Sunday, September 27, 2009

Orphanages (Part 3)

The Girl would spend the next five years at her new "home". Initially things went quite well, and it seemed that she finally had found a place that "fit her." She began to progress rapidly through school, graduating sixth grade, then electing to continue to pursue the Honduran equivalent of junior college (grades seven through nine). Like most of the older children, she was given various positions of responsibility at the orphanage--sometimes in one of the kitchens; sometimes supervising younger children in the yard (playground); sometimes in the laundry. She seemed happy and hopeful. The only complaint I ever heard from her is one I hear from most of the older children: "I'm bored." Eventually, like most teenagers, she began to yearn for freedom. In her case, freedom from the monotony of an institutionalized existence. And please understand, even for all the good they do--saving children like the Girl from poverty, crime, abuse, and misery--most orphanages are institutions. They simply cannot handle the sheer magnitude of the numbers of children they care for with the workers (most volunteers) they have. I first noticed the Girl's restlessness one day when I looked in her Spanish Bible. Written inside the cover, in perfect English: "one day I want to fly away."

I guess my wife and I visited the orphanage about three times a year on average during this period of the Girl's life. We began to explore ways to help her. She seemed to pick up English words quickly whenever we visited, so we brought her some language training cd's and and a Sony Discman so she could study at night. We were delighted on our next visit a few months later to find that she had learned remarkably well. We could actually have basic conversations in English (my delight was equally matched by her frustration that my attempts to learn Spanish were not progressing nearly as well). We began to see that this ability with English might be her "ticket"--so we continued to encourage her at every opportunity. As time went by, I became a convinced that she might just "make it". That is, she might have an opportunity to become an educated woman with a chance for a better life than the one she had come from.

The question was "how?" This is the question that many young women face in Honduras. It is the hole in the safety net of the orphanage "system". The day eventually comes when the child grows up and is ready to leave to begin an adult life. Since they have been cared for by the orphanages for most of their childhood (in a regimented, controlled environment), they have little idea of how to function in the "real world." Worse yet, they have no support structure to begin their reintegration into society. This is analogous to a parent raising a child here in the U.S. until the day she walks off the stage with her high school diploma, handing her a suitcase, and saying "goodbye and good luck". And unfortunately, the results are predictable. Statistics indicate that about seventy percent of Honduran girls are pregnant within six months of leaving orphanages. Thus the cycle of poverty continues and the orphanages are not in any danger of going out of business.

We were determined that this would not be the case for the Girl. She had dreams--to become a teacher, or perhaps a missionary. We wanted to help. We researched Honduran colleges, scoured the Internet for information, talked to people. But the conclusion we reached was always the same: she has no reliable family, no where to live, no way to survive without "in country" help. And so we made a decision--and a request. It seemed like a small thing at the time, but I believe it was a turning point in the Girl's story.

Next post: Transitions

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Orphanages (Part 2)

And so at age 15 the Girl arrived at the large private orphanage in central Honduras. She would later tell me that she finally felt she was at a place that "fit her."

It was there that I first met her back in 2003. Though I had stopped by the orphanage for a quick tour the previous year, this was my first "official" visit to this orphanage, a week long stay with a group comprised mostly of kids from Auburn University. I didn't know this at the time, but the Girl had arrived there herself only a few weeks earlier.

If you've never visited an orphanage, here is something you need to understand: most have "sponsorship" or patronage systems in place. This is how they raise a substantial portion of the funds required to feed, clothe, and house the kids in their care. For the sponsor, this becomes a way to "feel good" by making a small monthly contribution towards the welfare of a child. For the kids, many of whom come from the same poverty and circumstances similar to the Girl's, this sponsorship becomes a matter of utmost importance. A sponsor is a symbol of hope. A connection to the world outside the gate. And truthfully, someone who will likely send you birthday and Christmas presents, as well as buying you things when they visit. Some of the kids who are friendly and good-looking become quite proficient in the process and obtain multiple sponsors (and to this I say, "Good for them"). This is the orphanage culture among the kids.

I arrived in 2003 with determination to become a sponsor. I had mental picture of "the chosen one" before I even arrived. She would be young (five or six years old), pretty, and smile a lot. A daughter to a dad who had two boys at home. I had a yearning to spoil some little girl absolutely and completely rotten. I'd done "snips and snails and puppy dog's tails" and was ready for "sugar and spice and everything nice." And so I took every opportunity I had that week with the kids to look for the chosen one. The only problem was that everywhere I went, there was a smiling fifteen year old at my side (the Girl). She knew almost no English ("what is your name" sounded like "what is jew name?"). She shadowed me the whole week, always smiling. The day I left, I learned she knew a little more English : "I have no esponsor."

And thus began my family's relationship with the Girl. My wife would later jokingly say that the Girl knew how to spot a sucker. Maybe that's true, but it has never mattered much to me.

Next post: Orphanages (Part 3)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Orphanges (Part 1)

And so the Girl and her brother were taken from the streets of San Pedro Sula and placed in one of the many state-run orphanages in Honduras. Now I will admit I've never been to one of these "homes", but I have friends in country who have, and from their descriptions, they are only one notch above being on the street. There are numerous stories of rape, abuse, and other crimes against children. The Girl diplomatically described this institution as "a place for children who don't have much discipline", and reflected that she and her brother spent most of their time "getting hit". After a few weeks in this paradise, they planned and executed their escape.

Further street-wandering followed. Eventually the Girl located a friend of her mother. This lady agreed to take them in, as long as they did whatever she said (e.g. "worked") without question or argument. The Girl thought some about this offer and decided that, although the terms were not great, they had to be better-off than they were when begging in the streets. She worked very hard for the lady, and for a while they had food to eat and a roof over their heads. But bad luck follows some people like thunder follows lightning, and pretty soon it found them again. The little brother suddenly became sick with asthma and almost died. The Girl also got sick shortly thereafter. The lady they were staying with suddenly decided that maybe they should find other accommodations. She assisted their search by calling in the authorities.

Since the Girl and her brother had already proven ability to flee the state-run system, the government placed them in a private orphanage. The Girl recalls that they were treated very well there. They went to school, were cared for, and finally began to feel that they had found a "place" in which to live and grow up. But this too was short-lived. As she reached the age of ten, she and her brother were sent to different orphanages. The last family ties they clung to were severed, and they would not see each other again for the next eight years.

The Girl was transferred around to various orphanages over the course of the next six years. Always there was worry and concern for her younger brother, and always thoughts of her mother. She managed to continue her education, and life at the private orphanages wasn't always bad. She has especially fond memories of some time spent at a Catholic orphanage. She recalls that the Sisters were pretty strict on her behavior and at school, but were also kind and genuinely caring. There is even a laugh as she describes the nuns on a swimming trip (I never thought of nuns as swimming either). Finally at age 16 she was taken to a large private orphanage in central Honduras. It was there I met her in 2003.

Next post: Orphanages, Part 2

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A "typical" childhood

In 1988, the Girl was born into this little country of natural beauty and abject poverty, the seventh child to a mom not yet thirty years old. Another brother would follow two years later.

She cannot remember much about her very early years. Her memories are only of her mother and the younger brother. She does remember wondering why she had no father. The mom initially told her she "didn't have one", but even a young child eventually figures out that can't be so--especially in a country where poverty forces families into tight quarters. Sex education in such places is taught not in schools but across the room. Later she would be told that her dad "didn't want her." She believes it would have been better to think she never had one.

She also remembers the struggles. The mom would work for a while and they would have money for food and the basics. But the jobs and the money never lasted long, because mom also had a taste for alcohol and drugs. Men would come into and out of their lives on a regular basis. She remembers one sister being born--only to die in her arms of some unknown sickness (she still feels sadness about this). Eventually the Girl and the brother were dropped off at a grandmother's and mom went to jail. All of this occurred before she reached six years of age.

Shortly after her seventh birthday, the Girl remembers her mother returning to retrieve her and the brother. They were off to make a fresh start. The three of them moved to San Pedro Sula, where mom got a new job and they were a family once again. For a while things went really well. They had money and each other, and her hopes began to grow with each passing day. But the odds for success are slim for addicts, and pretty soon mom's wages began to disappear one sip at a time. The Girl and her brother were forced to look to the streets for survival.

The Girl will not tell me too much about the streets. I am pretty sure that some things happened there that are too painful to recall. How good can life be for a ten year old girl and her seven year old brother on the streets of a city in which an unarmed man would fear to walk at night? She will say that they mostly begged. When they were successful, they ate; when they weren't, they didn't. This went on until the Honduran authorities finally picked them up.

Next post: the orphanage phase.

Friday, September 11, 2009


To begin to understand the story of the Girl, you must know a little about the setting in which it all takes place. Honduras is a country of beautiful landscapes. A place of unending mountains, with narrow valleys in between the steep green slopes. Strikingly green and lush during the rainy season, a lesser green in the dry times. Trees and shrubs with gorgeous blooms of purple, orange and red. Bright blue sky that can only be seen in places that have little industry to pollute. Small towns scattered throughout the countryside. Some quaint with a sleepy-looking sort of Central American charm. Most look far less than what North American standards would call prosperous: sub-standard housing, narrow trash-littered streets, free-roaming livestock.

There are two major cities: Tegucigalpa (the capital) and San Pedro Sula (the industrial center). Both are typical third world cities--crowded, noisy, full of vehicle traffic and countless people and who have flocked there looking for work. Tegu (as it is typically referred to by the gringo) is particularly mesmerizing--almost too much for the eye to take in. Streets lined with small shops. Street vendors plying their wares. Cast-off vehicles from the North, especially old Blue Bird school buses. Ramshackle houses crammed together on slopes so steep that you have to wonder how a rain drop hits the ground and makes it on down the hill. People everywhere you look, especially children. Like the Pied Piper led them away from Hamlin and dropped them off here.

It was into this landscape, this setting, that the Girl was born.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Story of a Girl

I want to tell you a story. It's a story about a girl I know who lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Lately this story isn't going too well, but then again, it isn't finished yet. Like a lot of stories, mine and yours included, it is still being written every day, one choice and circumstance at a time.

I warn you that it is not a light-hearted, happy tale. But let's face it, it's not a light-hearted happy world we live in sometimes. The princess is not always awakened from the witch's spell by her true Love's kiss. The underdog doesn't always win. The villain is not always exposed and punished.

Some of this story is as predictable as a cheap paperback novel. But it doesn't have to be that way. And that is precisely why I want to tell it.

Next post: Beginnings

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A poem for Wednesday

I make a living from the land. Actually, the past few years I've made a living selling land. Mostly farms and woods, and mostly to people who were looking to "have a place in the country." It is, for the most part, an enjoyable job. And I was fortunate to be able to make quite a few sales. Things were going so well that I quit my original profession (forestry) to devote all my time to real estate.

And then about a year ago the recession hit. Land sales slowed, then virtually stopped. I started looking for forestry jobs until thing "picked back up", but there were none to be found. After several months of no income, I was able to find some contract work marking timber for a friend of mine. Low pay, but I was thankful for it. I wrote a bit of somewhat whiney poetry about my experience:

Timber Marker

I walk this Russell County tract hemmed in:
Lumber baron land to the north,
Old Federal Road on the east,
Paper company clearcut to the south,
U.S. 51 on the west.

Twenty years as a forester.
Master of Science.
Returned and reduced by Obamanomics
to entry-level woods work.
This is my bailout.

I make my mark on this landscape
one tree at a time.
One pull of the paint gun trigger and
a sixty year old loblolly pine
Is sentenced to a short stay on death row.

These woods are a story that only a forester can read.
Current condition--species, size quality
A reflection of timber cutting in previous economies.
Someone's need to pay down a loan or
a grandchild became the first in the family to go to college.

My story will be here for the next thirty years.
Hidden in the trees that I spared
And in the open spaces of those I did not.

As a footnote, I'm happy (and very thankful) to say that I've been rehired as a forester by the company I originally left for full time land sales. I will also continue my attempts to sell land. Hopefully things will get better soon economically for all of us.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Signs and Wonders: Hunting Clubs

Another sign Fall is close: hunting club activity.

I saw this just a few days ago when I made a trip to the local sporting goods store to buy a pair of work boots. The hunters were swarming all over the store, carts loaded with all the latest gadgets--eyes glazed over with visions of glory in the season ahead.

Hunting (especially white tail deer) is big business in Alabama. The annual impact on the economy is measured in millions of dollars for an activity that lasts from November until the end of January in most of the state. Think that's an exaggerated claim? Consider a list of "requirements" for this "hobby", at least some of which must be purchased by a participant:

Big game license: $30
4x4 truck (to get there) $30,000
ATV (to get there when you get there) $10,000
Rifle and accessories $750
Climbing stands $1,000
"gadgets" (items the magazines say you simply must have) $500
Hunting clothes, boots, etc $500
Gas, groceries, supplies $1500
Hunting club membership $750
Seed, fertilizer (wildlife food plots) $250
Butchering/processing meat $100
Taxidermy $350
Misc. (or, "Hey, I need that...") $500
Total $46,230.

Now admittedly, not every hunter will buy all of this every year. But I know quite a few who will buy a good portion of it. Always makes me smile when I hear some guy justify hunting because he likes the taste of venison and "it's cheap meat." By my calculations, an average deer costs over $1500 per pound. I think rib eyes are a little tastier and definitely cheaper.