By Alastair Welford, Nicodemus CEO:
When I first met Jason in 2005, he was only eight years old and spent his days and nights living on the streets in Guatemala City, a city which is particularly dangerous after the sun goes down, with robberies and muggings being commonplace, along with a rife drug and gang culture. He had run away from home in order to escape the abuse that he suffered there.
Jason (far right), on the street where I first encountered him in 2005
Shortly after I first encountered Jason, a charity rescued him from the streets and he was placed in a children’s protection home for several years. They helped to reunite him with his family, who he returned to live with in his late teens. Heartbreakingly, he suffered the same abuse he had run away from all those years before. Circumstances hadn’t changed; he had no other choice but to return to the streets.
Jason (middle), in childcare, six months after being rescued from the streets
He was quickly integrated into a group of street-living youths. Drugs, including solvent sniffing, marijuana and coke together with alcohol, were readily available to a teenager in his circumstances. Gangs use these addictive drugs to ‘capture’ vulnerable young people like Jason and then control his life, effectively replacing his family, leaving a confused young adult unable to take a decision to change his life.
Jason, just after leaving childcare in 2010
He struggled to believe that living from day-to-day, feeding his drugs habit by washing car windows, mugging and running parcels for gangs, could change. He felt trapped. However, despite his hopelessness, Jason knew there was the Nicodemus street rescue crisis support team who cared about him.
They visited him often, attending to his first aid requirements (he frequently needed attention), cutting his hair (dealing with any unwelcome visitors in there) and caring for his feet, washing them and treating inevitable problems from living on the streets. A relationship and trust slowly began to build, along with a significant level of understanding that he had a purpose to his life. For someone who had had such a tough life as a child and teenager, being led into addiction and crime in order to survive, discovering purpose was utterly transformative and life changing.
Incredibly, he has a faith, which remains the one constant thing in his life, also fuelling his personal desire to change and take responsibility for what comes next.
I always ask street-living youths what their future plans are, and whether leaving street life is part of them. Jason’s response was, “I want to change but I can't!"
This is a phrase I have heard from many street-living youths, but “I can’t!” is indicative of a desire to change and is predicated on fear: the fear to stop using drugs, the fear of gang control, or the fear of losing their street family, which for many, replaces their biological family, so the bonds run deep.
Jason, in 2013, with his friend from childcare, back on the streets again
If these fears are quelled, there is hope.
Six months ago, I saw Jason again, and his health had remarkably deteriorated. Worryingly, he was behaving very like his sister, who went to live on the streets with him when he was a child, remaining there until she died from HIV and Hepatitis. His sister is at peace now, and her death made Jason feel that changing his own life was near impossible. When I saw him, he could barely stand up and was leaning backwards in an awkward position (the primary cause for his physical state was substance abuse). When asked about his dreams on this occasion he said, “I have none!”. To be honest, I felt he was heading the same way as his sister, and that this would be the last time I would see him.
Jason was one five young adults living on the streets, who always greeted me like a long-lost friend. All five had been rescued from the streets, been placed in childcare, restored and returned to their families, before returning to the streets once more. Meeting these five young adults in this way went very deep and was one of the reasons we started to support young adults in Guatemala.
One of these five died, one remains street-living and three have left the street, including Jason six weeks ago. These five have personally affected my wife and me greatly – they know the names of our children and always ask after them when we see them. They welcome us every time we visit and have never asked us for anything. They have always demonstrated a respect and care to us (the same as we experience from young people in our work in the UK). We have frequently spoken with these five young people about how their lives could change and their dreams for their future, but wherever addiction is involved, it needs the individual to decide to change.
We returned to Guatemala this month and Jason’s condition had deteriorated even further.
However, with the little strength he had, he took the decision to make a change and leave street life. He now lives with his Aunt and is supported by regular visits from the Nicodemus street team.
Jason, with the Nicodemus street team, his Aunt, my wife Debbie and me (Alastair)
He continues to shake from drugs withdrawal and has to eat high energy food to restore his body as much as possible. Without a miracle, he will have physical consequences for the rest of his life. Throughout all of this, his faith remains a personal inspiration to us. The gratitude he has for his God is profound.
Jason and me, after he'd moved into his Aunt's house
He is doing as well as can be hoped for and is resisting the pull of drugs. I asked him once more about his dreams for the future, and through tears he said,
“That is difficult for me as I never imagined I would be not taking drugs. I need to get healthy and then study.”
He is aware that he has a long way to go but this is very positive. A degree of shaking could be with him for up to a year, but he remains committed. He also understands that persevering now, means survival with the support of others.
Jason, in his Aunt's home, after his decision to leave the streets
We hope and pray that one day he will have the support of our Nicodemus Youth Mentoring Programme offering mentoring, education and further transition support to him, once he is sufficiently stabilised. For now, he is ‘one more off the street’ and is doing his very best to accept help and make progress. Please pray for Jason that he can remain strong in his commitment to leave street life and that his future dreams will be fulfilled – this is a massive step for him.
Jason was one of the young adults whose life God used to inspire us to start Nicodemus. We are thrilled to see how he has progressed since that night in 2012, when he first tapped me on the shoulder. Little does he know, that this one action led to work that now extends to many hundreds of young people in Guatemala, with a wider impact into the thousands through their voluntary work. His action also prompted us to work in the UK, where we support many churches and communities to fund and successfully run their own projects with young adults.