Monday 15thApril

It was quite an experience bringing together the many young people who live on the streets and celebrate the International Day of the Street Child last week.

IntDayThe International Day began in 2012 when many organisations, like Street Kids Direct, met with the Consortium for Street Children in London to put pressure on the United Nations to recognise this unique but forgotten population.

One of the things that have come out of this dialogue with the UN has been the establishment of the International Day, which we hope will continue to focus attention on those children and young people who have chosen to or have been forced to count the streets as their home.

We organised two events to celebrate the day this year and the first one was the walk of witness through Guatemala City with some of the children in our mentoring programme and representatives of four other organisations we work closely with and who support those at risk of the streets and those living on the streets.  We are grateful to Mojoca, Sigo Vivo, Puerta de Esperanza and Aaron Musch for working with us to help keep vulnerable children and youths safe.

The walk started at our mentoring centre in zona 9 of Guatemala City and then we met up with the various organisations and many homeless youths to march into the centre of the city (zona 1) with our banners and Municipal Police escort.

IntDay2We stopped at an important junction in zona 1 to pause and remember the boy whose death sparked off a huge international outcry and a BBC documentary that later led to my moving to Guatemala in 1992 to work on the streets with the hundreds of homeless children. Nahamán Carmona López was doing nothing more than sitting on a street corner in Guatemala City when he and a small group of other homeless children were approached by four police officers. The police began to harass the children and one officer poured a bottle of glue they were sniffing over his head before pushing 13-year-old Nahamán down some steps.  This followed by him been literally kicked to death by the officers. A plaque still remains at the spot where he fell and the words on it still haunt me today: “They called me a street child, because that is where I grew up and lived – but no one asked me why”.

His tragic death has led to many things and so as I told his story to the children gathered there we paused in silence to remember him and the hundreds of children who have been killed by the police, the death squads and by other street children or youths. It has been a life changing 27 years since I first moved to Guatemala and we can now celebrate the fact that very few children now live on the streets of the city.  A few months ago, we would say that no child lived on the streets, but this changes as one or two have arrived on the streets and we focus our attention at their rescue and rehabilitation.

The following day we invited all the street youths and homeless adults we know to join us for a night of celebration together.  It was our “Big Sleep”, as we spent time together with them from 6pm to 6am and enjoyed games, a football tournament, food, music, rap, storytelling, worship and just time to hang out and chat.

This year´s events have helped remind us of the urgency of the work, as we always look back and remember those who have lost their lives over the past year.  Bringing them all together in one space was rather moving in that you could see the work ahead and hope that if we could just get each one off the streets then their lives, as well as Guatemala, would change forever.

selfdefenceAs the days passed and we headed into the weekend before Easter I had a few more mentoring sessions to complete before the Easter holidays could begin.  Easter is an important time for this religious country and the many street processions and the intricately designed carpets of flowers that adorn the city streets tell you that something special is about to happen.  This is also the highlight of the summer season as families head to the beach and other tourist locations in Guatemala, which leaves the city is eerily quiet.

I always remain at home to work in my study, to visit those in the mentoring programme and be around for any emergency.  Mentoring is one of the highlights of my week and this past weekend was no exception. I had the opportunity of spending personal time with each of the 9 boys I mentor and this included a day of self defence classes for some of them.

The class was provided by friends of mine who own a security company here and came with a host of “toys” that the boys were keen to get their hands on.  Before any actual bodily contact happened, something the boys were desperate for, we spent time discussing the reason why self defence was important.  It was sad to hear how the “kidnap express” was now one of the most popular ways gangs made money.  Our instructor explained what to do if they were kidnapped, offered a phone for free (something kidnappers do to involve children in their ransom demand) and what to when they hear gunfire.

Our instructor asked the boys if any had seen a shooting or anything dangerous happen on the streets. All the boys had and they began to tell of all the things they had witnessed in the last week including a bus driver and his mate who were shot at point-blank range right outside where one of the boys live.  Witnessing such events can be traumatic for any child, but these boys have grown up seeing these types of things as normal and so the training was just what they needed.

The long weekend of mentoring finished with a visit to Santa Fas.  Santa Fas is a slum community on the outskirts of Guatemala City and where two boys I am mentoring live.  Jhony is 14, but you would think he was 9 as he is so underdeveloped due to living in poverty and Jonathan is 9 and the same size as Jhony.  Both boys need to be brought into the programme as they need support and help to stay away from the streets and to not get involved in the local gangs.

santafasThis trip, which is usually on a Sunday (due to the reduction in traffic), was special as Julian joined me to help support both boys.  Julian is one of our young people and the son of one of our workers – Lorena Guzman.  Julian (photo - on the far left) was quite overwhelmed by what he saw, despite having seen many children living in poverty in both Guatemala and Honduras. The two boys live in very simple tin structures, with dirt floors and their homes are precariously clinging onto the mountainside where land is cheap.  The pungent smell emanating from the river below hangs in the air day and night and today it was particularly strong.  Julian wondered how anyone could spend more than an hour here let alone live here.

Both boys are now in regular school and doing well.  Their recent school results showed great progress despite their lack of resources to get access to information they need for their daily homework.  It still makes me angry when I think of how the teachers set these kids homework knowing that almost all of them have no access to the internet.  In order to do so they have to pay Q5 (50p) for each piece of internet investigation. Some parents only earn between Q10 and Q60 a day and so this is a luxury item.  Without the homework the children are marked down, further compounding their struggle to just keep their head above the water and pass the school year.  It seems a very unjust system as those who have can get more and those who don´t will be pushed down and never helped to enjoy what the rest do.

For those in the mentoring programme homework help is a vital component of the programme and one that ensures better results and greater expectation that they will go on to achieve their dreams.  Your support for this work is never taken for granted and we hope that each year we can put more children into private schooling and see them thrive and together change the outcomes for both them and their families.  Thank you for your regular support of this work, it really does impact lives.

Saturday 6thApril

I often wonder how to answer people when they ask me to tell them of our success.  How do you measure that?  We could look at numbers and see some good results in the mentoring programme, school results, attendance at the mentoring centre and those who have left the streets.  But the greatest success is mainly ongoing through the lives of children who have survived and continue to fight to enter into adult life and actually realise their dreams.

queenbirthday1Two children were chosen to represent the charity recently at the Queen´s Birthday Party here in Guatemala City, hosted by the British Ambassador.  I chose one of the girls and Frank, who coordinates the mentoring programme, chose one of the boys.  I did not need to think long before I decided on Damaris, a 14-year-old girl who I consider to be one of the greatest examples of change I have ever met.  Frank chose 12-year-old Rony and they both accompanied me to the prestigious event.

Both children felt very special and had already spent hours at our centre getting themselves ready to walk down the red carpet and meet the British Ambassador (photo) and then mingle with the other ambassadors, members of Guatemala´s elite, members of congress and various local celebrities and dignitaries.  It was rather overwhelming to begin with, but with various free cakes and chocolates and copious amounts of roast beef on offer the couple soon began to relax and enjoy themselves.

They were a great example of how lives can really be changed and who would have known the depths of their stories and who indeed would need to?  This, for me, was a measure of success and one that I know will continue to flourish in the years to come.

A few days later we had another invite.  This time it was to take some of our younger boys to play a football match with a rather well-to-do school in the city.  You could see the faces turn as we walked in and the children looked at our boys who tried their best to find a uniform of sorts.  Some borrowed trainers and others borrowed shorts and t-shirts and each boy held his head high as we walked through the school to the pitch at the back of the various playgrounds.

footballThe match was already off to a good start when our boys became confident of an early goal, which was soon disallowed.  The opposing team were much older and taller and had obviously spent most days on an actual pitch with a trainer and so were going to enjoy scoring goal after goal as other teens from the school watched on and laughed.  It was a hard lesson for the boys but they just had fun together and returned feeling very good about themselves.  I was very proud of them, mainly for how they reacted to the events that afternoon.

While I was enjoying watching the football match, Ben Soden and the street team had been working hard at getting Pablo off the streets.  Only a few weeks ago Ben and I found Pablo in a desperate state on the streets.  He had lost so much weight over the last two months and was now almost unable to stand up. He was a bag of bones and could not keep food down and was very sore through constant diarrhea. Pablo told us that he knew he had AIDS and was going to die soon and so wanted to say goodbye. Ben got him checked out a few days later and he was not HIV positive and so took the advice to leave the streets and join a rehab programme.

Pablo, at the time of writing, is still in the rehab and doing rather well.  He has put on weight and is enjoying the fresh air and healthy diet. We are hopeful he will come through and follow the plan to return to his family home, find work and start part-time study.

To finish with I just wanted to let you know how the practice walk went over the last few days.  The walk had been planned many months ago to fit in with Steve Poulson´s visit to Guatemala and in a week all of us could plan to be fit and ready to walk non-stop for four days.

CaminoTrialThe starting point of the 600km walk was the border with Honduras, where we met Steve.  It was just after lunch and the temperature was over 30 degrees and was not showing signs of decreasing over the next few days. Our finish point was the road from Flores, in the northern jungle area of the country, to Coban.

We knew that we would need to test out various methods of us all walking day and night to see which one was most effective and how the rotation would work with resting, walking, supporting the walker and driving the support vehicle.  I had devised an elaborate plan with little drawings and everything!  But the plan did not go that well as we realised that having to support the walker, cook, find a place to sleep the night, buy food, navigate and drive as well as walk 40km every 24 hours would test the most determined person.

Thanks to the team´s input and new ideas we eventually stumbled on a routine that turned out to be a winner and meant that sufficient rest was had every 10km, which we hoped would pave the way for this summer´s Guinness World Record attempt.  

Now the hard work continues with daily training so that Steve Poulson, Ben Soden, Joseph Soden and myself are ready for the walk from Land´s End to John O´Groats and back again in 15 days this June.  We are not at all complacent with regards to the enormity of the challenge and hope that, with your help, encouragement and support, we can get the record and raise a ton of cash along the way.  

Sunday 23rd March - A Little Shack

Mario (name changed to protect him) is 16-years of age and has recently returned to living on the streets of Guatemala City.  I wanted to tell his story here because I believe it is important and that his experiences are saved somewhere.  I am afraid that we will lose him to violence or that he will take his own life and pray that he will make it through to tell his own story one day.

I remember meeting Mario´s father when he was just 14.  He had grown up on the streets from the age of 9 and was now very much part of the street scene and had 5 years of drug abuse, sexual abuse and many days of constant physical abuse to contend with.  We tried to keep him safe as much as we could but it was a constant struggle.

MarioStory3At the age of 14 Mario´s father (photo) was living with a much older lady in a little shack in La Terminal and started to provide her with children.  Both of them were often drunk or high on drugs and so it would be expected that their children will probably be taken away from them at some point. They both went through times of real depression and short moments of feeling good, particularly when another child was born. Mario´s father suffered greatly on the streets and was once stabbed several times in the stomach and almost died.

Mario grew up into a very confusing and harrowing family life filled with drugs, early sexual experiences, abuse, neglect and violence.  I remember the many evenings we spent together playing simple games in La Terminal and trying to convince him that going to school would help get him out of the cycle of life he hated so much.

He grew strong and learned the techniques any child growing up there needed to in order to survive. What he didn´t count on was being violently attacked one day by a man who took sexual advantage of him when he was only 10.  He became withdrawn and tearful and it was hard to engage him in conversations and any attempt at showing genuine love for him were, understandably, rejected quite firmly.

Thanks to the help of another partner organisation we got Mario plenty of help and support and in the meanwhile the investigation into his assault came to nothing until his father said he knew the person who had abused his son.  He confronted him one day and made it clear he was going to inform the authorities, maybe in the hope he would confess.  Sadly, confessing was not on the guy´s mind and a few days later Mario´s father was found shot dead in the alleyway near their little shack in the middle of La Terminal.

MarioStory1Everyone knew, but no one said anything and so his murder was attributed to “the angels”, the contract killers who patrol La Terminal and receive payments for keeping business interests safe.  For Mario it was another blow and this one hit him hard and led to a real fear for leaving his shack and venturing out for school, the toilet or to the shops.  Our support of him and the family was difficult, but we gave it our very best.

The last few years have been ones of massive ups and downs for Mario (photo - child in red polo shirt) and then when he entered the mentoring programme we could see real change in him.  It was like watching a flower bud and this beautiful young boy, full of potential, love and talent came to life.  Mario enjoyed so much his mentoring sessions and committed himself once again to going back to school and making positive life choices.

MarioStory2The onset of his teenage years brought Mario into another difficult phase as his sisters were now regularly selling their bodies to local strangers and coping with it by sniffing solvents and experimenting with other drugs.  His young brother and sister, both under 10 years, were now coming to an age where they also wanted to try out sniffing solvents and found in them a comforting release from the daily stress of life in this little shack.  Visiting the children would leave you numb and confused and coming home afterwards was a struggle as you had witnessed some of the worst conditions and abuse you would ever see here.

Our tears and frustrations were so mixed together and sometimes we even made knee-jerk reactions in the hope that this or that decision would keep them all safe.  The desire to gather them all up and take them home with me was so strong that I almost did one night.

I saw Mario recently as he often calls me every day or two to tell me how he is and ask how I am and tells me that he cares about me and to thank me for all I do for him and his family.  Instead of making me feel good the calls just make me feel rubbish and hopeless, as I keep having these dreams where I am burying him and it is rather too much at times. I told him today I was concerned about his welfare and safety and all he could do was to rest his head on my shoulder and hold one of my hands.

What upset me most recently was when he phoned late one night to tell me that he didn´t want to live anymore and was considering ways to end his life.  I went to meet him and took him out for a drink of coffee and he just sat opposite me and cried.  The next part of the story unfolded and it left me very weak indeed.

MarioStory4His mum has found a new boyfriend, a much younger man and one just a few years older than Mario. The little shack has one bunk bed and so there is little room as it is for Mario, his sisters and their mum.  This meant that Mario was relegated to the dirt floor where rats would run amuck all night long.  Then last week Mario got upset with his mum as she was getting very drink with her new boyfriend.  It was not the fact that the little money they had for food was being wasted by the consumption of alcohol, but that his mum and new boyfriend would belittle Mario.

The argument that followed led to Mario´s mum saying that he had to leave the little shack and that she never loved him and that his mum died many years ago and so never to come back home again.  She picked up a knife when he refused to leave and tried to stab him.  Fortunately, he managed to flee in time only to be met by four men who set upon him and stole his phone.  

Mario called me, still shaking and with a massive amount of blood covering his face.  He had no idea what to do apart from calling me and so I went to his aid and found him in the most vulnerable of states.  He was just 16 and young at that, but had lived the life of a 50-year-old.

The story does not yet a happy ending yet.  I spent time with him today and once again convinced him that street life and drugs are not the answer and once again he promised me that he would leave it all tomorrow and start a new life.  Rehab centres for young people are sparse here in Guatemala and the many we know of are violent and lead many back to the streets at their first opportunity of escape.

Maybe you could pray for Mario and hope with me that this story, one day soon, will have a happy ending where he indeed lives happily ever after.