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.  

Friday 1st September

It has been raining rather a lot in the afternoons in Guatemala City.  It´s the last attempt of the rainy season to hang on and provide us with an elevated water table that will sustain Guatemala over the many dry months ahead.  However, when it rains in Guatemala it rarely is light rain and if you are caught out in one of the many downpours you have to have a good quality umbrella or take shelter immediately.  The alternative, as I found out a couple of weeks ago, is being soaked through by both the rain and the many cars that seem to take great pleasure in hitting the largest of puddles at just the right speed that pelts you and leaves not one inch of you dry.  Anyway, I digress!

terminal streetThe street team and me plan to walk through the Terminal and we schedule it well to avoid the coming afternoon storm.  There is enough time for us to get into La Terminal and visit some of the families we are working with before the angry skies open and the streets become rivers while traffic grinds to a halt.  No sooner had we arrived in La Terminal, in an area called ´Las Casitas, than a young girl comes up to us with her outstretched arms and tells us that she still has the rash she had last week and it is getting worse.

Her name is Naomi and she is six and has grown up in this notorious area of Guatemala City and very rarely leaves it.  Once she was invited to a special activity with a team from The Forge in Suffolk who was working with us for a couple of weeks before the summer.  As the children settled on the bus and as it drove down the steep mountain leading away from Guatemala City the children asked: “is this England?”  Obviously their world is very small and for those children who have never seen outside of La Terminal, life away from it can be one massive adventure.

Naomi is prime for the mentoring programme but still too young to join unless we find someone really special who can offer her the love and support she so desperately needs.  Her rash is a common one and we have treated it many times.  She is not the only one in Las Casitas who have the rash and it comes from infected bedding and is contagious and can lead to quite serious scaring and open wounds.  We have to take Naomi to the clinic and get her the treatment she needs.  Her mum is in agreement and so Naomi grabs by hand, after having a good scratch with them under her armpits, and pulls me along the narrow passageway that will lead to the steps and then the road where the clinic is.

naomiWe don´t yet have a clinic at our Centre but are able to access a good clinic nearby that always has a resident doctor available and appointments are all walk-in and cost just £2.  The doctor knows us well and is always kind and helpful and totally understanding when kids come in half-clothed, covered in fleas, sores and in a pretty bad way.  She is very gentle and caring and asks to look at Naomi´s rash.  As the poor child removes her top you can see that the rash is over her chest, her stomach, her back and under her arms.  I suspect that her legs are also covered but immediately the doctor knows what is needed and hands me a prescription for soap, gel and tablets.

We walk back with Naomi and return her to the care of her mum and then try and visit a couple more families before the heavens open.  My hope is to engage Carlos in a conversation.  He still hates me for talking with him and his younger brother and sister about the possibility of going in a care home when his mum collapsed in the streets a few weeks ago.  Carlos is 14 and was then left to care for his younger bother and sister and a baby.  Due to the fact that he abuses solvents I didn´t want to leave him looking after two young children and a baby and so needed to bring up the subject of how he would feel about a home.

The discussion didn´t go well and he felt I had abused his trust and took off with all three children and hid in the centre of La Terminal until his mum came out of hospital.  So trying to engage him in conversation was hard work to say the least.  He looks at me with anger in his tearful eyes and refuses to open his mouth.  He is hurt and, for the moment, is aiming all that hurt at me.  I am fine with this as I know he needs time and so tell him I still care about him before leaving to return to our Centre.

It is a sad moment as I feel so much for him and have worked with him for many years and to see him like this breaks my heart.  He is depressed, lonely, and hungry and spends his time between sniffing solvents and lying on a bed of rubbish watching TV programmes on a TV that has both a poor signal and very little resolution and colour.  It must be hell for him and I wish I could just take him away and offer him something more fulfilling than this.

Monday 28th August 2017

Quite often our work is reacting to the situations we face in Guatemala - families in crisis, abused children and homeless children, threats against us, children going through a tough time, hospital and prison visits and so many other situations.  It does make it very hard to plan your week, which I love to do, but the nature of the work here necessitates speedy reactions to what comes to us each day.

This was highlighted when we made plans on Friday to do certain things and then had to change everything, as we needed to help support a family in need.

As I was already in our Centre when the news came I could react quite quickly and, as it turned out, it is a situation we really needed to secure the safety of five children and their mother.

doñaanaDoña Anna (named changed) had informed us that she had just been hit again by her husband and was also worried about how he might react to the five children.  We do have a few years of history here with this family so know how things could turn out. Together with two of our team we went to the room where they all live in La Terminal and found Doña Ana sitting on the bed crying.  Lying next to her is her husband who has obviously been drinking.  The room is lit only by one small bulb and the tiny window is covered with cardboard and rags, but a small TV is on and so that gives the best light into the room.  There is just one bed, a wardrobe and small table with some basic food supplies piled on it and a bedside table.  The family shares the room with two teenage cousins who are seeking work in La Terminal.

We spend time listening to Doña Ana tell us what happened and then begin to help her explore the options about what she could do.  As we discuss whether or not she wants to make a formal declaration of what happened, know locally as a dununcia, her husband wakes up and joins the conversation.  At this point I am aware that the situation can get very heated and so begin to tell the others that if the dad becomes violent that I will get in between him and his wife while they get the mum and kids into the street.  I am pleased, however, that this is not needed as he only talks for a short while before falling back to sleep on the bed.

His response is rather shocking though and it is clear that he is appealing to me as a man who would understand and support his corner.  His argument is that he came home from work and gave his wife some money and “told her to cook”.  He then went out for a drink and when he came back, the food was not ready.  He then said: “So that is why I gave her a beating, you can understand that can´t you?”  I had to say I did not agree with his reaction and now needed to take the mum and the children with us as his two daughters were in our Centre and were very upset.

girlssleepoverOn safe arrival at our Centre the more formal investigation begins and our friend Juan Carlos begins to write out a short report and then it is planned that he and Ben take her and the youngest girl to the court to make the allegation and seek an injunction so that the husband is not able to return to the room where they all live.  We know it will take about 6 hours and, at this point, it is already quite late.

The two older girls are coping but distracted as there is a girl’s sleepover in the Centre tonight and so they can stay there and enjoy the activities planned with the other girls. I pop my head in to say goodnight and am swamped with lots of hugs and kisses and have to say I am sorry I can´t stay and talk about girl things but maybe another time.  This leads to squeals and excitement and I back out of the room and close the door.

I now need to get the two boys, 8 and 10, to our Protection Home as the mum has agreed we can offer them all a safe place to stay for the weekend until the police go to their home and inform the father that he needs to vacate and allow them to return on Sunday.

boysinbedThe boys have no other clothes to wear and so they will have to put up with wearing the same clothes, which I don´t think will be too much of an issue until we get them something to last through till Sunday.  They both look filthy and so we take them into the shower and the excitement of having their first shower with hot water is evident as the two dance around in the shower for ages before coming out and climbing into bed.  I find two teddies and go back in to ask them if they wouldn´t mind looking after them for the night as the teddies have nowhere to sleep.  The outstretched arms said it all and soon they were fast asleep and I could return home while staff and volunteers watched over the boys until the mum joined them from the court.

The next day I am told that the boys woke up when the mum got in around 4am and went and had another shower.  The mum then had a shower and told us of her joy of having her first hot shower in 29 years.  It was a special time indeed and good to know they were all now safe, and thanks to your support for this home we could make this happen.  The home is not yet open but we are able to use it for emergency situations like this.

Thankfully we were able to take the family back to their home yesterday, as the father had already moved out and so we know they are now much safer.  The challenge is how they are going to live as I am sure the father will not be that keen on bringing in any money for his wife and 5 children.  It is our task for today as well as check on many other families and children at risk, but we love what we do and thanks to your support can do this every day.  THANK YOU.

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