Day 1: Guatemala City. We awoke this morning to birds and sunshine peeking through clouds. The Vista Real hotel is a lovely sanctuary from the congestion and noise of this city. And we get two nights in a row here – before we start our hopscotch journey through the country.
At breakfast, we meet the rest of our team. Giles and Kelly are from Fayetteville, NC, where he is worship pastor for their church. Jonathan and Georgia are from Michigan – they adopted a child from Guatemala and want to see his native country. Pastor Mark and his crew from First Baptist San Marcos, Texas, are there – including Lolly, Pat, Charles, Terry and Sheila. Courtney Austin (not to be confused with Courtney FROM Austin) is from Alabama. She and Stacey, from Washington, DC, had the longest journey to Guatemala – courtesy of flight delays and mechanical problems. Jean is a nurse from Florida who has done medical missions. Edie and Laura have been on many trips before – but count this one as particularly special.
We meet our in-country staff - Amed, Manuel (guitarist in the band Mosquito Farm), Ana, Roberto, Edwin, Berta, and Estuardo - as well as the young men at the Buckner transition home who will be working with us - Chepe, Oscar, Jorge, Sergio, William. We prepare our bags for the visits to the orphanages – supplies, treats, and of course, shoes. We then meet to review the plans for the week and to get to know everyone just a bit better. We’re reminded of customs and foods and safety. And we’re reminded of our purpose – to make life a little better for orphans and at-risk kids.
We leave the hotel and venture to Eliza Martinez, a boys home. There are more than 35 boys in residence there – many with special needs. The rooms are cramped and hot, and the rain makes for an oppressive atmosphere. But the smiles are everywhere as we walk in. These boys know Buckner, and have been asking all week when we will be there. The time flies by as we talk about God’s unique and personal love for each of them and deliver those shoes. We find Alfredo and his little brother Isaias there - Geoff and Alfredo became good buddies in February. The two boys are from a family of 7 kids - and they are the only two who were relegated to live in an orphanage. They're bright and polite - and they deserve a loving family.
After lunch (Pollo Campero – the official chicken of Guatemala) and a little shopping with my buddy Jorge (from the Buckner transition home), we wind through the streets and back roads to San Gabriel, a former juvenile prison that has been transformed into a boys home. The exterior has been painted sky blue, red, and gray – a good change from the beige that was there in February. But the new paint does little to hide the pain inside the walls. These boys are rough – many have been living on the streets, many have been sexually abused. The “gangs” inside the orphanage mimic the same power and control on the streets. Trying to keep the attention of all but the youngest is difficult. The place needs so much more attention than it receives from the government. Buckner staff works weekly with the boys – but with the transient rate and the dark influences, it’s a rough road. Still, we find moments of laughter and the hugs are plentiful. Carmen and Jenny become instant hits with their cameras, and every boy wants his picture taken with Courtney, the former Auburn cheerleader.
The rain begins to pour as we say our “goodbyes” to the guys at San Gabriel. Courtney, Katie, and I dance in it – we understand what a beautiful picture it can be of God’s grace. OK, so it did make for an uncomfortable ride back to the hotel, but it was worth it. We end the night with dinner and sharing, and then are told the exciting news – we have to be ready with bags packed at 6am for a 5 hour drive to Xela. The fun has just begun.