Sunday, April 3, 2011

Ambition knows no obstacles

While in Honduras I ended up becoming friends with Kevin, the volunteer coordinator, and because of that I had access to a few extra and exciting opportunities not widely accessible to groups who come in.  One of those opportunities was going into San Pedro Sula (the city, second largest in Honduras) with him to look for one of the boys that ran away.  If I haven't already mentioned, Proniño is a program from boys 8-18 that have been living on the streets, been sexually abused, and been doing drugs (usually glue and crack cocaine).  

That day when he took me into the city with him I met a high 8 year old for the first time and it absolutely blew my mind.  As we pursued the runaway boy, we asked every street kid we could find if they had seen Wilmer, the boy we were looking for.  Most hadn't, but we met some kids who used to be in ProNiño that Kevin said have been lost.  That is a nicer but depressing way of saying they made a decision to return to the streets, and because they are older there is nothing we can do to help them.  Most of them will continue to do drugs and live on the street for the rest of their lives.  

Many are in gangs, most were probably sexually abused (so now they are likely the abusers), and they are generally just pathetic people barely living any kind of life.  We met many people while wandering the streets, I spoke with gang members and children, and even an older homeless man with a teardrop tattoo under his eye (a symbol awarded to gang members who have murdered someone).  In Honduras only those in gangs have tattoos, although there is starting to be a cultural shift where no one really gets tattoos. 

Anyway, there was one kid I met on the street however that absolutely owns my heart.  His name is Fernando and he is 14 but is small and hasn't hit puberty.  He is gorgeous, and is a prime target for sexual abuse, prostitution and trafficking.  Despite the fact that Honduras is a country that is terribly homophobic, that quality also leads to a huge amount of homosexual abuse and rape.  It also means that HIV/AIDS is an enormous problem, especially since there is a very limited amount of sex education.  The reality about this boy who I spent hours speaking to, is that he is likely going to be such a target that he will probably get AIDS and die before he reaches the legal US drinking age, the age of me and all of my friends here in the states.  That realization made me incredibly sad, but fueled my desire to try and get him to come into the center.  The thing with kids on the street is that if you take them by force into the program they are way more likely to run away right away.  With the street outreach work its crucial to have them come in by their own free will the first time.  Fernando sounded like he really wanted to come in, but said that his sister would beat the shit out of him if he did.  And if we drove him home and asked her for him, she'd say no and then beat him.  His mom is working illegally in the states and sending money home to the sister.  Another problem down there is that often times when parents go north to try and find work in Mexico or the United States they often leave their children with their relatives and send money back to take care of the kids.  The relatives often don't have much desire to watch out for the kid, so they keep the money and let the kids end up on the streets.  If the kid goes to a center though, and the parents in the States find out, they will stop sending money to the relatives.  This means that while the relatives don't have the desire to take care of the kids, they have an interest in keeping them out of the centers that would ultimately save the kids' lives.  I gave Kevin $20 as a down-payment for convincing him to come into the program.  I hope he can follow through.

Franklin at Proniño
 Though Fernando didn't come with us, later in the day we saw two boys running away (a red flag, if they see Kevin's truck and run they are definitely previous Proniño kids trying not to be found).  We chased them and because they were 9 and 11 we caught them pretty easily.  It was exciting/happy/sad to have these two kids in Proniño custody, and definitely strange to watch them come down off their highs.  The older brother, Franklin was previously in Proniño, and we brought the younger brother David in so that we wouldn't be leaving him on the street alone.  Both boys are back and settled into Proniño though, and I'm excited to see them again this summer.  I gave Franklin, the older, a bracelet and a letter on my last day, and pulled him aside to tell him how proud I was of the progress he had made over those few days, and how excited I am to see how far he has come this summer.  There is no guarantee that the professors in Proniño will get through to him, but he is being given a shot at saving his life. 

David, Franklin's 9 year old brother
Its a sad truth that abuse has become so okay for these people.  The machista culture in Honduras has created a society that does not value the women.  Somehow though, the entire family structure has been so severely effected by the widespread poverty though, that the country has fallen apart.  No child should be forced to make a living on the street, and rape shouldn't be a fact of life.  The disparity in Honduras is so great that there is barely a middle class.  Honduras is young country in that 50% of its population is under 19 years old and 40% of children in the country are living on the streets.  Honduras is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, only behind Haiti.  

Eduardo, Me, Juan Carlos 2011

The next story is about Juan Carlos, the boy on the right in this photo.  He is currently 15 and will probably always have a special place in my heart.  He is an incredible person and despite all he has been through he is so together.  He is the boy I was closest to during my first visit, and he told me later that even though I said I would, he didn't think I was ever going to come back.  He has been in ProNiño for about four years now, but before that he lived on the streets for over a year.  If you do the math that means he was about 10 when he left for the streets.  One day last week he and I just sat down and talked for over two hours about life and love and everything in between, and we were able to just talk candidly about our lives.  He ended up on the streets because his Dad used to beat the shit out of his mom, and finally she had enough and left (Go Mom!).  I'm not sure but she may have also been seeing someone else.  Juan Carlos chose to stay with his Dad, because at the time both parents were beating him and he didn't really care about much.  He wasn't in school, and home life sucked.  Life on the street was cool and exciting at first, but quickly the drug culture drew him in and he started to become a hardened kid who will lie cheat and steal to get whatever they want or need.  Juan Carlos huffed glue and smoked crack cocaine regularly, but he also tried other drugs and drank alcohol whenever he had access.  He slept on a cardboard box for over a year.  

Juan Carlos, Me, Eduardo 2009
My heart breaks when I think about what he has been through, but how special he is as well.  He's a survivor.  We spent a lot of time talking about his future, what he hopes to accomplish and his general outlook on life.  I asked him about when he wants to  get married/have kids etc (like I mentioned before there is a lack of sex education: in Honduras you have a baby when God gives you a baby), and his answer made me so happy.  He plans to complete the program (when he's 18) and then get a job and save his money so he will be able to afford a casita (small house).  Only then will he think about marriage and kids.  I asked him if he planned to save a lot of money so that his kids could go to school, and he looked at me very seriously and said, "My kids will NEVER have to live on the street and go through what I went through.  I'd die before I let that happen.  But on the same note I plan to share with them what their father went through in the hopes of letting them know the reality of how things can be."  What a freaking rockstar.  At one point I also said to him a bit incredulously, "Dude, how come your country is so screwed up?  No 10 year old should have to live on the streets and do drugs.  That's not life."  He looked at me with his big brown eyes, full of wisdom, took a deep breath and said, "Education.  I'm the first in my family to learn how to read and write, and I will be the first to complete the sixth grade" (the grade he's completing this year).  I bet that if you asked the 15 year olds around the United States why so many systems are failing both here and around the world, very few of them would so easily come to the same brilliant conclusion.  At just 15 Juan Carlos knows that the failing education system in his country hugely contributes to the perpetuation of poverty in his country.  WOW. 

 My heart swells every time I think about him and what a bright future he has.  It kills me that his family is so screwed up, and that his two little sisters are both also in centers.  Last week while I was there though he was lucky enough to be able to visit the littlest one in her new home.  It amazes me that he is so family oriented and has such respect for his sisters despite how screwed up his family is and how machista his culture is.  Sadly though, his 9 year old little brother is still at home, and is headed towards the streets. He recently found out that the little brother started huffing glue and that he is lacking any respect for their mother (coming home from the streets whenever he feels like it, won't go to school, etc).  Juan Carlos misses his mother, sisters, and brothers terribly, but knows that he is where he needs to be and that he has a future.  I have been begging Kevin to go get the brother and bring him to Proniño, we'll see if its possible and if it happens. 

The next story is, among other things, the inspiration for my return.  Manuel is 14 years old and has been in Proniño for about seven years.  He can be a bit of a troublemaker but lets be serious, he's a 14 year old boy.  He came to Proniño with his four brothers (he's second youngest) when both his parents were murdered.  The boys went straight to the foundation because the parents used to work for the people who founded the organization.  Fast forward:  the day that we are scouring the streets for Wilmer we have three of the boys from the foundation in the back of the car, Manuel, Geovanni, and Rodolfo.  I'm in the front seat and Manuel is sitting behind me.  We see a boy from far away that is clearly a street kid (you can tell based on how dirty their clothes are, whether or not they are wearing shoes, and the size of their feet).  This kid's feet were black, eyes were red, and he even had glue stuck in the back of his hair.  He was young, dirty and high as a kite.  We started talking to him about who he is and where he's from, and as is fairly normal, the boy lied and said he goes home every night.   Street kids know better than to share that they live on the street with strangers because getting taken to the infamous government lock-up center means that they will not have any chance of escape.  Anyway, Kevin and I talked to this boy a bit, but then Manuel rolls down his window and starts talking to him.  (Side note: the goal of these talks is trying to convince the kids to come willingly to Proniño and make their own choice at saving their lives.)  Anyway, as Manuel starts talking to this kid, and he says this one thing that absolutely blew my mind coming from a 14 year old:  "When you are living in here in the streets, you are living like a dog, you get treated like a dog.  Look at me, I dress well, I eat everyday, I'm clean, and I go to school and play soccer daily.  If you come to Proniño you won't get treated like a dog, you'll get treated like someone of the same species, a human."  I mean I know these kids have seen more of life than me, but for them to be able to comprehend their experiences and the experiences of those they encounter in a way that constructively and positively influences the life of those around them is just incredible.  Imagine what they will all be able to do with access to a quality education.  There are no words for the feeling of amazement I feel for these kids on a regular basis, both when I'm there and when I'm back in the States.

Okay anyway, let's fast forward again.  A few days later Manuel asks to use my camera.  I'm hesitant because y'all know how I feel about my camera, its my livlihood.  I tell him I'm willing to let him use it if he lets me teach him how to use it and I get to stay close by at all times.  We walked around for about two hours while he snapped about 400 photos.  He is mostly interested in wildlife, but has an eye for people too.  He is open and receptive to new ideas and perspectives, and without any true knowledge about photography he is already taking photos that make you catch your breath.  He is the inspiration for what I want to do what I go back.  The idea occurred to me that day when he was photographing, so I ran it by him and asked if he would be interested.  I told him I want to come back and teach photography courses, and he immediately got really excited.  The idea of him having his own camera to practice with, to explore the world with, and to tell stories with gives me butterflies in my stomach.  I want to give these kids a new way to express themselves and their ideas.  It would not only be therapeutic, but will also help to raise awareness about the problems facing the youth population in Honduras and what Proniño does to fix it.  The culmination of the project/course would be to take those who are from the surrounding cities and towns to their old homes and tell a story about where they came from.  Ideally I'd like to be able to have access and put on a show in a gallery, make books about each kid that sponsors could buy but that would also act as portfolios for those kids who may want to go to school or find a job as a photographer. If any of these kids want to pursue photography I will do anything in my power to help them find jobs and develop their skills.  Here are some of Manuel's photos (unedited in any way):

Art is, after all, a luxury, and it's a luxury that I have been lucky enough to be exposed to and pursue on a regular basis.  If sharing my passion with them helps even just a few of them find their own passion I think it will be a success and be worth it.  Right now the plan is to return for 3 or 3.5 weeks this summer, and I'm in the process of applying for approval to do an internship with the same organization next fall.  If approved, my friend and I will return in the fall for approximately six weeks for an internship and we would be the first in the Human Services department to ever do the required internship in a different country.  There are a lot of things on my mind at this point, including trying to grapple with ways to end global poverty, but every little bit until I find the magical solution will help.  

Right now I'm reading a book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and it explains the circumstances for success of many of the most successful people to have lived.  It spends a lot of time talking about how crucial your upbringing is for future success.  I think I was lucky enough to have access to the resources that taught me how to think critically (I'm not the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates), but now I'm fighting with the ideas in my head about how to create this recipe for success for my favorite 80 boys down in Honduras.  What program would set them up for the greatest amount of success?  What if those 80 boys never had to experience poverty again in their lives?  What would it take to make that a reality?

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