When I mention to people that we’re expanding our program in Guatemala to include street children, the most common question I get is, “Why are they living on the streets? Did their parents die?” I think recounting the story of one typical child will give you a good picture of their collective stories. I will call this child “Miguel”.

Miguel came from a family with an alcoholic, abusive father, 6 siblings, and a mother that ran away from the abuse, abandoning her children. That is hard for me, as an American mother, to understand, but I’ve heard enough stories to know that a lifetime of abuse – starting in infancy – puts people in survival mode. In America, with all our opportunities and resources, we have the luxury to care about others in ways many people can’t.

The father spent most of his money on alcohol, so his children were often hungry and, of course, suffered greatly due to the physical abuse of the father. One day hunger and fear pushed Miguel, age 9, to run away from home. His first night on the streets of Xela was spent with an older gang of street boys. When he awoke in the morning, the other children were gone, but one boy accidentally left his box of shoe shine equipment behind. Miguel took the box and ran. He spent the whole day learning to shine shoes using his own dilapidated shoes for practice. By the end of the day he felt ready to start his “career” as a lustrador, so he spent his second day on the streets searching for customers. It was a discouraging day, because no one wanted to trust such a young boy. All day long he pleaded but didn’t get a single customer until he approached an old man near evening. The man told Miguel he could shine his shoes, but he would only be paid if he did a good job. Miguel was scared, but he worked diligently, and the old man gave him one quetzal for his efforts (about 13 cents). Miguel was overjoyed and he purchased a piece of bread to eat with his earnings! He was officially in business.

Over the course of the next three weeks people started to trust him, and he got more customers. Things seemed to be looking up, and he felt good, but then he was detained by the police. They wanted to know if he had parents. “Yes,” he said, “I have a father.” The police insisted Miguel take them to the father so they could verify he had a home. He complied, but he requested he stay a bit in the distance because he was afraid of his father. The police went to the house Miguel used to live in, but it was completely empty! Inquiring with the neighbors, the police learned that a couple of weeks earlier a pickup had arrived, and the family loaded themselves and all their belongings in the truck and disappeared.

With no family left, Miguel was put in a government-run home. The adults in charge of the home were often abusive and sometimes wouldn’t give the children food to eat. Worse, all ages were housed together, and older boys at the home frequently abused Miguel sexually. He was still only 9 years old, and children in Guatemala, especially if they come from poor, undernourished homes, are much smaller than their American counterparts. He was no match for gangs of older boys.

Occasionally government workers would visit to inspect the home. On those occasions the children were given new clothes to put on, but the clothes were confiscated after the visits. The children were told they needed to smile a lot during the inspections, and any child that didn’t look sufficiently happy would be punished after the inspectors left. Fear kept the children smiling!

Street kids are amazingly resourceful (the more resourceful a child, the more likely he is to run away from an abusive home in the first place). Miguel was at the home for 6 months, but he continually searched for a way to escape. He noticed a hole in the roof of the main patio, and when no one was looking he tried to climb up to the roof, but he was unable to reach it. He didn’t give up, however, and continued to seek a way. One day he noticed a ladder that had been left on the ground outside. Every day he moved the ladder a little bit closer to the patio – just a little each day so people wouldn’t notice. Finally, one night when it was dark, he used the ladder to climb up through the hole. The home must have been in a slum area, because the buildings were so close, one roof touched the next. He ran over many rooftops until he found a place he could descend and complete his escape. Two days later he encountered Sandra in Xela’s Central Park.

Sandra could tell right away that Miguel was a street child, and he readily agreed to some food when Sandra offered. With a sandwich and warm drink in hand, they returned to the park to a private place where they could talk, and Miguel recounted his story. Sandra explained to him about her program helping street children with food and school, and Miguel was very interested in joining. It looked like we were going to add another child to the program, but then Sandra made a mistake. She took things one step too far by asking if she could take his photo. She wanted to send it to me so I would know about this new child! Suddenly the trust he felt for Sandra turned to fear and the conversation came to an end.

Miguel had told her where he worked every afternoon, so she felt she could reconnect. Sandra’s husband, Carlos, himself a street child from the age of 6, told her she would never see him again. Day after day she returned to Central Park to search for him, but, sadly, Carlos was right. I still dream that, through word of mouth, street child to street child, he will find his way back. Though my heart hurts for Miguel, it doesn’t detract from my excitement over the children who have stories similar to Miguel’s who are still with us. It highlights, however, how difficult it is to work with street children who have a justifiable distrust in nearly everyone. We will gain their trust over time because street children talk to each other and share their survival tactics. Eventually street children all over Xela will come to know that if they want food, some safety, and a chance for an education, there is a place in the Santa Ana neighborhood that will welcome them.