First Anniversary

Today is an anniversary that I wish didn’t exist.  I must write about it because it feels wrong to let this day pass by without reminding everyone that something awful and earth shattering happened a year ago today.  But, it’s snowing in Ohio.  (On March 21st!  What is going on with this weather??) Currently, my ability to pick a snowflake and watch it fall until it hits the sidewalk greatly exceeds my ability to figure out what I want to communicate today.

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On this snowy Friday, I’m remembering Chon, who I loved so much and who was killed a year ago today.

(El Era Guapo.)

This morning has been spent journaling through the day that it happened.  Getting the text, then call from Laura.  Scouring the Teleprogreso website for proof that it had(n’t) happened.  Talking to his brothers and trying to figure out how I could get myself on the very next plane to Honduras.  Crying.

The journaling ended with remembering the last time I saw him.  A low security juvenile jail near Teguc.  IHNFA was on strike so I technically wasn’t allowed to visit.  But we had come all that way.  I chatted and cajoled the guard at the gate until he went to talk to the Director who agreed to let him come see us, as long as he didn’t come out and I didn’t go in.  A few minutes later, there he was.  New haircut.  In a dark green polo, the uniform for the workshop he was attending.  Gigantic smile on his face.  He looked so good.  We awkwardly hugged over the gate.  (Turns out it’s really hard to hug someone when you’re simultaneously worried about the rusty and jagged pieces of metal sticking out of said gate.)   The visit was this odd blend of rapid and excited chatter from both of us.  This detention center was a fairly good place.  He was in school.  Learning how to make belts.  He had a side job with cellphones.  (I didn’t ask too many questions about this as I’m sure that it was less than above board.) The Director liked him and was trying to get him out early.  He may even be in Progreso while I was still in the country!  But he still talked vehemently about taking revenge on the boy whose accusations landed him in jail in the first place.  I left him feeling like I always felt after times with Chon.  Thinking about how much I enjoyed and loved this child.  And overcome with feeling like he’s the most stubborn person I know who refuses to loosen his grip on his pride.

But what do I want to communicate to you today?  I know that I want to spare you any more excerpts from today’s journaling as I suspect that this is largely interesting only to me.

Last night I was talking to Lauren about what this day might look like.  She said:

“Take time out to think through the good and the bad and how his life has impacted today and what might happen with the future he created. You can have a mostly normal day.

Just don’t let him be forgotten.”

Right there is my goal in what I’m writing.  It’s not the most profound post I’ve ever written.  (Embarrassingly so.)  But I want to put him before you today.  I want you to remember him and maybe miss him a little as well.  He was a whole mess of good mixed with bad.

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And gosh do I miss him.

So, today is an interactive blog day.  It’s your turn to do a little bit of writing.  I would love to hear stories about him today.  Did you know him?   Please tell me about him either in these comments or by emailing me (jkast@childrenshomeproject.org.)  This is actually a selfish plea as your stories would so make my day.

And together we’ll make sure that Jose Concepcion Murrillo will not be forgotten.

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Yes, but… #2

(In case you missed #1, you should click here.  Otherwise, you’ll be very confused…)

#2

“Before you sign up for a volunteer trip anywhere in the world this summer, consider whether you possess the skill set necessary for that trip to be successful. If yes, awesome. If not, it might be a good idea to reconsider your trip. Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the “white savior” complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches.”

Let me tell you about how I got to Honduras.

As a naive 19 year old from small town Ohio, I went to the Philippines with 35 of my closest friends.  I went because…it was the thing to do. I probably had a crush on someone who was going.  I had never been on a plane.  Someone paid for my trip.  I’m a good Christian and this is what good Christians do.  I was there for some days.  We went door to door in the slums of Manila asking people if they would like a special gift from the Bible.  While on this trip, I decided that this is what I wanted to do with my life.  Upon returning to the States, I was going to quit college and move to the Philippines.  I was a changed person.

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I came home.  Instead of quitting, I switched colleges and then majors.  I graduated.  Joined Americorps.  Moved to Arizona to chase after my boyfriend.

Seven years after my life-changing trip to the Philippines, I seemed like one more middle-class American who went around the world and accomplished nothing.  But you see, that trip did change me.  It changed me in ways that weren’t visible for nearly a decade.  That seed had been planted and it grew. But it wasn’t like bamboo that grows rapidly and visibly.  It was more like a potato.  A slow growing potato hidden from view. Throughout the years, I tried to shake this desire, thinking that I was too immature or selfish to learn how to be content here in the States.  And living in another country seemed so exotic.  When Sean and I got married, I had decided that I needed to give up this dream.  Until Sean suddenly became all kinds of motivated to go serve somewhere.  (Seriously, I’m still so shocked that this happened.)  We moved to Honduras for a year, I met the kids and now, well you know the rest.

But if you had revisited my transformation a few years or a few months after that first trip to the Philippines, you would not have seen much.  We need to stop judging past volunteers based on the little we can see in the months or year after they’ve returned.

IMG_1207I can’t tell you a single person’s name from my Philippines trip.  But the path that trip put me on has brought me to this place where I can name 300 Honduran kids and tell you most of their stories.  Does my lack of connection to the Philippines take away from what the Philippines led to?  Today, I have no impact on the Philippines.  Does this fact make that trip a waste?

(One little story for all of you who will never pack up and move to another country.  There’s a man I know who was angry and mean.  He went to Honduras with his wife.  It opened his eyes to the fact that there is a much bigger world out there, that the things that make him so angry are petty and fairly insignificant.  Over a year later and he has maintained his peacefulness and calm.  He has no plans to live in Honduras and he may not be supporting any organization financially, but how can we even entertain the thought that this trip was a waste for him?  His wife?  His children??)

When you go to another country for a week, it should not be expected that you drop everything and move there.  But you should go with the expectation that something should change.  It could be a shift in perspective.  It could be a shift in career.  It could be a shift in how you spend your money.

YOUR job:

Come to Honduras or Haiti or the Philippines.  Come purposefully with this question in the back of your mind: “What am I supposed to do with this experience?”

To some of you, it will mean quitting jobs and moving to other countries.

To most, it will mean working harder and being more frugal with your money so that you can support those who are working in that country.

To all, it should permanently effect the way we view suffering and entitlement.   (Mainly our own.)

Come and commit to being unselfish for the week.  This trip is not about us.  If you find yourself complaining about the work, the heat, the kids, the fact that the schedule has changed once again, take a step back.   Regroup.

MY job: 

It is very true that lots of international aid has been unproductive at best, detrimental at worst.  This absolutely does need to change.  But we can’t place all the blame on the shoulders of those who serve.  The shoulders of those who recruit for and lead these teams are the ones who should feel that weight.  Those shoulders would be mine.

It is my job to make sure that the work that you will be doing is worthwhile.

It is my job to form open relationships built on trust and mutual goals with the Directors of the homes you will work within so that s/he can communicate when our work is a hinderance instead of a help.

It is my job to find the guts to be honest with you or your team when it is clear that our work or our attitude (the white saviour attitude does creep up at time) is detrimental to the kids.

So please come.  It’s hard to truly understand when you only know the kids through pictures and stories.  Who am I kidding?  It’s hard to truly understand when they’ve been an integral part of your life for four years.  But let’s not scratch this whole culture of  short term service simply because sometimes (often?) it’s not done well.  Instead, let’s ask hard questions and accept hard answers and then make a commitment to do and be better.  I believe it’s worth it.

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Yes, but….

It had been an especially rough day in Honduras.  One in which I had been less than patient and kind with all children who pulled my arms, shirt, purse and hair in twenty-seven directions at the same time.  One in which I had a meeting with the Director of a home that showed just how much more work I have to do to gain her trust and was forced to take a few dozen steps back in order to regroup.  In those low points of days when I haven’t been the very best me, when I haven’t progressed as far down this path of running a non-profit as I think I should, there’s this little voice that creeps in and says “What are you doing here?” Sensing an impending wave of dejectedness, I hustled over to Dunkin Donuts to journal through the events of the day.  But before journaling, I did what all people do when they should be doing something important, but want to avoid this important task.  I checked Facebook.  Just real quick.

And I saw a link to this post.

The Problem with Little White Girls and Boys: Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist.

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Don’t click on it, Jenny.

This is not going to be the uplifting and recentering piece of writing you need right now.

Don’t do it!  Don’tdon’tdon’tdon

Dang it.

I clicked.  I read.  As expected, I felt discouraged.

Please read it.  (2 million people have read this, yep 6 zeros, so you probably already have.)  For those who haven’t, she talks about her trips to various countries and how she’s not going to do it anymore.  That white people going to serve in other countries for a week cause more harm than good.  And then she lists what is done wrong.

The reality is that these articles and these books are so necessary.  They can be discouraging, but they call us to be better.  They call us to look in the dark corners of our actions to find our hidden motives.  They call us to do what is necessary instead of what feels good.  So read this.  And read Toxic Charity or When Helping Hurts or The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.  (I can’t actually speak for the last one.  But it’s currently in my purse waiting to be read…)

I’ve read her post a few times and after each paragraph I say yes, but…

The ‘yes, buts’ are what I want to bring you today.  And next week.  And that’s probably it.  But I reserve the right to revisit this topic for a third week if necessary.

My first ‘yes, but’ comes from this paragraph:

“I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.”

Let’s go back to that afternoon in Dunkin.

I journaled about the day.  I journaled and prayed about what she wrote.  Still feeling slightly dejected, I packed up my stuff and headed to Pisos, where five of the oldest Proniño boys live.  My car door closed and Adonay poked his head out the front door.

“Jenny!  I just started making dinner and was wondering if I should make enough for you as well!”

Some of the hard things from the day rolled off my shoulders.

That day Adonay was a bike messenger.

That day Adonay was a bike messenger.

Upon arrival in the cramped kitchen, I start helping Adonay and Cristian flip tajadas and shred cabbage.  Adonay tells stories from his school day.  Stories about all the ways he’s excelling in class, helping students that don’t understand and receiving public praise from his teachers.  Cristian talks about the car he fixed at his internship.  And as I listen to their happy chatter, I realize something.

I am part of their lives.

We are bonded by something that is good and healthy and encouraging.

Sometimes awkward hugs are the most tender.

Cristian

It has very little to do with the color of our skin or the amount of money or resources I have brought with me.

It has everything to do with time spent getting to know each other.  Time spent laughing, listening, cutting cabbage.

And the fact that I, a white person, am adamant that education is important or that they should be honest with their girlfriends doesn’t minimize their cultural pride or identity when they agree with me.

These boys are growing, maturing and learning and even though I am a gringa in their kitchen, they know that THEY are the ones that have accomplished this.  And they’re proud of it.  Even if it’s a gringa encouraging or funding it, it’s a Honduran accomplishing it.  And these kids are well aware of that fact.

There is no single person, influence or donation that brought these boys to where they’re at today.  It has been a number of Hondurans, North Americans and Dutch(ians?) that have worked together to provide discipline, structure, encouragement, opportunities, food, a place to sleep, too many three liters of Big Cola to count and direction that have brought them to this point.

“Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language.”

Me too.  But.

Should all North Americans and Dutch-ians pull out of their lives because it may skew their idea which skin color = good.  Heck no!  I can reiterate your sense of worth even if your culture is different than mine.  Can we boil this down to relationship over skin color or culture?  If a Honduran child watches TV shows in which all Hondurans are bad, lazy or stupid and all Americans are good, kind and smart they may develop a negative idea of their culture.  If a Honduran child has a strong, positive and encouraging friendship with an American who encourages him to reach his full potential as a human being, I’m pretty sure his cultural identity will remain intact.

“OK, but what about the people that come for just a week?  I think she’s writing more about them.”  Great question! Don’t you worry, that’s next weeks ‘yes, but’.  Stay tuned!

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Mi sobrina

People often talk about how much they dislike it when their worlds collide.  As in they don’t want to hang out with their work friends AND old high school friends at the same time.  Me?  I’ve never understood this. If I love them all, my assumption is that they will also love each other.  And if a person has enriched my life, I’d love for others to have this opportunity as well.

This is why I planned this trip to fall on February 15th.

Why February 15th?

Because of this chica.

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Meet Kate.  She is the smartest and most adorable two year old in the world.  I’m very sorry, but I speak the truth.  And she happens to be my niece.

And where was she on February 15th?

IMG_0646With these guys in Proniño.

AND MY WORLDS COLLIDE!!!

What could be better than having the boys that I love meet Kate??  I may have printed out pictures of some of the kids in the weeks before the trip for her to get used to seeing their faces before she arrived.  It was a slightly overwhelming experience, but just as magical as I had hoped.

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Edgar patiently sat with her and followed her around until she felt comfortable enough to declare to Allison that she’s going to go outside and play with him.  He absolutely ate it up.

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Juan Carlos, who left his friend’s house early specifically to be able to meet Kate on this day, also put in some time to win her over.  All it took was a rousing game of catch with some wiffle balls.

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This must be printed and framed.

Of course, Rodolfo just showed up and Kate was immediately all smiles and ready to play.  What is it about this kid?

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Last year, in the picture above, she took to him in seconds as well.

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He arrived this year and it was the same.

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If anyone needs proof of Rodolfo’s tender nature, here it is.

It didn’t work out as well as I had hoped with all of them.

IMG_0375This one really was more of a collision than than the joining together of those I love that I had hoped for.  Maybe next year, Man??

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Cause and Effect

What happens when you spend more than a decade working out on a regular basis?

You get really buff.

What happens when you own 4 non-fixed cats of mixed gender?

You get lots of kittens.

What happens when you eat a Blow Pop every single morning of your freshman year of high school?

You get thirteen cavities at the same time when you’re in college.

(True story.  Who let me eat a Blow Pop a day???)

Cause and effect.   Experience shows us that with many things in life, we can predict what’s going to happen in the future based on what’s happening today.

So, what happens when a kid lives on the street for more than a decade?

He keeps himself so clean that security guards don’t stop him when he walks into a restaurant,  they have no idea a street kid just passed by.  He takes time to tell the younger kids on the street to take advantage of any opportunity they have to leave.  He saves part of the money he makes washing car windows throughout the week to play a few video games.

Wait just a second, you say.  I thought this was about cause and effect, you say.  How is a kid with more than a decade on the street doing this?

That, my friend, is a good question.  And I have no idea what the answer is.

But I can tell you this:

What happens when a kid has developed a drug addiction on the street, wants to change, has fought hard to have as ‘normal’ a life as possible, but is twenty years old and has no family whatsoever?

He stays on the street.

Unless you have the desire to help him, that is.

Thankfully, an opportunity has been found in a rehab center where all patients pay $150 per month to receive services.  And Miguel seems to be an excellent candidate.  Jilli and Lauren took him for a tour and to meet the Director last week.  After the meeting, the Director gently warned them that street kids are make for difficult cases (ya think?) and that they often leave rather quickly.  But, yes, he has an opportunity.  He entered the center on Thursday.  Jilli talked to the Director on Tuesday and was delighted to hear that the Director was surprised.  He is unlike any other kid from the street that he has known.  He’s working hard, taking this seriously.  And has started teaching all the other patients how to make bracelets.

(This excites me for two reasons.  a) I love that he, a kid from the street, has something to offer those who are also going through this process.  b) Remember how I said that he’s SO SHY?  I can’t believe he’s even spoken to others much less spent the hours with them that it takes to make these intricate bracelets.)

Jilli blogged about Miguel  (and you can read SO MUCH MORE about him) a week ago to raise the funds to cover the remaining amount of rehab.  There’s also a very good chance that he’ll start making some of his snazzy bracelets to be sold to offset the remaining cost.  How would you feel about helping out with what’s left?  Would you be interested in buying a bracelet?  Or would you like to make a one time or monthly donation here towards the remaining $290?  We’re really hoping to turn the tide of cause and effect as soon as possible.

imageMiguel journaling about his goals and what he will do when he feels overwhelmed by all that he’s dealing with.  A journaling teen?  I know, it was difficult for Jilli to explain what this is all about…

 

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Beneath the Surface

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re a teacher.

On January 6th, as the kids begin their first day back from break, you give them their first assignment.  “Let’s all write an essay on what we did over break.”  Pencils clutched awkwardly in fifth grade fists and the scratching begins.  Except for one boy sitting sullenly in his chair.

“Reymundo, please stay on task and start your essay,” you say.

“No.”

“Reymundo, everyone else has started their assignment.  If you don’t start writing you’ll be moved to position two.”

“IF YOU DON’T LEAVE ME ALONE I’M GOING TO GET ONE OF THE SPANISH LORDS TO F-ING KILL YOU!!”**

What is your reaction to this?  Poor teacher. You’re just doing your job.  Kids these days.  No respect.   Bad apple.  So violent.  What a bully.  Sure is awful that you have to teach under these conditions with all these unruly kids.  And you should probably stop working there.  It’s too dangerous.  These kids just don’t value life.  You can’t change em.  Get out while you can.

But wait.

There’s more to this story.

That impertinent child who seems like he’s about to snap?  He spent the entire ‘vacation’ either hiding under his bed, praying that everyone would forget that he existed or getting beaten mercilessly by his mom and step-dad.  Now do you see why he didn’t want to write about his winter break?  His story was not one of sled-riding and gifts from Santa, but fear and tears and pain.  He isn’t developmentally ready to recognize the fact that what happens to him at home is not his fault.  That this is an injustice and that someone could help him.  All he can do is react.  And he reacts in the ways that are most familiar.

Threats.  Violence.

Can we all just agree that no child is born violent?  Cruel? Dangerous?  That these are learned behaviors, and that no child enjoys this learning process?  Can you see that when a child in your class or in your neighborhood or in your after school program does something like this that this is evidence of something greater?  That this most likely has very little to do with you and a whole lot to do with the turmoil and uncertainty that they live in every single moment of every single day?

When a child speaks to you like this, you have two options.

#1  Jump on the bandwagon with all the others who treat him with disdain and prove to him, once again, that he is worth nothing.  That he is unlovable.  That there is something intrinsically wrong with him.  Sit with your coworkers and talk about ‘those kids’ and write them off as evidence of everything that is wrong in this world.

#2  See this as in invitation.  After he serves his detention (he just threatened your life, come on, there are consequences for stuff like that) start spending just a little more time with him.  Pull a seat closer as he’s working on his math.  Complement his shoes.  Ask him to play a game of Uno.  Chat with him about cartoons (because kids who threaten teachers’ lives also watch cartoons…because they.are.kids.)  Find out what he likes and ask about it regularly.  If you are patient and kind the layers WILL come off.  All that scowling and attitude thrown your way?  That’s protection.  That’s evidence of fear and discomfort.  And when you become a safe place, all of this posturing will fall away.

Instead of being the teacher that is threatened after giving an innocent enough assignment, you will become the adult, maybe the only one in this child’s life, with whom he can share the reality of his life.

I beg of you, the next time a child (or adult for that matter) has an extreme response to something that seems trivial to you, look a little deeper.  Chances are very, very good that there is so much more hidden under the surface.

And I double beg you to beat down the fear or anger rising inside you and choose response #2.

That first time you get an honest to goodness smile from him instead of his customary scowl…your heart will sing.

(** The story at the beginning of this post is paraphrased from My Bloody Life by Reymundo Sanchez.  Go buy it.  It’s tough to stomach, but oh so good.)

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The baby that was on the street

Working with kids living in children’s homes can lead to developing a strong prejudice against their parents.  How does one push their child to the streets?  How does one let their child grow up in a place with no parental involvement?  How in the hizzeck does one not visit their child  on the last Sunday of every month when they live in a home?  I once had a conversation with the adult brother of one of the boys about his kids.  He already has one child in a nutrition center and it seems like this will be the child’s home for her entire childhood.  He now has a second child and I sat with him and his girlfriend as he excitedly explained to her that if they can find a home to accept the baby, then she will get an education.  Three points for realizing the importance of education!  Negative four for enthusiastically seeking a spot to drop your child.  (I think it was mainly the enthusiasm that got me.  It’s one thing to look for a better place for your child when one is in a state of desperation.  It’s another to have the attitude that this is just what you do. And isn’t it great?!?)

Seeing that kind of attitude makes me jaded.  I start painting the parents of the kids that I know in broad strokes.  ‘They’ (meaning ALL) don’t care about their kids.  ‘They’ (meaning ALL) expect others to take on the responsibilities that they have decided to shirk.

And this is where my favorite little family comes in.  Remember close to a year ago when I wrote about The Baby on the Street? He had come into this world just a few  months before and was literally living on the street with his parents.  In the evening they would unfold a play pen and set up his ‘room’ in a corner of the building’s sidewalk where they slept.  In the morning they would fold it back up along with all of this clothes and take them to a kind woman who let them store baby things at her house.

The first time I found out that his mom was pregnant, they began telling me all of their plans.  That soon-to-be Dad was going to get a job.  That they were going to get a place to stay.  That their baby was NOT going to live on the street.  I listened to their dreams and encouraged them to make it happen, but in the back of my mind I was formulating plan b.  Living on the street is less than comfortable. If you COULD leave the street, wouldn’t you do it while pregnant?

But everyone always tells me that having a baby is powerful.

Yes, when he was born, he lived on the street.  But seeing their little set up on the sidewalk was astonishing.  One evening I dropped one of the boys off nearby and stopped to say hello.  Mom came to the car to greet me while Dad stayed on a blanket, folding all of the teeny tiny onesies that they had somehow just washed.  I got out to see the baby who was already fast asleep in the play pen.  Snuggled in jammies with a fuzzy blanket.  It was an idyllic scene to see this young family working together to care for their happy and healthy little boy.  But then you lift your eyes a few inches and remember that you’re surrounded by trash.  Their place of rest didn’t have four walls much less locks to protect them.

As the year progressed I saw less of them together.  But every few months, I’d bump into Dad.  To my delight, they were renting a room.  Their situation was still precarious.  They had to pay daily to keep the room.  This means that Dad has to make enough money each day washing windows or selling munchies to pay for their food and the room. It’s less than ideal.

But this squishy little baby…  Oh my goodness.

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I spent a good amount of time with babies on my last trip.  And the experience was less than encouraging.  One two year old has a drastically distended belly.  I tried to non-chalantly glean some information about what and how often she eats.  Three times a day.  Rice, beans, cheese.  Hmm, not the most balanced diet, but shouldn’t lead to that belly.  Parasites perhaps?  And then a three month old who is overly lethargic.  She lacked inquisitiveness, there was no brightness in her eyes.

But then we have this little guy.  He’s now walking, which is troublesome for Mom and Dad.  His little baby brows are always furrowed as heIMG_4766 looks around at the other boys.  I like to think that he’s thinking “Come on kids, leave with Jenny immediately! I believe you can have a different life!!”  Most importantly, he is fully connected with the world around him.  Can say a few words.  Can show you where his ears, nose and eyes are.  And can blow you a kiss, which is very important as a Honduran male. Developmentally, he is right where he’s supposed to be.  HOW???

By no means is he out of the woods. Their situation is still dicey.  What if Dad doesn’t earn enough in a day?  What if Mom and Dad split up?  His future scares me.  Odds are still against him.  But can we just stop for a moment and realize just what his parents have accomplished in the first 16 months of his little life?  They have clawed and scraped and worked so hard to provide everything they could for this little one.  They have had little to offer compared to our expectations, but what they’ve given are the things that really matter.  When it was just the two of them, they remained on the street.  HE is what has made them reach deep inside and find the strength to overcome so much.

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I never thought that a baby on the street could be such a blessing.

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