Azaria Spencer

Watching him walk away broke my heart

I have just got home after a normal Wednesday night working in prevention on the streets.
Prevention work in the streets in one of my favourite activities and I usually leave feeling uplifted and joyful. However, tonight was different, and I want to share with you why.

We, the team and I, got ready at the centre as normal, preparing the games and colouring activity. Tonight we were celebrating ‘the day of the child’ with the children so we had a giant Micky Mouse pinata with us too. We gathered together by the door and spent some time in prayer before walking to ‘la quinta’ the street in ‘la terminal’ where we do our activity. As we walked I was amused to think what people must be wondering as they saw us, a group of adults wearing matching T-shirts carrying a massive pinata, not to mention some of them pale faced Brits.
We walked through ‘La Terminal,’ passing the brothels and the bars. The stench of urine worse than normal, due to the humid air. Seeing the usual, prostitutes stood in the street, men urinating wherever they wanted, unattended children all over, people sleeping in the street and the general hum of people busying themselves. I often forget that it isn’t ‘normal’ because it has become part of my life here, my new kind of ‘normal.’
As we approached our destination, a particular street corner marking the side street we use for our activities, some of the children spotted us and ran. I bent down, opening my arms and readied myself for the impact of an excited embrace. I scooped the little boy, who had chosen me as his target, up into my arms and lifted him in the air. We hugged, and I asked him how he was. I carried him in my arms the rest of the way. You can already see why this is one of my favourite activities. I love being with these children, they lack the love and attention that so many of us take for granted and to be able to spend even a short time with them is such a huge blessing. They crave hugs and cuddles, to be held and carried. They are still young and in need of physical affection, as we all are.

Within minutes there were 10+ children with us and the activities began. Coloring, face painting and skipping. As the first 20 minutes past more and more children arrived and we continued to play and chat. Due to the draw of the pinata more children than usual were with us along with parents. We have recently had around 50 children but tonight there was at least 60. A giant pinata would definitely get my attention too. Among the children we work with on the streets there is always a group of children from our centre with us too. They live near by and come to play and some of the bigger ones help us too. Tonight, some of our older girls were helping us with crowd control, which we really needed especially when it was time to hit the pinata. In a semi organised fashion, smallest to biggest the children took turns to have five hits. Watching the little ones try and hit the pinata was very sweet. About half way through the group the pinata split open, spilling sweets everywhere and mayhem ensued. Thankfully we had plenty to go around and manged to hand out sweets to all the children and some parents too. Even a few passers by got some sweets to take away.
After the sweets it was time for a quick snack and drink before we finished. We would usually have a song and short Bible story but it was a special celebration tonight, a bit of a party I guess.
Now it was past 7 and getting dark and a lot of the children are under 5 years old, so we sent them to their homes, giving out hugs as they went. As many of them left we stayed to chat to a few of the parents and the older children from our centre.

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I noticed a few of children from our centre hanging around with a slightly older boy on his bike. He was clearly the ‘leader’ of their conversation. I have seen him before, he often hangs around during our activities on the streets. He makes me nervous. He is that bit too old to be hanging around. I noticed one of the young boys who holds a special place in my heart (I know I shouldn’t have favourites) with this older boy and contemplated intervening. They looked like they were getting ready to go off somewhere together and I didn’t want him to go with them. I wanted them all to go to their homes. I sat conflicted, should I intervene or should I not, I didn’t want to overstep after all I am not his mother. In the centre he listens to me, he respects me, he loves me, but here it could be different. Now we were on the streets, where the rules are different.
I asked Duncan, his mentor, to have a quiet word with him. A better option than me talking with him. Duncan found out that he had been locked out of his house until 9pm because his mum was out working and had the key. His mum is a prostitute. So, he had no choice but to be out until she got home and in turn I had no choice but to let him be. This is the life he is used to, it isn’t strange to him.
Watching him walk away, in his adorable little shorts with his tucked in polo shirt, a 9-year-old boy left to play in the streets till 9pm, my heart broke. It ached inside my chest, heavy and burdened. This little boy is one of many whom I have come to love deeply, and I don’t think it will ever be easy to watch something like this. I don’t want it to be easy, the pain makes it real it challenges me. It drives me to do more to bring change. To strive for a better life for them.

My evening of fun and games, playing with children in the streets had suddenly been hit by the reality of the situation. The whole reason why we do what we do. I was reminded why I am here, why I do this kind of work, why it matters. And I was reminded once more what it costs.

Addiction and dreams!

It was Tuesday morning when Ben arrived at the centre as normal and found him sleeping across two chairs at the dining room table. He woke, his eyes were bloodshot and exhausted, and there was a deep sadness in them. As he told Ben about the night he had just had both of their hearts were heavy. His addiction had caused him to become secretive, to lie and to make bad decisions. Decisions that led him to another night on the streets. Ben sat and listened as he told him that last night he had walked to the airport to watch the planes. To the exact place where Ben had taken him only a few weeks before. He dreams of one day becoming a pilot and in the depths of one of the worst nights of his life he had found himself drawn to that dream once more. Weeping and under the influence of solvents he had returned to ‘la terminal’ to sleep on the streets. Thankfully one night was enough to make him realise that things needed to change.

But before the story can continue the question, ‘how did he end here?’ needs addressing.

To understand how he ended up spending this night on the streets we must first backtrack in his story.
Four years ago, he lived on the streets for a full year, only a teenager, with no family and no home. The drugs had pulled him in and had kept him there. But he knew that was not the life he wanted. With the support of some people who were worked with people living on the streets at that time he was able to leave. He moved to their volunteer’s house outside of the city. From there he lived with a family and found he could be happy, that he could have a ‘normal’ life. During his time living with this family he went out to work at the pacific in construction. Unfortunately, whilst there he was in a motorbike accident which landed him in hospital for over a month. When he returned to live with the family he relapsed and ended up taking paint stripper. Filled with shame he ran away, back to ‘la terminal’ and spent a few nights in a hotel there. That is when he came to us. He had met Ben and some of the other people who work with us here from his time in the volunteer’s house and with this family. So, in February when he showed up asking for help Ben and the team were more than happy to support him. He went into a rehabilitation home and whilst he was there Ben visited him and spent time getting to know him more. Finding him to be a very genuine, clever, motivated young man. A man who had big dreams and who wanted to work hard to make them happen.
Things were going really well, and he was enjoying learning more about God and was managing to live without the drugs.
Sadly, one day while he was in the bathroom the metal in his leg snapped leaving him in agony and in desperate need of medical attention. The rehabilitation home called Ben and explained that they could not take responsibility for him and the paramedics did not turn up. Ben arrived with another team member and took him to hospital, where he had an operation. On leaving the hospital his options were very limited, so he went to stay with members of the street team for a couple of weeks and then onto the protection home, where another family from our team was living. He was cared for and shown love. It was not the best environment for him, as the house was under construction at the time and he was still on crutches, but he was happy to be there and be part of a family. He was motivated to study hard and focus on his recovery.
However, addiction is a complicated captor and in May, on mother’s day, he relapsed. He sought comfort from the pain of his mother’s death in drugs and the shame caused him to run away. It is hard to imagine the kind of pain he was suffering, a pain he felt could only be softened or forgotten through drug use. When the team found him and brought him back his shame was met with forgiveness and love. He was allowed to stay at the house while his leg continued to heal. Ben continued to visit him, spend time with him and take him to his appointments and counselling. Again, thing were looking positive as routine set in and he continued to heal. Everyone found him a joy to be around and liked having him at the house and the centre.
Unfortunately, earlier this month, August, the smell of solvents from his room and on him lead to the discovery of drugs in his room.
When asked about the drugs, he was so honest and open. He admitted his mistakes and was very remorseful. He was clearly ashamed and very sorry. Ben and the team didn’t want to put him back into rehab, he had come so far and was doing really well. After a lot of thought it was decided that he could stay at the home and a full program would be made for him, accounting for his time and to keep him focussed. This program included his counselling, looking for a mentor and support classes. There was no point in focussing on the past, it was about looking forward and focussing on his future. Everyone knew that another relapse would mean his only option would be a rehabilitation home. No one wanted that, everyone loved having him here with us. He is such a delight to be around, he is so warm and friendly and always ready to help and serve.
Well, that brings us back up to the events of this week.
And that smell, that distinct smell that reveals an addict’s secrets.
On Sunday night Ben had taken him to church and had wondered, had thought maybe he could smell that all too familiar smell. But his perfume was strong and Ben didn’t want to believe he would have gone back to the drugs so soon. Yet his behaviour had been odd and a little distant. When Monday came around and another team member smelt that same, strong scent questions had to be asked.
Ben, along with another member of the team, approached him with love. Only desiring to know the truth. Reassuring that they only wished to help. He denied it, insisting that he was not using again. They could even check his room if they wanted. His eyes darting and his voice panicked. It was getting harder to believe him. He was told that it didn’t matter, no one would be upset or angry. We just needed to know, so that we could find a better option for him, get him the help he needs. He persisted in denying his relapse. But at the house, the evidence was blatant, the stench in his room undeniable and drugs hidden in the same place as before.

So, his options were laid out before him, he could go to a rehabilitation home, he could continue to have our support as he recovered and post recovery too. Ben reassured him that we would be there to support him. But he could no longer stay at the house because it was not working for him and was not what was best for him. He would not listen to reason anymore, he was ashamed. He told Ben that he would never be able to change, he would always be an addict. Ben would not give up on him, but he insisted he needed time away from the centre to think. He said he would stay with a friend and come back the next day.
Trust may have been broken at this point, but hope was not lost.
Ben didn’t want to let him go and stay with his friend, but adults make their own decisions. All Ben and the team could do was hope and pray. Hope and pray that he would come back.
Pray that he would make the right decisions. Pray that God would keep him safe.
Ben continued his work that night on the streets, constantly wondering how he was, if he was safe, if he would come back.

Now we find ourselves back at Tuesday morning, with Ben coming to the centre and finding him lying there asleep across two kitchen chairs. Having just had one of the worst nights of his life.
But ready to make a decision filled with hope.

The night back on the streets showed him that his only real option was to go into a rehabilitation home. A place where he can be free from the addiction. A freedom that will in turn allow him to live his life and be free to see his dream of becoming a pilot realised.
By Tuesday afternoon he was on his way to the rehabilitation home with Ben and other members of the street team. Filled with emotions, ashamed and deeply saddened. It would take some time for the joy to return to his heart and eyes.
Addiction is a crippling and dark possessor, taking hold of a person with a tight grip. Even when someone’s life if going well and they are happy and have support around them the addiction draws them in, it lies to them. It must be torturous to feel something having such a strong hold on your life and knowing it isn’t healthy or good yet feeling trapped by it.
We trust and know that freedom is attainable and can be reached. And for this young man a future free from addiction and filled with hope and dreams is possible. It is possible, but we are not there yet, and the honesty of this account shows the reality of life. Along with all it’s uncertainty, failures and pain.

Erika

I remember the first time I met Erika. It was one of my first trips onto the streets of Guatemala City with our street team. It was late, and the air was beginning to cool as the sky faded into a dark indigo. We walked down fifth street and there she was, huddled into an almost unidentifiable bundle at the side of the road. She came to life when we approached and gave us all a warm greeting. I knelt to kiss her cheek and I distinctly remember her voice as she said ‘Hello, nice to meet you,’ in slow, uncertain English. I can hear her say it even now in my head. It made my soul smile. I sat down beside her and we shared our names and a little about our lives with my limited Spanish and her slightly confused sate, due to drug abuse. I don’t really know what it was about her, but she drew me in and I felt so much love towards her. Since that first meeting I have met her several times and for a while every time was like the first, for her at least. She didn’t remember or recognise me, that is was years of living on the streets and sniffing solvents has done to her. She is probably in her mid-late thirties, although her lifestyle has aged her somewhat. I’m not sure how long she has been on the streets, but I would guess more than 15 years. I wish I knew more of her story, how she ended up on the streets, why she decided to stay, if she ever wanted to leave, if she knows she is loved. 

Just last week I was able to spend some quality time with her, we visited her during the afternoon and for maybe the first time, she knew who I was. She couldn’t remember my name, but she knew that she had met me before. She always has such a big smile on her face and a very distinct little half laugh that follows most of what she says. She let me sit with her and we were able to chat more. She showed me a few of her possessions including a tiny plastic star and a note book, which she handed to me asking if I would draw for her.

So, I found myself sat there in the street, in ‘la terminal’ Guatemala City, with my friend Erika. Drawing in her notebook as the afternoon began to turn into evening. I drew a house, a girl, flowers, stars, the moon, page after page she turned and requested a new drawing.
It was a beautifully humbling time for me and I am convinced that I was more blessed than Erika.
I know so little of her life and what it must be like for her. What she thinks and feels, what I do know is that Erika has a beautiful heart and a warmth to her that brings joy. I am blessed to know her and am glad to have been able to spend time with her.
‘Time spent with another person is never time wasted!’ Never have truer words been said, building relationships and spending time with others, valuing them and loving them at the same time as being valued and loved is a special gift. To have been allowed into Erika’s life and her world is a gift. So many people walk by her every single day, seeing only a shape on the floor, a buddle of clothes and dirt hiding a person. They walk past and don’t even see her.
But God sees her and so do I, and I am better for it.


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