It is altogether uncommon and odd to find a blog post like this lost in all of the observations about the Dallas Cowboys and other sports items that come out of my mind, but I have no doubt that it is important to get these ideas on paper while they are still fresh and hope that someone, somewhere reads this and does something to perhaps find a bit more meaning to their existence than the next football game or fantasy lineup changes that clutter our minds often enough.
For reasons I still cannot totally articulate, the summer of 2007 put me on a road to where I am on today and likely will remain on for a long, long time. It is because a few friends of mine at my church encouraged me to join them on a short-term missions trip to a foreign land to observe life on the other side. Where affluence is rare and poverty is everywhere. Where kids are marginalized and literally thrown in the trash sometimes. Where survival causes one to dream no further than their next meal or change of clothing.
It has led me to 5 different trips to Guatemala City, Guatemala and several trips that last less than a week but impact lives – both of those being loved and those of us who are attempting to spread the love.
I don’t completely understand why Guatemala City was the chosen destination for my little band of brothers, but it was already in place when I joined. I always thought of exotic locales for trips to spend time with children who are neglected, but life gets in the way and only allows a trip that is conveniently located and not halfway around the globe. Guatemala is a 2 ½ hour flight from Dallas and you can takeoff and land in between meals. It is a spot in Central America that most of us will never even think about, let alone visit, but the profound poverty and need is present and in every direction.
I am currently writing this to you from the airport in Guatemala City on Sunday Morning, December 2, 2012, and want to get this on paper before I forget all of the little faces I have seen in the last 4 days.
We arrived on Wednesday night as a group of 9 men from the US, with most of us being from the DFW area. This is a trip that started in 2005 as an annual men’s trip, and although several of the faces have been to many of the trips, the group of 8-12 always has a few new faces amongst the veterans who are just trying to figure out what they have signed up for.
On Thursday, we got busy in our efforts to revisit many of the places we have been to on past visits, and the main destination is always a compound on the outskirts of town that was once called the San Gabriel Orphanage, but now has expanded to the “City of Children”. This compound has almost 1,000 children who are either orphans or children who have no place to call home because of abandonment or other reasons. They are both boys and girls, with the youngest being babies and the oldest being 18 years old.
It is impossible for me to explain this place to someone who has never seen it, but just imagine a place surrounded by walls 12 feet high, with razor wire atop all of the walls and guard posts on all of the corners, like a prison. The kids are grouped by age and gender in different corners of the compound and are given school and responsibilities as the country attempts to find a way to keep these kids off the streets where prostitution, slavery, and other unimaginable problems can come their way.
While the situation has improved quite a bit since 2005 (lack of clean water is now not nearly the issue that it once was), it is still an amazingly sad place where the adult to kid ratio is very high and the kids seem to deal with many of the issues that inmates of a prison would deal with. Groups and gangs bully the gentle and you don’t have to be present for more than a few moments to witness an altercation and to see conflict and often, blood. Special needs children are mixed in with the general populations and are quite often the targets of ridicule.
What we attempt to do is to spend time with the boys – ages 8-18 and engage them in sports and other activities on Thursday and Friday. They seem to have plenty of free time, but very few balls or equipment with which to play. The balls we did see are raggedy and unusable by our standards, but the boys either use what they have or they don’t play. Over to the side of “the yard” or the field with the garbage, tire tracks, and broken glass that the boys play soccer on, there is an area where other boys are attempting to lift weights – or in this case, tree trunks of various sizes and thickness.
There are clearly different pecking orders in place and leaders who are offered the first choice of that which they desire when there are handouts so that nobody else risking the anger of the alpha males.
We divide the boys into 4 large groups of 25 or so each and then each large group is cut in half for 8 different teams of a dozen. From there, we have 4 areas and play soccer, ultimate Frisbee, kickball, and the last sector is some easily teachable version of American Football. I say that because to explain that game to a bunch of boys who have never seen a second of American Football is an extremely complicated endeavor so save time and headaches, it turns into some variation thereof.
There are 2 of us Americans in each group, and we slowly try to get to know the boys and learn their names. If they offer a back-story detail, we visit with them, but it is not a good idea to pry. Many have shocking stories that include living on the streets all by themselves at an age where it seems impossible (one told us of being thrown to the streets at 8 where he would eat out of the garbage) and there are scars from where he used to cut himself as either a suicide attempt or perhaps a cry for help in a world that doesn’t hear his cries.
We have translators, but many of us have learned enough Spanish to be dangerous over the years, and therefore look forward to these trips where we can butcher their language and apply what we have learned in hopes of breaking down any barriers the best we can. That seems to be done best by speaking directly to the person, if only in very rough terms. They enjoy our visiting and they also enjoy that we can speak some Spanish and we carry on for a few hours in our various groups.
As you play with the boys, it doesn’t take long to see that boys are boys in any culture. There is playing and teasing and goofing around. There is intense competition and the strong desire to win – no matter what the game. They are young men who are of various sizes and ages, but they all share a brotherhood of being in the same place and time and they manage to co-exist well enough in the present tense.
After a nice sweat is found and some games are played over the course of a few hours, we gather them up and talk a bit about ourselves and why we are there in the first place. We are there in some ways simply to assure them that they matter and that the world has not forgotten them. Even if that means the rare missions trip from DFW, we return every year with our time and attention and we have no plans on stopping. Many times, we bring shoes or balls or supplies and we want them to keep working in the compound’s school and learning skills and surviving to become a man who might someday have his own job, his own life, and maybe even a family he can call his own after growing up without one.
At lunch-time, the boys have to return to their routine, so we load up the bus and assure them we will be back the next day. That is a message they are happy to hear, either because they enjoy our presence or they enjoy getting out of school for a few hours – or both.
We eat, attempt to recover from our first physical test, and then drive a short distance to the CTC (City Transformation Center) which is a facility run by Buckner. This is a building that stands in the middle of the suburb where there is all manner of activity around. There are street merchants and various businesses that appear that they have been there for a very long time. This CTC is another outreach program that attempts to help the city break the cycle of poverty by teaching skills, offering computer training and English, and most importantly, it seems, medical aid to those who would receive it no other way. Poverty is a giant issue in Central America and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. There are just very limited employment opportunities and even fewer chances at a higher education to change what has put so many in their spots to begin with.
Our afternoon consists of hanging out with some of the children who are at the center, and we talk about Christmas with them and play a few games. That evolves into another impromptu soccer game on a basketball court in a city park and as per usual, it seems to be a rule that all the gringos must be on one team and they get to face us and bring us down.
There are very little limited skills on our side, but we push each-other to simply compete. This is a rare chance to play a soccer game against real Americans and what we don’t have in skills, we make up for in effort. Saying we are tired is no fun, because they want a game and you can see how much they enjoy it. This game was ranging from junior high kids to grown men, some in soccer clothes and some in jeans. The job for guys my size is to not accidently hurt someone (back to the lack of health care options) and still have a good time. It is amazing how your body can find the energy to do things on these trips that it is normally not able to do. We played and played and finally ended the afternoon by sharing some food and heading back to our headquarters at the hotel by dinner – sore and exhausted.
Friday, we wanted to arrive earlier than scheduled so we could spend time with the very young children back at the City of Children. They range from 2-7 years old, and since almost everyone on the trip was a father, we knew instinctively what to do with the 50 or so kiddos we ran into there. It was horse back rides and laughing and chasing and tickling and whatever we could do to get them all wound up on their morning. So cute and so playful and just a pleasure to be around. The idea of them not having families and loving homes is on our minds as we play with them, as so many were born here and may stay here until they are 18. Crazy to consider and many of them were born here because their mothers are in the high school girl dorms on the other side of campus and perhaps only 13 or 14 years older. Truly, one can ponder how this ever gets changed and how children are parts of families and given a chance at having a dream for themselves of what a life can be outside the walls.
Then, another 2-3 hours with the boys involving more sports and more socializing. Many want to discuss what life is like in the United States and that quickly turns to talk of super heroes (Spider Man and Batman are both popular topics), sports teams, and music. Despite no electronics in their lives of any kind, it seems, they are still pretty aware of our pop culture.
These boys are such good kids who have had to develop survival skills that are unimaginable. They must, or they will be over-run. Nobody is taking care of them aside from the most basic needs. Authority seems to not be a priority, and therefore, some form of mob-rule is the authority as long as they don’t try to escape. I cannot for a second see one of our kids who have no survival skills or instincts put into that situation. What few possessions any kid has are quickly hid and guarded because a stronger kid in the blink of an eye will take them away. One of my boys was wearing his issued sweats to play sports with us and I could see that he had a pair of jeans wrapped around his waist underneath his sweats. He clearly wasn’t going to leave his jeans back in the room or he wouldn’t see them again.
We met a girl who had just arrived at this compound who was 14 years old. She had been with a foster family for 6 years, but the family, who was from Canada, had their travel visas expire. When they expired, they had to return to Canada and they couldn’t not bring their girl back with them because she was a Guatemalan and ineligible international travel. So, when they left, she was sent to the city of children. As she told a few of us her story, she was visibly terrified at all of the mean girls who were treating her poorly in the few weeks since she arrived. From loving home to what amounts to a dog-eat-dog environment has shaken her to crying to sleep and hope that nobody wants to take her stuff or hit her. It was amazingly sad and still makes me tear up.
Friday afternoon, we went out to another area outreach center and ran a program for kids for a few hours, which included crafts, songs, games, candy, stickers, and just good times. The kids there were not orphans, but they were kids that lived with families that survive in the most extreme levels of poverty where anything more than meals and a roof are a luxury. Knowing how our daughters love stickers, we were thrilled to give these little girls full sheets of stickers and just see them get so excited. We surely gave them too much sugar, but it was great to see them smile so much. My hands were sore from cutting out shapes from construction paper, but it was a lot of fun to see so many kids who were just excited that there little village had an organized time dedicated to them.
Again, what are we doing with these kids? Just showing them that someone cares about them and sharing God’s love. What does that mean? It could be something as simple as singing kids songs in Spanish and showing them how badly you dance.
When we would be out at night having a dinner or just at our hotel, we would often have Guatemalan citizens come up to us with tears in their eyes and thank us for loving their children and for coming back when we said we would. It makes you wonder how it must feel to live in a society that knows they cannot fix their own problems and rely totally others to care about them and to try to make a dent in the issues that plague them. We are so lucky to be so blessed as a nation. The United States has many problems with those who do not have much, some within a very short distance to all of us, but the extreme poverty of these places makes me wonder if there should be another word to describe the difference in conditions between our poverty and most of the world’s definition of poverty.
Buckner is the organization I travel with and they are headquartered in Dallas. They are fantastic people with great hearts for caring for God’s children, regardless of borders. They have put shoes on countless feet and continue to look for ways to try to fix what ails our planet. Their numbers show 140 million orphans worldwide and if that number doesn’t blow your mind and make you sad, then I don’t know what would.
One thing Buckner has done is set up transition homes for boys and girls who are of high school ages (14-18). These homes get as many kids as possible from the orphanages, which are interested in a better life and conforming to rules and regulations in their lives. If they can conform, then they can live in a home and further develop skills to prepare them for college even. They live with a host family and are some great stories of recovered lives and fantastic potential to rise from the humblest of beginnings and make a real difference moving forward.
And those boys were our focus on Saturday, where we went and picked up those boys, about a dozen in all, and went out for a day of fun. We had a chance to play paintball (amazing experience, even if I did take a paint ball off my forehead that left an impressive mark and a massive headache) and go karts in the morning. Then, after a little lunch, we had another long afternoon of soccer at an area court. After that, again, we spend time and talk and let them know that we care how they are doing and what their hopes and dreams are for the future.
Each story of these boys is unique and shocking. But, now, many years later, they appear to have a chance to perhaps be a man who holds employment, gets married, and has kids of his own who live in a loving home.
Words cannot express the soreness of our 9 “old men” bodies as our trip ended last night. But, we will recover from that soreness in a few days, I am sure.
But, what will stay with us much longer is the memory of yet another amazing weekend in a far-away land and sharing moments with hundreds of different kids in several different venues.
It is hard to remember that I have only been doing this for about 6 years. During that time, I have my eyes opened to a life outside of my own, a desire to do something to try to help, a journey with my family to adopt in Honduras, and now a return back to those kids who are left behind by humanity.
My message to you and my reason to write this down is simple; help us do something. I am not asking you to necessarily change your personal beliefs or go on a trip to a country you cannot even find on the globe, but something I have said before remains true: If you want to change a life, send money. If you want to change your life, go on one of these trips. It will absolutely make you laugh at the so-called inconveniences in our life, like a traffic delay or WIFI being out at the house.
These kids are all over the world in every direction. It is our calling in life to take care of those who are not as fortunate as we are and to do something about it if we can. That might mean a contribution or a few hours of your time in downtown Dallas feeding those who are hungry. Or, it could mean boarding a plane for a few days to see with your own eyes what is out there.
I am asked all of the time why someone should go to a different country for a mission or even for an adoption (I would never tell anyone to adopt. It should not be an impulse decision and it is certainly not for everyone). And my thoughts are that you should do whatever, wherever your heart tells you. For me, well, my answer is that the God I believe in doesn’t care about our man-made borders that some leader drew on a map. Every human is beautifully and wonderfully made and worthy of our love. Horrible things happen every day on this planet and if we can attempt to make sure wonderful things happen, too, then I think we will start making a bigger difference. Saving a kid’s life is worthy of doing regardless of what border that child lives inside.
If you have made it this far (3,500 words later) I want to thank you for reading this and for your attention on a topic that really matters to me. It required me to take just 2 days off of work and to spend about $1500 in expenses to pay for this trip to go (since I am often asked how much this sort of thing costs). But, the way it changes your thinking about how life should be is a priceless experience. Further, you meet people who will remain in your life forever and you will experience a culture in a way that is not about tourism – it is about reality.
Think about your kids and your life. Think about our countries riches and pursuit of materialism. Think about how much we discard and toss away that could be treasured by others. Think about how blessed we are and how we owe it to the world to pay it forward. And think about how that world may be within walking distance of where you are right now.
Trips like this one have changed my life – I have always believed in God, but I never did anything about it that would try to touch the lives of others. Now, I feel it is something I must do. This is part of the reason I have been so blessed, to use this venue (radio and internet) on rare occasions to tell others about the kids that are out there today starving and being ignored or abused. To tell their stories and to show my pictures in hopes of inspiring even just one reader or listener to do something, too.
You can do it. It is just a few days (or a few hours). You will be happy you did. It will change the life of others and maybe, it will change you, too.