouts of a woman, pointing repeatedly to the image of her.  The woman could see it was her photo on the phone and tried not to look shocked, but said she was not there and closed the window and ran to the office then broke down and cried.

There are some incredible people working on the frontline and we had the honour and privilege of meeting some of them.  We would love to support those we met who have dedicated their lives to helping children and youth at risk and I am sure this trip will lead to many meetings and further visits at some stage in the future.  For now we must work hard to convince those children who are being forced or are having to make some difficult choices to make the journey north that Guatemala has so much to offer and that working hard here results in other doors of opportunity being opened for them in the future.

Thanks to your support we are reaching nearly 600 at-risk children and youth this year through the projects we partner with and are proud of their work and commitment to work with us in keeping them all safe and helping them build a better future.  Thank you

(a blog by Duncan Dyason, Director of Street Kids Direct)






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