Tuesday 25th April

It was all going really well!

It had been a busy and challenging week as one of our British volunteers, Joseph Soden, had been complaining of feeling unwell and when I took him to the clinic his health deteriorated within minutes.  The next thing we know he is being rushed into A&E and then into hospital.  The last week has been spent at his side in the La Paz hospital in the city while doctors confirmed he has Typhoid.

breakfastAs the tests continued and more and varied drugs are given to him Joseph slowly recovered.  It all looked rather promising and on Sunday his health was looking so much better that he allowed me to bring some of the children to visit him.  It was a special time and when I asked the two girls who came with Moses if they would like a late breakfast their faces lit up and said, “yes please”.  Over breakfast in the hospital canteen (all rather posh in the private hospital) I asked the girls if they had eaten breakfast.  They told me that they hadn´t eaten since Friday and by the way they were eating I could see that this was probably true. 

I left Joseph on the Sunday evening and took the children home, as I wanted an early night and knew that Monday would be a long and busy day.  Joseph was doing so well and I was expecting him to leave hospital on Tuesday and then recuperate back at the house.

The girls were very happy when I dropped them off and as they climbed up the concrete bank to the building where they, their brother and grandmother live.  Despite being hungry they had both squirreled away some of their food for the grandmother and waved me off as I drove to drop Moses home.

Moses, the 9-year-old I am mentoring, is now living back with his grandmother who has moved house but still in the notorious zone 18 of Guatemala City.  The journey takes about half an hour as the Sunday traffic is much lighter at this time of day.  As we enter zone 18 my sense of security raises and both Moses and me are on our watch for gunmen on motorbikes, gangs and anyone acting in a way that would cause alarm.

el limonEl Limon is a conflict-ridden sector in one of the most violent zones in Guatemala City, Zone 18, and it´s in El Limon that Moses now lives.  We turn right into the troubled area and right away Moses begins to point out gang members and talks freely about armed attacks, murders and things that have happened to his family that I would rather not print here.

We make it through the narrow streets filled with people and the Guatemalan Army who have erected small outposts and sit nervously behind a huge wall of sandbags as they clutch hold of the type of armory that would expect to see in a war zone.

Moses´s grandmother was clear that he was to be dropped off at the top of the road as she didn´t want me to be in any danger but I really couldn´t do that and wanted to not only make sure he got home safely but that I could see where he was now living.  We park the car in a dead-end street and Moses keeps his eyes close to the ground and tells me that 3-4 of the boys we are now approaching are gang members.  The group of 6 boys are standing on the corner and watching us closely as we walk by.  The oldest is probably 8-years-of-age and I wonder, as I look at them and smile, how children so young can be involved in gangs.

The gang scene in Guatemala has increased dramatically since the late 90s and it is barrios and favelas like this where the gangs hold the greatest amount of control and to some degree respect.  The national paper ran an article this week on the increase in the number of bus drivers being killed, 62 already this year, in Guatemala City and this photo (Prensa Libre: Erick Ávila) is of the latest assassination of a bus driver in El Limon. 

bus attackToday I am sent a photo of a police officer that is lying dead on the ground and covered with a white sheet.  A young boy on a bicycle gunned him down as he crossed the road.  Gangs are using young boys more and more as they know that if the boy is under the age of responsibility there is little the police can do if that child is handed a gun and shoots someone.  Another death and another broken family but a young boy who can probably now be held in esteem in the gang for having killed a police officer.

Eventually we arrive at the house Moses’ grandmother is renting.  It´s super cheap and there is a reason for it.  It is brick built, single storey and is protected only by a simple metal front door.  All the windows have bars on them and inside there are no doors at all, just 6 empty rooms and a small sink in the patio at the rear.  There has been a mass exodus from Zone 18 over recent years and some parts of it resemble a war zone rather than a city suburb.

Moses´ grandmother welcomes us and looks up and down the street as she closes the door and offers me a drink.  It is clear she lives in fear and with good reason.  Every house in the area is now being numbered.  Neighbours are waking up each morning to find a number painted on their house.  The number corresponds to a property tax the gang are now extorting on every house and it won´t be long before they come knocking on the house where Moses lives.  No wonder he does not sleep well and can´t go out to play in the street.

On my safe return I prepare for the long day that is Monday.  The day starts at 4:30am as I head to our Centre for prayer and catching up with emails.  I need to leave at 8:30am to be one of the first in the queue at the bank in order to double check that the donations from the US and the UK have arrived in time to order the printing of cashiers cheques for the purchase of the house we will be converting into our first Protection Home.  The bank confirms the money from the US has arrived but the money from the UK is stuck between two accounts due a mix-up with some bank digits.  The news hits me hard as we have arranged the completion of the purchase with lawyers and the owners of the house.  All this will need to be cancelled while I sort out how to get the money to the right account.

Joseph in hospitalI then head over to the hospital to find Joseph in a lot of pain and the doctors working hard with more drugs and more tests.  He seems rather low and so I decide to cancel meetings for the following day and spend time with him and the doctors working on a solution.  Sort of makes me feel like Dr. House!  It was all going really well but the day was not shaping up as I had planned – what´s new.

On my return to the Centre I see that children are now arriving and so I begin by spending time with each one using a new app we have developed to get feedback from them on how they feel about the mentoring programme.  Some of the children are playing; others doing homework and some are cooking pancakes and seeing how high they can toss them in the air.  Such a beautiful time before I head to the streets and try and find Marcos and David.

pancakesI arrive at the rubbish dump in La Terminal and find Jesus doing some homework with one of the families that help support our work.  We sit down and chat for about an hour about what is going on in the dump and how Marcos and Jesus are doing.  Jesus is now keen to start the mentoring programme and the family asks about how Joseph is doing and if they can visit him.  As the clouds turn black it is looking like the rainy season is starting early and so I head back to the Centre to collect Victor, a teenage boy we are looking after at the moment, and head to the hospital with the oldest son of the family in the rubbish dump.

We try not to spend too long visiting Joseph as I know how tiring having visitors in hospital is.  The news seems promising but we will have to see how Joseph is in the morning and then makes plans.  I now have to take Victor to the supermarket so he can spend my money on food for himself over the next week, as he will need to stay with us in the house for a while.  I bump into a stand that is selling freshly cooked chicken and so decide to buy two, as we are very hungry and we could go back to the dump and share them with the family there.  The boys are very excited about this plan and so we head to the checkout and then the dump.

It´s now very dark at the dump and raining but there are still many people working there.  We are invited into a small shack and we sit down and share chicken and bread rolls.  It´s a special and intimate time and the family are so pleased we have eaten with them and offer whatever help we need when we open the new Protection Home.  We need to get home and so I climb in the car and Victor jumps in beside me.  As I turn on the engine the windscreen wipers remove the rain from my view and there in front of me, highlighted by the car´s headlights, are four small children.  The children can´t be more than 3-4 years of age and look like they have been working or playing on the rubbish dump all day.

The sight of them fills my heart with sadness as we have just sat and eaten a chicken and maybe we could have shared it with them.  Victor says to me as I comment on how sad this is that “this was me a few years ago”.  We seem to be frozen in time for a while and I find it very difficult to drive off and leave them.  Victor and me talk about his childhood for a bit and then we both drive back in silence.  Arriving back to the house is not easy as we have beds to sleep in and so the best thing to do tonight is to have a shower, climb into bed and cry.

Sunday 16th April 2017

I could quite get into this idea of resting!  Yes, I have actually taken some time off over Easter and took a few people with me on one incredible journey to Rio Dulce, Guatemala.  Read more about our adventures at the end of this blog.

It was a crazy two weeks that led up to Easter and so I will have to select a few stories that I would love to share with you as they represent very well the work we have been doing before the country closed up for Semana Santa (Easter).

JosueOne of the biggest encouragements for me at the moment is seeing how young Josué has responded to his first ever full-time job.  Josué is 16 and studies in school on Saturdays and has been working in La Terminal for the last 3-4 years unloading lorries and accepting work that only paid him about £1-2 per day.  He is also living away from his family now but trying to earn something so that they can eat and pay their bills.

When I managed to negotiate a job for him with our neighbours CEFESA I had high hopes for him as he has proved he can be trusted, is reliable and works really hard at any task given to him.  Another boy away from the streets and occupied in something he enjoys.  He is already planning to travel to Mexico at the end of the year with money he is now saving each week.  I love seeing him I his work uniform with a huge grin on his face even though he is very shy when the camera comes out!

Joseph Soden is still working with me and it has been one of the greatest blessings this year to have him come out from the UK and work alongside me here in Guatemala.  At the time of writing Joseph is lying in his bed with a stomach upset and so I will probably have to cope without him on the streets for a while.

Joseph TerminalThe week before Easter, Joseph and another volunteer, Claire, came with me to the streets and we found a small group of young children, some who were just celebrating their success in walking.  One of the little boys, 18-month-old Alvaro, had taken a shine to Joseph as he always plays with the really little children.  At one point Joseph had invented a good game where they get carried around in a cardboard box but today no cardboard boxes were available and so his arms had to do.

Little Alvaro is a very cute looking boy and who wouldn´t want to scoop him up and cuddle him.  He is now in Jospeh´s arms and does not want to leave.  It was at this point that his mother brushed past me.  When Alvaro saw his mum coming he reached out his arms to her only to be rejected and spoken to harshly.  His face told the full story of his neglect and abandonment.  A small tear appeared in his left eye and just hung there while Joseph gave him a cuddle and some extra love.

I know Joseph has found situations like this hard but has come to understand why the work we do is so important.

Screen Shot 2017 04 19 at 2.35.43 PMAnother encouragement to me was receiving a video message from a boy called Gerson.  Gerson has grown up in the notorious zone 18 in Guatemala City and has suffered tremendous amounts of loss and had threats against his life from local gangs.  Every week he has been attending one of the projects that Street Kids Direct supports called Go Guatemala.  Gerson wanted to record something to say how grateful he is for the support Go Guatemala have given him.  I know Gerson and have helped train him to be a young leader in the activity club that is run in zone 18 every Saturday.  I hope you will take a couple of minutes to listen to his testimony.

There is more encouragement before we head to the Easter break with a very special time with two young boys called Marcos and Jesus.  Little Jesus shot to Radio Christmas fame a few years ago when he was loaned a camera by Willie Reid and encouraged to take photos of his life on the rubbish dump.  12 of his photos were then turned into a calendar we sold over Radio Christmas and the money that was raised by the sales have helped keep him and his brother in school for the last 4 years, buy them shoes and uniforms and help with medical bills and other needs.

Marcos JesusMarcos and Jesus continue to live at high-risk and so the team has begun to target the boys in order to get them interested in the mentoring programme.  My task with Joseph was to pick them up one Saturday, take them back to the soon-to-be protection home for breakfast and then to Go Guatemala for a day of fun activities.  Both boys were overly excited and when they saw that Go Guatemala has bikes they were desperate to borrow them.  It seemed a rather overwhelming day for the boys and we ended up in a swimming pool and a enjoying a slice of pizza together before taking them back to the rubbish dump.  The taking them back was the hardest bit, not just that we had enjoyed their company and would miss it, but that we had to take them back to a rubbish dump.

I am pleased to report that they have now begun the mentoring programme with Joseph and me trying to look after them until we find mentors for them.  At least they will now be able to come to the mentoring centre each day and get the love and support they need and since their mum does not read or write we can help them each day with their homework.

mentoring hondurasFurther encouragement came when Lorena visited us in Guatemala.  Lorena is the coordinator of the Manuelito Children´s Home in Honduras and has always shown a key interest in our work here and when she heard about the success of the mentoring programme she asked to come and see for herself.

Lorena was so good on the streets, even though she found some parts of the work threatening and challenging.  The work she clicked with the most was our work with high-risk children and the mentoring programme.  Lorena was trained in our mentoring programme and was keen to return back to Honduras and get things started.  Only a few days after she arrived back home she had organised and delivered training to 30 volunteers who are now prepared to mentor 30 high-risk children in Honduras. It´s all very exciting!

Just before we closed for Easter and for staff and volunteers to have a break we invited the children who come to the mentoring centre to come together for an afternoon of food, games and water fun.  It was an exhilarating end to the term and it was just the most special moment watching the children jump up and down with excitement, squeal with joy and run around getting us all wet and seeing them just being kids for a while.  Thank you for your support that makes all this possible.

Finally, I thought I would share with you the testing out of an idea I have had to provide outward bound experiences for the children as a form of prize for outstanding school results and making good choices in their lives.

RioDulceJoseph and I took the two boys I mentor to an outstandingly beautiful part of Guatemala called Rio Dulce.  Rio Dulce means sweet river and we had discovered a log cabin on an island with access to the river and so settled back to plan 5 days of water activities, exploring and relaxing.   I feel it was a real time of growth for both boys as they were challenged about their fears of swimming in the lake.  Little Moses learned how to row a kayak and at the end of the holiday said he had learned to never give up despite finding new challenges difficult.

We would love to be able now to invite mentors and the children they mentor to enjoy long weekends away at the cabin and begin to develop a programme that will bring challenge and fun experience together and help the children see that making good choices and working hard at school really does bring exciting benefits.

In the meantime my role is to “get out there more” and bring more children into the mentoring programme that are at that point of real risk of taking to the streets.  Looks like a challenging few weeks ahead before I return back to the UK at the end of May for a couple of fundraising events.

Sunday 26th March 2017

Returning to Guatemala is always exciting and having Lorena, from the Manuelito Children´s Home, with us we knew would be a full and encouraging week.  Lorena had been invited to Guatemala to participate in the mentoring training course as she has plans to launch the programme in Honduras.

That night a phone call returned me to the reality of life in Guatemala.  A neighbour of one of the families we support was calling me to let me know that the mother of the family had been beaten up by her husband and had been left with a very swollen face.  We headed over to see her and when we arrived it seemed like all the neighbours tried to hide their faces from us in embarrassment.  We knocked on the wooden doorframe as the door was just a thin sheet of cloth and are welcomed in.

The mum is lying on the bed and trying to hide her face from me.  Her daughter is sitting at her side and her youngest son, who is about 3-4, tells me that his daddy has hit his mum again.  The mother then allows me to come closer and shows me her face.  She has endured a huge amount of pain and one eye is now closed over and the rest of her face is purple and very swollen.

Her 9-year-old son comes into the room and tells me that he had to try and protect his mum because “it´s not right to hit a woman”.  He looks down at his feet and for a moment I think he is going to burst into tears.  I enquire as to the whereabouts of the father and I am told he has run away as he knew his wife was going to make a formal complaint to the authorities.

I know that it won´t be long before he is back pleading forgiveness and once again she will take him back and then the abuse and violence will return to this family.

lorena on streetsThe next day we head to the streets but decide to check up on the family we visited the night before and I am pleased to hear that the father has not returned home and that they have begun to make plans for life without him in the home.

A few minutes later we are sitting on the streets with Brandon who is complaining that one of the older boys on the streets had fought with him and left him with another injury to his neck. I clean his wound while Lorena gets stuck in with cleaning the feet of some of the guys.  Her gentleness and compassion touches their hearts and they begin to talk with her about their lives on the streets.  While this is happening one of the older guys who is visiting the group to buy drugs steals a packet of wet-wipes we are using to clean feet.

When I realise the packet has been taken I stand up and inform the guys that unless it is returned we will not be visiting them and certainly not bringing more first aid supplies to them.  There is a lot of commotion as the finger is pointed at the man sitting closer to where it went missing and then Gerson identifies the same person.  It only takes a couple of seconds for the group to set on him and recover the packet of wipes.  I know it must seem that a packet of wet-wipes is not worth a fight but in the streets you must have limits and those we work with must know we trust them and they must trust us.  I am hoping this will help the trust we have built with them over many years even though a few nasty minutes had to pass.

moses1On our brief return to the Centre, before we head back to the streets, we find the children having fun playing with toys and games we have been given.  I so love seeing the children being children and enjoying being together and playing and creating a fun environment where every child is involved in play.  Love it!

One little boy is very pleased and so we sit down and have a chat.  It´s 9-year-old Moses and he is in mentoring with me and it´s amazing to think we have been together nearly three years now.  Last year he was struggling in school but we helped get him into a school nearer the room he lives in and a school that offers very small class sizes.  Since his start in late January he has grown in confidence and has achieved so much in the last two months.

I checked through his schoolbooks and see the amount of red ticks and “well done” stamps.  I then check his diary and read two notes from his teacher.  One is a letter of encouragement of his great behaviour and attitude in school and the other is to complement him on his excellent schoolwork.  I am so proud of him and all he has achieved these last three years and what a joy to journey with him and watch him grow.

joseph soden1The week finishes with more street visits that include watching Joseph Soden, a UK volunteer, work on the streets with the young children.  They adore him and gather around him the minute we arrive as he takes time to play with each one and they enjoy his attention and love. It is always hard to leave as we know most of these young ones will be on the streets, playing alone or playing with other young children and most times with no adult supervision and care.  

Joseph is here learning Spanish and volunteering for the Mi Arca project that Street Kids Direct fund.  He plans to return to the UK in May and then return late July to help us setup the new Protection Home and second mentoring programme.


jesusThe last visit this week was to see the children on the rubbish dump.  Little Jesus (photo) races over and grabs my hand and pulls down on my arm.  As I bend down he asks me when I am taking him to a swimming pool, something he has been asking me now for nearly a year.  I have no idea of why he and his brother have had this idea in their heads and so offer to plan something soon but convince them to join me one Saturday in visiting Go Guatemala, where they can have a full day of activities and a hot meal.  But I still might have to plan a trip to the pool one day and use the time to chat with Jesus and his brother how they could be part of the mentoring programme.  Will keep you posted but I am hoping that Jesus and his brother Marcos will allow me to shadow them later this year when I begin a challenging and exciting project called "The World Through Their Eyes".  More about this at another time, but it could be one of the hardest personal challenges I have faced since the walk last summer.

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