Wednesday 1st November 2017

This time of year is one of mixed feelings for the children with whom we work.  Most have now finished school for the year and have started the long winter break. In Guatemala all children have to pass their school year in order to go into the next grade, failure means you having to return back to the same school year until you pass.  A pass is based on your attendance, homework and tests and the failure rates in Guatemala in first grade have dropped dramatically (by 18.6%) in the last four years.  Sadly just over 37% of children do not pass their first grade and the older they are the higher the dropout or failure rate is.  It gets worse when you look at Guatemala´s  Ministry of Education data and see that on 41% of primary school student reach national standards in mathematics and only 50% reach national standards in reading.  [Statistics from USAID and the Guatemala Ministry of Education]

The children who now attend our mentoring programme have done very well indeed this year and even though we are still waiting on all the results to come in, the early indications are that we have bucked the national trend spectacularly.  Considering the multiple deprivations our kids have to cope with, the fact they stay in school and thrive is a miracle. 

brandon trophyTwo boys came to my attention the other day when I was sitting on the floor of our Centre in Guatemala City and listening to them share with the other children how well they have done in school this year.  Both our girls and boys have achieved much and there are a couple who have not passed but could do so with the extra support Marleny will now give them.  Marleny is one of our most dedicated volunteers and commits herself to running our Centre 7 days a week.  She is an inspiration.

Marleny had invited any of the children to talk about the things they have faced in school this year and to share their personal victories. 9-year-old Brandon is one of the first to step up and tell everyone he passed his school year.  His victory needs some explanation as you could be encouraged to just clap and say well done but that comes nowhere near what level of recognition this boy deserves.

Brandon has grown up in poverty and lives in La Terminal in Guatemala City with his older sister and two younger brothers and younger sister.  Coping with life is a challenge as they all live in one room with an older cousin and their parents who work long hours.  Brandon sleeps on the floor and has little time and no resources to study in the dimly-lit room and so works hard each day when he comes to the Centre.  This year has been a tough one for him and his family who have been through some of the most challenging experiences any family can go through.

Given all this you would be amazed that he has even managed to get through his school year intact.  But Brandon is a fighter and talked with Marleny about his personal determination to get through his education so he can get a “good job” and support his family.  Not only has he passed but has done with exceptional grades and was top of his year and had a trophy for his sporting achievements.  Normally children will want to bring their trophies and medals along to show the team and other children but Brandon is just happy to stand up and say he has passed his school year.

melvinThe next child up is Melvin who sways from side to side as tells everyone he has passed his grade and is looking forwards to next year.  8-year-old Melvin came into the mentoring programme this year when a friend brought him along, as the Centre is “cool”, according to his friend. However when Marleny explained that unless he was in the mentoring programme he could not attend the Centre but that we would look into his situation and see what we could do.  The following day he came back and Frank, who runs the mentoring programme, opened the door and was told that Marleny said he could come today, so he walked in.  The next day Marleny opened the door to him and Melvin explained that Frank said he could come back, so was allowed in.  As time went by Frank and Marleny discussed Melvin´s situation and realised he had been playing one against the other in order to come into the Centre each day.  It was quite funny really as he is quite a cheeky little chap.

When he was confronted about this he cried and said he felt safe here and that he didn´t want to be on the streets every afternoon after school.  Both Frank and Marleny told him that he could stay but that we would need to discuss the situation with his mum.  Melvin´s mum works up the road from our Centre selling fruit to those getting off and on the buses on the busy 5th and 2nd intersection in La Terminal.  Melvin has to be there at her side from the early hours till the evening but takes himself off to school around 7am every day.

His mother was shocked by the news that Melvin had passed his school year and seemed to struggle with the words to encourage him.  Melvin proudly declared that he had passed and knew that his mum wasn´t expecting him to pass but said: “you see, I told you I would pass”.  Without the support Marleny and his now new mentor, Sony, gives him he would not have passed I am sure.  I can´t believe the amount of homework the children get each week and with an increasing demand on investigations that most children are unable to do.  Investigations are small research projects that you can only really do if you have an educated parent and access to the internet and a colour printer.  That means most children we work with won´t pass unless we provide that level of support on a daily basis.

Melvin, and the other 40 children attending the Centre and enjoying the mentoring programme, will now be able to enjoy their winter break and we are trying to sign them up for sports and other courses to keep them occupied in positive activities till we get to the fun two weeks of Radio Christmas (live from Guatemala this year) and the Christmas celebrations.

There have been other amazing successes over the past two weeks and I hope these stories encourage you to know that we are using our time well and ensuring that every penny of every donation is used to impact children´s lives.  Thank you for your regular support of our work that makes all this possible.

dunc daniloDanilo is 13 and came into the Centre the other day and gave me a big hug.  His face was a picture as the beaming smile and smart clothes told me one thing – he had passed his school year.  But Danilo had passed through his primary education and was now on course to start secondary education.  Only 40% of children manage to achieve what Danilo will achieve when he starts secondary school in January as the remaining 60% have either dropped out during their primary education or are unable to start secondary school due to finances or having to work full-time.

I hadn´t realised the commitment the other young people had made to support Danilo until Jonathan, our volunteer coordinator and youth worker, told me the story.  Danilo lives in poverty and so when he prepared for his graduation ceremony all he had to wear was his worn-out school uniform.  The other teenage boys got together and one loaned him the shoes, another a shirt, another a pair of trousers and so Danilo went to his graduation looking very smart indeed.

I remember the day I first met Danilo on the rubbish dump.  I had gone there to talk to his mum about his younger brother David, who was now at high risk and spending more and more time on the streets.  I was explaining that David could be included in the mentoring programme and what support we could offer him.  “It´s Danilo I worry more about”, she said and went on to tell me that he was now being lured into drugs and other things that were not appropriate for his age and was returning very late at night to their room on the outskirts of the notorious “Limonada” in zone 5 of Guatemala City. 

I am very proud of Danilo and all he has coped with and achieved this year and know he will start his secondary education with our full support.

daniel bedWe had the chance to help a boy who will now be entering our mentoring programme due to the things that have happened in his past and the risk factors in his life.  Daniel is 10 and used to be in the same school and class as little Moses but when Moses changed school this year we lost contact with Daniel.  However a series of circumstances brought me back into contact with Daniel and I found out that he had no bed when I visited him at his new home.  Without going into the details Daniel needed a bed and so I went and spent £100 on a bed and Moses and me loaded it into the little jeep and headed over to his house.

I was not sure who was more excited about the bed, Moses or Daniel.  Watching both boys carry the bed into his room and screw in the legs was fun and as soon as the bed was in place and the bedding fitted it became the best place to be.  I recorded a short video of the visit and hope you can see the difference a donation of £100 can make in the life of a child.  Daniel told me the next day how much he enjoyed sleeping in his bed, but now he could sleep there every night.

daniel bikeFinally, another boy called Daniel had his life changed around when I took him, his brother and a friend to a posh area of Guatemala City where you can rent bikes for £1.50 for half an hour.  Daniel and his brother Carlos are now spending each day on the streets, doing drugs and getting into all sorts of situations that put their lives at risk.  Their little friend, 10-year-old Jonathan, is also in the same situation and is now sleeping rough as well.  They seem so tiny and vulnerable and their early experiments with crack will only lead them to an unhealthier lifestyle with all the possible negative heath outcomes we know that result from this type of drug taking.

But Daniel, Jonathan and Carlos had left all that behind for a few hours and were just enjoying being children.  It was comforting to watch them cycle around and see the smiles on their faces.  I know these experiences are short-lived and probably won´t result in them exploring other options for their lives, but might play a small part in the rescue process or help them see that another life is possible.  Please do pray for them and let´s hope we can have the strength to keep demonstrating love even when no success is visible.

Saturday 14th October, 2017

moses duncanIt certainly does feel a lot longer than a week, but I have been back in Guatemala for one week now and on my return jumped right in with mentoring as the day after I landed in Guatemala City it was Moses´s birthday.

Moses, as the regular readers will know, is the youngest boy I mentor and has been with me in the mentoring programme for the last 4 years.  I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I had to be back in Guatemala for his birthday.  Moses turned 10 and as I look back on his life I am very excited to see how much he has coped with all the world has thrown at him.  He is a survivor and his resilience is high but still needs people in his life who will care for him, cuddle him, tell him he is amazing and help him navigate the next few years of change and growth.  Mentoring is extremely rewarding but is also a challenge and a commitment that often goes beyond what is expected.

Moses´s birthday was a lot of fun and he wanted to take a few friends from school and his teacher plus two boys from our Centre to the cinema to watch a film.  You would think this would be easy enough to organise, but here there seems to be so many aspects of the trip that would cause even the most successful event planners a huge headache.  The day ended well with Moses going home one very happy boy and realising that he has people around him that care for him and think he is very special.

firetruckThe next day I was mentoring Fredy, 13 years, and his brother Jonathan, 10 years.  Both boys are relatively new to the mentoring programme and I am supposed to be looking after them until two male mentors are found for them.  This will take a while I expect and as time goes on their attachment to me will also grow.  In the meantime I am trying to get to know them and it is great to be with two boys who just love being together as brothers and really encourage each other.  They don´t seem to remember a time when they fell out or had a fight, so already we are starting on a good platform.

Fredy and Jonathan live in La Terminal and have been assessed by the team as needing to be in the mentoring programme due to the risk factors in their lives and their connection to the streets.  Evaluating children is always tough as we try not to make decisions based on emotions but each child does need to have a certain number of points in order to be deemed applicable for the mentoring programme.

Our time out together lasts nearly three hours and this week we go bowling as I wanted to do something special since I have been away for three weeks and the boys have missed me being around.  I love the way they both respond to anything I do for them and always say thank you for everything they get and then make me cards or write me letters in the week to tell me how much they appreciated our time out of La Terminal.

There seems to be more children in our Centre on my return and Monday afternoon was spent hanging around in the Centre, recording a video for a school in Scotland, sharing with the children a little of my trip to the UK, handing out chocolate and sweets (a twice-a-year treat) and seeing how much progress has been made.  The noticeboard in the dining room was covered with names and a message to welcome me back and an envelope was left hanging on one side that held a ton of letters, notes and cards from the kids to make me feel bad for going away!

jose karla2My last two mentoring sessions of the day were with Oscar, who is turning 18 this year, and 10-year-old Jose.  I am hoping that Oscar passes his school year, as this is a crucial year for him in passing his basic school studies that will enable him to go into vocational training or get a job.  I am very proud of what he has achieved with his life to date and am hopeful he will go on to great things.  Jose, on the other hand, is still a little boy but with the mindset and street awareness of an older teenager.

Jose lives with his sister Karla (photo) and his grandparents in La Terminal.  His grandparents run a bar and so are always working hard to try and support their two grandchildren.  Both children have a very high connection to the streets and yesterday Karla went missing again and I found Jose lying on the ground being beaten in the head by another boy.  Breaking up the fight was not that easy as Jose was eager to get his own back and I am sure would try and do so today.  Holding on to him meant I felt how hard his little heart was beating and despite his many attempts to get away from me quite liked the idea I was trying to keep him safe.

I took Jose to a shopping mall the day after I arrived back and could not stop looking at his little face gaze on all he saw.  His mouth was wide open in awe and wanted to see this place, then this shop window, then go up the escalator and then return in the lift.  It was a special time and we found a large slide he could go down three times for £1.00.  It was my cheapest mentoring session ever and when I asked him this week what he would like to do this coming session he said: “can we just do the same as last week, everything exactly the same”.  Bless him.  So, another £1 slide is on its way!

Monday 2nd October 2017

Returning to the UK to help organise the Big Sleep is always an exciting opportunity to help children and adults experience something of the discomfort of sleeping rough on the streets and raise some funds for the work in Central America.  This year´s Big Sleep in Amersham on Saturday 23rd September was a tremendous success and about 40 children and adults spent the night outside St.Michael´s Church in Amersham exposed to the cold night or tucked away inside a cardboard box. 

bigsleep1Many thanks to all those who got involved, helped with the technical side of things, made refreshments, provided donations of food and drink, organised the programme, kept us all safe and helped with the registration.  As well as all our volunteers we had many supporters who came along to hear the great news release at 9pm and all those that came to sleep out.  THANK YOU everyone for coming to support and many thanks to the church for allowing us use of their facilities and forecourt.

Our next event is Radio Christmas, which will run from the 12th to the 24th December from both Guatemala and Honduras.  Steve Poulson will head up the broadcasting from Honduras and I will run things from Guatemala with the many UK volunteers who will be working in Guatemala City then or visiting us for the Christmas period.  Please do stay tuned to the Radio Christmas website and please do share it with your family and friends when we go live in the 12th December.

It has been a very special time travelling around the UK to speak in schools and churches and to be invited to speak at a variety of meetings in both England and Scotland.  One of the highlights was being invited to meet with Street Invest in Maidenhead, speak at Banchory Church in Scotland and to speak to and hang out with the Dirty Dozen in Essex.  dirty dozenThe Dirty Dozen are a group of men whose lives have been dramatically changed since becoming Christians. Their backgrounds would surprise you and it was incredible meeting people who have served time for all manner of crimes.  These East-End boys have a notorious past that means they are now seeing life from a very different perspective.  Spending time with them was such an encouragement and they are hopeful that they will be able to help us at some stage in the future.

Meanwhile back in Guatemala and Honduras the work continues.  The news that we released on the Big Sleep was a shock to many people and so I thought I would explain it a little more here for those who have missed it.  You might like to watch the short 1-minute video I have produced to demonstrate the news and then share it with friends.

When I left the UK 25 years ago little did I think the work would lead us to where we are today.  In September 1992 I had my bag packed and had sold all my possessions and was ready, with my wife Jenni and our baby daughter Katelyn, to set off on an adventure of a lifetime.  Neither of us knew how it was going to work out, how we would cope, where we would live and what exactly we would be doing.  But I was sure that God had placed a called on my life and so had to just act in faith.

EvermanThe BBC Everyman documentary “They Shoot Children Don´t They” had impacted me profoundly and recently it was released on Vimeo and can now be downloaded or watched online here.  The narrator starts by saying: “There are 5,000 street children in Guatemala City.  Each day they set out to literally live or die on the streets.”  The numbers of children living and dying on the streets were huge and when I began my first day on the streets I was totally overwhelmed by the desperate need I saw all around together with the sheer numbers of children taking drugs and living rough on the streets.

Given the statistic from Casa Alianza that 5,000 children were living on the streets of Guatemala in the early 1990s, I knew it would be challenge to be a part of the solution and help reduce those numbers over the next few years.  Many children sadly died on the streets, many went into homes or back with their families or simply disappeared and some remained living on the streets and are now in their late 30s.  I have seen how the demographic has changed over the years as well as their habits and customs.  It has been both challenging and depressing and hugely rewarding to serve on the streets for the last 25 years.

statsOver the years we have taken many surveys of street children and youths and tried to understand the changes and how our response continues to offer an affective solution to street life.  Our most recent survey, mainly through personal observation, led me to suggest that no more children were living full-time on the streets of Guatemala City.  This is where I need to make sure I clarify what I am saying.  From my own experience and that of our street team, we came to a point a few weeks ago where we could not name one child who was living full-time on the city streets.  Now, I would be the first to admit that I don´t know everything.  There might be areas, streets or places where children are living independently on the streets and I don´t know it, or there might now be children living on the streets who did not a few weeks ago. But the good news is that a massive change has happened over 25 years and even though we might still get children taking to the streets we know that there is now a team of committed people who can help them, services they can benefit from and a social and legal structure that is slowly adapting to their needs.

So where are we today?  The short video graphically demonstrates that from our own experience and research there are no more children living alone on the streets of Guatemala City.  If we find children now living alone on the streets we will offer them consistent support in order to help them enjoy a better life.  But to be able to say, after 25 years of very hard and often dangerous work, that we have achieved what we setout to do in 1992 is an emotionally charged statement for me to make.

david amanda

Our focus now is on the hundreds of high-risk children who are at very high risk of taking to streets.  The mentoring programme is impacting so many lives and we are committed to expanding this programme in order to offer a trusted, caring adult in the life of every child at risk.  Our aim is to work hard over the next 5-10 years and help the Guatemalan authorities develop systems and programmes that will also help at-risk children and youth and robust framework that will help keep them safe.

The Mi Arca street team continues to impact lives and I was really pleased to get this photo of David and Amanda and their baby daughter.  The young couple took the brave decision to leave behind their desperate lives of living in a tin shack in La Terminal, Guatemala City, and start a new life and business in a new area of the capital.  We wish them well and it felt so good to offer them some seed money for their new business and home.  Your support means we can do this often and we love giving young people the leg-up they need when starting out afresh.

parenting classesFinally, I was encouraged to receive this photo from one of our team in Guatemala as it demonstrates our work with families at risk.  Every weekend we are now running parenting classes for the parents of the children in our mentoring programme.  There has been much progress and we have explored various topics with parents who are not ashamed to receive some extra help and support.  I am hopeful that this will grow and become more of a home-based programme over the coming year as we develop a new programme of family support.

On Thursday I head home to Guatemala and can´t wait to get back into the work and celebrate with the Mi Arca team the success of the work and plan for the next few years.  Your support is vital and much appreciated and so thank you for sticking with us and helping us impact the lives of so many children and their families.

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