When I hear You call my name
Take me to the edge of the earth
Show me what a life is worth.
~Call My Name, Jars of Clay
I woke up this morning with someone on my mind. It happens most days – an image or images hand-picked by God from the photo albums in my memories, ready for me to carry and share like a glowing new grandparent.
Today, the image is Alfredo. His smile melts my heart.
I first met Alfredo three years ago at San Gabriel. My friend Geoff noticed the smile, and we sat to talk to the then 13-year old who would rather be near the mission team from the United States than with the boys playing soccer in the small field surrounded by green cinder block and razor wire. Alfredo had only been at the orphanage 4 months.
When we returned in 2008, Alfredo wasn’t at San Gabriel. I had so longed to see his smiling face and learn more about him. The orphanage had grown rougher – a growing number of juvenile offenders had been placed there by police, and sex had begun to be used to oppress the weaker orphans. It felt like a prison.
Our journey took us to Eliza Martinez, a smaller orphanage which housed younger boys and those with special needs. The smile was waiting for us there. As I walked in the courtyard to the main building, Alfredo and his friend Geraldo were watching in the window. To be able to hug him and talk again was such a gift. Alfredo told us he had a younger brother, Isaias, who also lived at Eliza Martinez. Both boys were sent to the orphanage the year before when their parents decided they could no longer care for their seven children. The parents kept the girls, and sent the boys away.
He missed his family, but understood it was the best thing for everyone. He and his brother were stronger, and could live on the streets if needed. Their sisters wouldn’t be safe there.
It was impossible for me to fathom the idea of taking my son to an institution and saying, “I can’t afford to care for him, so I’m giving him to you.” Even as a single parent years ago, I worked so hard to make sure all his physical needs were met. There were tough decisions to make, but he was always the priority. A Guatemalan friend shared, “It’s more common than you might think here. Oftentimes the girls will be the ones to be sent away, because the thought is the boys can help the family earn a living. But if the children in the family come from more than one father, it’s a fairly easy decision to discard those who aren’t ‘blood’.”
Last week, while at Hogar Solidario visiting the teenage girls from Manchen, I pulled out the photos of Alfredo and asked, “Is he still here?” Several workers looked at the photos before one smiled and said, “Yes! But he is so much bigger!” He was in school, but that didn’t stop the giddy worker from running to find him. When he rounded the corner, that smile was still there. Sixteen now, Alfredo has grown to be a handsome young man. He is still tender and polite, and his hugs are strong and confident. He said he was doing well, and his little brother Isaias was 13. At first, he didn’t recognize me – he’s seen so many faces over the years. I told him I carried him with me, and then showed him the pictures on my phone. Those dark brown eyes twinkled and the smile got bigger. “Now I remember,” he said, and he hugged me again.
As we walked the grounds of Hogar Solidario to learn more about the facility, Alfredo followed closely behind. When we carried donations to the office, he gladly helped. And when we sat with the orphanage workers and talked about the fate of the children, he was there. Our eyes would meet, and that smile would be there. I casually said to one of the workers, “I’d love to take Alfredo home with me,” and Alfredo heard me. The smile faded. “I can’t leave my brother, Isaias. You would need to take him too.” I held his hand and said, “If your government would let me, I would take you both.” And we hugged.
Alfredo disappeared for a few minutes, and came back with another young man. He pointed to my phone and asked to see the picture “in the window.” He proudly showed the picture to the other teen, and then shared, “This is Geraldo. My best friend. Will you take another picture of us? To remember us?”
Alfredo and Geraldo will “age out” of the orphan system in two years. Alfredo will leave his little brother, Isaias. If a family member doesn’t embrace him, he will be forced to find his own way on the streets. Transition programs for kids like Alfredo are rare in Guatemala, and funding is needed to make them a reality. While Alfredo’s eternal future is a bright one, his near-future needs prayers, mentors, caregivers, and support.
Pray today for Alfredo, Isaias, and Geraldo. Pray for the orphans who will age out of the system with no place to call home.
I pray you meet your own Alfredo. And I pray you’ll always see smiles.