Wednesday 1st January 2020

casitasThe New Year begins with a rather solemn refection on an experience I had last night, and one that I just need to talk with you about as it has made me feel very sad indeed.

While the team are on holiday I deal with calls and any emergencies and receive a call from 17-year-old Carlos who wants to see me.  I head to La Terminal to meet with him as I know he has been suffering from all sorts of issues recently, but I have not been able to go and see him due to being on the radio so much.

Walking into La Terminal after a few weeks absence makes me feel alive again.  The busy market is bustling with overcrowded streets and people everywhere trying to sell you fireworks.  In other areas of the city it is very quiet indeed and most shops are closed.  But La Terminal never closes and there are always hundreds or people looking for bargains and to stock up ready for the coming days.

I step out of the sunshine and into almost complete darkness as I enter into the alleyway that will lead me to Carlos´ house.  My eyes soon get accustomed to the darkness and then further on shafts of light begin to penetrate through the gaps between the tin roofing and illuminate my path.

Carlos is in bed and seems somewhat pleased to see me and asks if I can do something for him to celebrate his recent birthday and to end the year on a positive note rather than being high on drugs or on the streets.

His home a small tin shack that is now shared with his mum, sister and a new dog.  The living conditions are stark and they seem to suck out any hope or joy you might have and leave you feeling, like Carlos is feeling at this moment, – rather down.

I tell him that I will take him out later and that he needs to meet me at our mentoring centre at 5pm, which will give me enough time to go with him and buy him some new clothes for Christmas and birthday.  For the moment I need to return to our centre as some of the boys had offered to come and help me pack up the radio studio.

radio packupPacking up usually take me around 5 hours as you have to be careful with all the equipment and cables and pack it all away with bubble-wrap and plastic and store it safely ready for November when we start all over again.

Four boys arrived and I am pleased that three of them were there to help when we set up the station and so know how to handle the equipment.  Fredy, on seeing my face at how well they are doing in packing things away, says: “this is what being brothers is about Duncan”, and carry’s on doing the most excellent OCD job of packing things away.

We finish in record time and so I decide to take them for an ice cream to say thank you.  On our return we find Carlos outside the centre waiting for me.  The boys are very good at making him feel welcome and despite his demeaner and very dirty clothes and body he smiled and could see that the boys were already welcoming him and accepting him into their little group.

I say goodbye to the boys and thank them again for a fantastic job done and walk with them to La Terminal where they live and start looking for some new clothes for Carlos.  I can see that Carlos is struggling at the choice before him and so goes with the first thing one of the shop vendors offers him.  He tries on the t-shirt and jeans and seems happy and wants to wear them right away.  I advise that he would be better off coming back to the centre and having a shower and then putting them on, but he is already walking out of the shop and so I pay and walk with him back to his little tin shack.

carlo bathHis mum is sober and is washing clothes when we arrive and seems very happy to see me.  It is already now nearly sunset but is almost always dark in their home and alleyway.  A girl in the alley shouts out saying that she is going to have a shower in the alleyway as that is where the only tap is and so can we all stay in the shacks until she is finished.  Carlos has already prepared a small plastic bath with cold water, is undressed and begins to wash himself.  I try and engage the mum in conversation while Carlos asks me to find him a towel and then shampoo among piles of clothes and recycled cardboard.

Carlos´s mum tells me that he has not washed for ages and has been either on the streets high on solvents or in the bed watching a small TV and high on solvents.  The water he is using is growing increasingly black, but at least he is now cleaner as he steps out and comes over to me to tell me how much his mum has been drunk everyday while trying to find clean underwear and eventually gets dressed.

I have decided to take him to Cayalá, a rather posh area of Guatemala City that has been created for middle to upper-class people to hang out and spend their money.  It is a private “city” that has been built to help you feel that life could really be like this with no litter, no crime and where everyone around is dressed well and smiles when they catch your eye.  

We take a taxi to get there as I know that with the huge firework display planned for later this evening, the place will be a nightmare for both parking and coming home afterwards.  The taxi drops us off at the entrance and we walk into this perfect land of designer shops and clean walkways, manicured plants and the most perfect lights above us that make you feel you are walking into a Christmas movie set or on the new set of The Truman Show!

Already I can see that Carlos feels uncomfortable and when we have to walk down the first set of steps I notice that he can´t do this without holding onto the side rail.  He is trembling and looking around him nervously while giving me a smile and saying he is hungry.  His choice of food is chicken and so I find somewhere that is both reasonable while offering a more relaxed environment for him to eat.

carlos christmas treeCarlos looks at the menu and has no idea what he is reading and so I offer to help him choose a chicken dish I think he will enjoy as it comes with mashed potato, something I know he likes.  The waitress takes the order and quickly comes back with the drinks and then the meal, as the queue outside to be seated has grown rapidly in the short time we have been in the restaurant.

When the food arrives, Carlos looks at the plate and does not know where to begin, so he takes his lead from me.  I pick up my knife and fork and begin to cut the chicken and taste it while he struggles to hold the knife, which then falls to the floor.  He is shaking more now and does not know what to do.  The waitress brings over another knife and he tries again.  It seems like his very first time of using a knife and fork and his embarrassment becomes evident to families on adjacent tables.

I tell him my newest joke and that helps him settle in a bit and feel comfortable enough to use his fingers now to eat as he discards his knife and fork towards the edge of the table.  I am taken in my mind to the last time I took my aging father out for a meal before he died.  He would have to use his fingers to eat, struggled to drink without spilling it and spilt a lot of food over himself and the floor before saying he would rather not come out to eat again.

Carlos was able to cope with drinking, but did need two hands to steady the shaking.  I am devastated how much he has deteriorated in the last year and now, just 17-years of age, is a boy in an old man´s body.  He finishes his chicken and the waitress is very good at helping clean things up while he asks me about his book.  To be fair it was the last thing we talked about before I was ensconced in the radio project.

Because I have known him all his life and seen just how hard the world has hit him and how he has responded I said to him one day that his life is quite an incredible example of how a boy can grow up in the most difficult of circumstances and still is able to smile.  The idea of writing up his story in a book was an immediate appeal and so Carlos brings up the subject again.

If the book is ever written, and I hope it is, I know it will be one riveting read.  I explain that it would be good to talk about his beginnings and, knowing his father when he was live, I know that those early years will be quite hard to write about.  Then when he becomes 9 and goes through the most horrific attack that transforms him into a recluse and he withdraws into himself so much that I lose the cheeky, smart, vibrant 9-year-old boy that I have grown to love so much.  It will be tough to write and certainly very hard to read, but it´s a story I think needs to be told.

We walk around for a bit and can see that all the best seats for the evening´s star performance in the central square have already gone and the team that is in charge of the fireworks are checking and double checking all is in place and can cope with a slight mist that has now fallen on the area.  I treat Carlos to an ice cream and we sit and watch the show begin.  After 10 minutes Carlos tells me he does not want to be here and feels very out of place and could I take him back to his bed.

We head home and I drop him off at his shack and he climbs back onto his bed and shouts goodnight.  It is only 10pm and there is still two more hours of celebrations and fireworks in the streets, but Carlos wants none of it and pulls the cover over him and curls up into a ball and drifts off to sleep.

I am home in half an hour and much earlier than I had planned.  But I am very sad at what I had just witnessed and wonder why a boy like Carlos is dealt such a massive blow in life.  Happy New Year Carlos and let´s hope that this year is one of hope and new beginnings for you.

Friday 25th December 2019

oli oneillRadio Christmas begins with all the usual problems with software that is out of date on old computers that can´t cope with all we are asking of them and leads that have been stored away for a year that now have decided to not work.  However, the initial teething problems are solved and we crack on with our 12 Days of Christmas broadcasts from Guatemala and Honduras.

Oli O´Neill, a youth worker from Amersham, had flown out to Honduras to see the work there and then help Steve Poulson with the first few days of the radio before travelling up to Guatemala by bus and helping us here until we finish on Christmas Eve.  Oli was the star that made Radio Christmas this year and his enthusiasm and joy at being able to help be part of the production this year was rather infectious and helped keep everyone going right through until the end.

I was aware that two of the boys in the mentoring programme with me were rather anxious as they were going to move house in the New Year and be a lot further away from the centre and from the team.  The oldest boy, 14-year-old Fredy, sent me a photo of him working on the construction of their first ever family home.

ciudad quetzalThe family live in a rented room in La Terminal and they have struggled with many things over the past year.  However, their parents have been working hard and saved up money to buy a small plot of land on the outskirts of the city and slowly started to build their home.  Fredy had worked very hard at constructing them the exterior walls of the home and all they need now is a roof and then they plan to move in.  They have no toilet or shower, no kitchen or divisions and no floor, but they are very happy that this will be their new home.

I will help them move home at the end of December as I know they would not be able to carry all their possessions on the bus or on their father´s motorbike.  It will also be a great opportunity to spend time with the family and show them we care.

We finish the year´s activities at the mentoring centre with Christmas parties that are well attended and provides for the children more memorable days.  We know for all the children we work with they won´t be celebrating Christmas with their families doing anything special, but will see the TV and watch other children doing just that.

brandon christmasMy highlight was finishing the Radio Christmas broadcasts and then helping to run an afternoon of games, crafts and mayhem at the centre with Oli coming up with the “great“ idea of turning me into the now-famous Christmas challenge – making me into a snowman.  It wasn´t the old game we used to play with the children where you wrap the person up in toilet paper.  This newer version means slapping you in the face with cream and then sticking a carrot in your mouth and two chocolate biscuits over your eyes.  Fun indeed!

We finish with a Christingle service that Mark and Rosalie had planned and a quieter spirit falls over the centre as we reflect on the real meaning behind Christmas and what we can give to the Lord Jesus this year.

Thanks to all those who have helped make this a very special time for the children.  Now we can all look forward to a few days of rest and then we prepare for the coming New Year and getting 50 children into school in Guatemala and around 25 in Honduras.  The year looks a challenging one indeed, but we trust that God will lead and provide and help us reach the most vulnerable children and offer them hope and a way forwards while supporting them as they navigate a very difficult childhood.  Thank you for your support that makes all the difference.

Sunday 1st December 2019 – Preparing for Christmas

christmas treeChristmas is a busy time of year for most of us, but with our biggest fundraiser happening every Christmas it is a very hectic time for all of here in Guatemala.  So, this year, for the first time in history, I am actually prepared!  I have bought all the presents for the boys who are in the mentoring programme with me and now it´s time to spend time with them and their families doing fun things as they know that when Radio Christmas begins I won´t be available until the week after Christmas.

It is easier for me to tell you the story of how we are preparing for Christmas through the eyes of the kids I am working with and hopefully you will be encouraged to know that donations are used well here and it really does make a difference to many vulnerable children.

The Protection Home “Casa Alexis” was very busy in the lead up to Christmas with the kids loving the idea of having a real Christmas tree in the home and excited that they could decorate the tree and hang up all sorts of decorations around the home.  We had planned for groups of them to come for sleep-overs as a reward for great school results and good attendance at the mentoring centre.

We are joined by a Guatemalan family who have come to meet the children and help out as we prepare for this festive time.  Pete and Ruby, visitors from the UK, came to help and brought a great cooking activity that was a big hit with the children, who wrapped up decorated biscuits in tin foil to take home and share with their families.

I began my special activities with the boys in the mentoring programme.  Moses wanted me to take him to the Christmas fair that was in town and so five hours of rides, candy floss and all sorts of unhealthy food and drink culminated in a special time with him talking and praying about the meaning of Christmas and what he was hoping for in the coming year.

aventurerosThe Saturday boys, now known as the Adventurers, wanted to go out for dinner together, but it was not the memorable time they had dreamed about.  I had taken them out to a second-hand shop to find smart clothes for the event and, after a hot shower and all dressed ready for our meal out, we found ourselves in a 2-hour traffic queue and when we got to the restaurant that offers the most perfect view of the city lights, fog slowly formed and all we could see was the lights of the restaurant car park.  One of the boys was then ill with stomach cramps and so the evening ended on a low rather than a high, but at least they have since remembered back and said they thought it was a very special time together.

The boys I usually work with on a Sunday had a treat in store as I wanted to take them to a up-market shopping area where the boys could enjoy half an hour on a bike, something that was almost too exciting for one boy who told me later this was his first ever time on a bicycle.  I think the adrenalin mixed powerfully with his confidence that he could ride a bike meant that he just sat on it and off he went.  

For these boys it was a memorable day out with me and finished with us getting their presents bought and wrapped ready for Christmas.  They were keen to choose their gifts this year and not rely on me to buy them something “cool”.  Growing up means greater choices in life and ones that I can see they are navigating well.

david cristianMeanwhile the mentoring centre was being turned into a radio studio again and so Moses was keen to learn how to be a technical operator.  He was my number one in the end as I could always rely on him to turn up at all sorts of hours to help where needed and always did a very professional job.  A couple of days he slept over in the lounge of the centre with either David or Danilo, who were also keen to run shows and help out.

David is 16 and has been with us in the mentoring programme since he was 11 and is now one of our volunteer team.  David is a very caring a responsible teen and flourishes with any responsibility you give to him.  The younger children love him to bits as he always has time for each of them, like the hour he spent with little Cristian playing with toy cars and just letting him talk about his life and worries.

With just a few days to go before the launch of Radio Christmas we took all the children to spend the day at Mark & Rosalie´s new home.  Mark & Rosalie moved out to Guatemala two years ago and have settled into a pastoral role and rented a rather lovely home about half an hour out of the city.  It is a great place for retreats and a place to just go to and rest or be refreshed.

rony marlenyThe children arrived and ran around exploring the grounds and the house and then the leader-led games began while some made Christmas biscuits and had free time to play.  For two children, Rony and his sister Marleny, it was like being let loose in a sweet shop for the day.  Their eyes were wide open and, at times, they could not contain their excitement.  I showed them a little Wendy House and explained how we could play shops with all the play food and till inside.  They had never played this before and so needed some instruction.  When they got the hang of it they took turns in coming with me to the window, each time in a different disguise and voice, and buying several things from the shop.  “Again, again” they cried when I had bought all the produce and so off we went again.

Every time I have seen them since they talk non-stop about that day and Marleny keeps asking if she can go and live there one day. Creating great memories is what we love doing and I know how important these events are for the children.

Benjamin was busy with me preparing a few videos for Radio Christmas. We know how important it is for us to show people the impact of their donations and there are so many stories to tell including how Sergio had been helped to leave the streets again and was now graduating from rehab and starting his life over again.  To begin with he will stay in a half-way home in Antigua, Guatemala and we will help him find work and then a place he can live.  We are grateful to Aaron who helps fund and run the half-way house and are hoping that this will now be the break that Sergio needs to begin afresh.