I have just arrived home after a normal Wednesday night working in prevention on the streets. Prevention work is one of my favourite activities and I usually leave feeling uplifted and joyful. However, tonight was different, and I want to share with you why.
The prevention team and I got ready at the centre as normal, preparing the games and colouring activity. Tonight we were celebrating ‘the day of the child,’ so we had a giant Micky Mouse piñata with us too. We gathered together by the door and spent some time in prayer before walking to ‘la quinta’ the street in ‘la terminal’ where we host our activity. As we walked I was amused to think what people must be wondering as they saw us, a group of adults wearing matching T-shirts carrying a massive piñata, not to mention some of them pale faced Brits.
We walked through ‘La Terminal,’ passing the brothels and the bars. The stench of urine worse than usual, due to the humid air. Prostitutes stood in the street, men urinated wherever they wanted, unattended children everywhere, people sleeping in the street and the general hum of people busying themselves. I often forget that this isn’t ‘normal’ for most people, yet as it has become part of my life here, it is part of my new kind of ‘normal.’
As we approached our destination, a particular street corner marking the side street we use for our activities, some of the children spotted us and ran. I bent down, opening my arms and readied myself for the impact of an excited embrace. I scooped the little boy, who had chosen me as his target, up into my arms and lifted him in the air. We hugged, and I asked him how he was. I carried him in my arms the rest of the way. You can already see why this is one of my favourite activities. I love being with these children, they lack the love and attention that so many of us take for granted and to be able to spend even a short time with them is such a huge blessing. They crave hugs and cuddles, to be held and carried. They are still young and in need of physical affection, as we all are.
Within minutes there were 10+ children with us and the festivities began. Colouring, face painting and skipping. As the first 20 minutes passed more and more children arrived and we continued to play and chat. The draw of the piñata meant we had more children than usual with us along with parents. A giant piñata would definitely get my attention too. We have recently had around 50 children but tonight there was at least 60 with us.
Among the children we work with on the streets there is always a group of children from our centre with us too. They live nearby and come to play, with some of the bigger ones helping us. Tonight, some of our older girls were helping us with crowd control, which we really needed especially when it was time to hit the piñata. In a semi organised fashion, smallest to biggest the children took turns to have five hits. Watching the little ones try and hit the piñata was very sweet. About half way through the group the piñata split open, spilling sweets everywhere and mayhem ensued. Thankfully we had plenty to go around and manged to hand out sweets to all the children and some parents too. Even a few passers by got some sweets to take away.
After the sweets it was time for a quick snack and drink before we finished. We would usually have a song and short Bible story but tonight we focused on celebrations for ‘The day of the child.’
It was now after 7 and getting dark and a lot of the children are under 5, so we sent them to their homes, giving out hugs as they went. As many of them left we stayed to chat to a few of the parents and the older children from our centre.
I noticed some of children from our centre hanging around with a slightly older boy on his bike. He was clearly the ‘leader’ of their conversation. I have seen him before, he often hangs around during our activities on the streets. He makes me nervous. He is a bit too old to be hanging around. I noticed one of the young boys who holds a special place in my heart (I know I shouldn’t have favourites) with this older boy and contemplated intervening. They looked like they were getting ready to go off somewhere together and I didn’t want him to go with them. I wanted them all to go to their homes, hoping that was their safest option yet knowing for some it may not be.
I sat conflicted, should I intervene or not, I didn’t want to overstep after all I am not his mother. In the centre he listens to me, he respects me, he loves me, but here it could be different. Now we were on the streets, where the rules are different.
I asked his mentor to have a quiet word with him. A better option than me talking with him. His mentor found out that he had been locked out of his house until 9pm because his mum was out working and had the key. His mum is a prostitute. So, he had no choice but to be out until she got home and in turn I had no choice but to let him be. This is the life he is used to, it isn’t strange to him.
Watching him walk away, in his adorable little shorts with his tucked in polo shirt, a 9-year-old boy left to play in the streets till 9pm, my heart broke. It ached inside my chest, heavy and burdened. This little boy is one of many whom I have come to love deeply, and I don’t think it will ever be easy to watch something like this. I don’t want it to be easy, the pain makes it real it challenges me. It drives me to do more to bring change. To strive for a better life for them.
My evening of fun and games, playing with children in the streets had suddenly been hit by the reality of the situation. The whole reason why we do what we do. I was reminded why I am here, why I do this kind of work, why it matters. And I was reminded once more what it costs.