Sunday, October 9, 2016

Holy Moly, let's go get some cornflakes.

So, the baby's name is Baker Joseph, Joseph after my uncle with whom the baby shares a birthday and whom I credit with my return to Guatemala in 1998. I am not sure where the Baker part came from. At four months little Baker is a robust eighteen pounds and his mother has returned to the international school with even greater determination. The good news is that although sixteen for another month or so Astrid is no longer a teenager. I think we have found a cure for adolescence, albeit a complicated one.

Baker Joseph

Diego took a week off from school in July to go on a Mundo Posible road trip to the Ixil Triangle of Guatemala. With other team members he helped to install offline educational resources in rural schools and even go trail riding in the area's hills with the owner of the place where we stayed and a visiting World Possible board member.

Diego and his steed.

In the middle of September I returned from a couple of weeks on the west coast. My first inkling that something was amiss was when Diego asked if he could speak to Olga, the psychologist who had tried so hard to sort his family out a couple of years earlier. I told him that I would contact her and asked him what was wrong.

"Problems in the house again, my aunt told us that we have to leave," he told me. Knowing how fond of the children the extended family were I felt that this was just an idle threat and I told Diego just that. However, a few days later Mishelle arrived after school on the school bus and told me quite cheerfully "my mom says that we have to stay here for a while." Diego had gone to a friend's house for the weekend. I took a very deep breath and took Cristofer and Mishelle to the grocery store to buy some cornflakes and, as it turned out, an abundant supply of fresh fruit. Domino's pizza would do for dinner and tomorrow was to be another day.

Mishelle had some extra clothes in her backpack. Cristofer had the clothes on his back. I had some extra toothbrushes. Neither had ever spent the night in my house before nor had they, as far as I knew, ever spent a night away from their mother.

We made their beds and I showed them how their first ever hot shower worked. Cristofer immediately took a shower. Both seemed higher than kites as if they had just made a landing at Disney World. I had one children's book so after pizza we took turns reading about the antics of Clifford the dog. As they put their lights out I heard Mishelle ask her brother "are you afraid?" He answered "no, because I have Latte." Latte, one of my dogs, whose preferred to sleep on someone's bed.

A couple of days later their mother came by to see the children. Her younger sister was with her and after spending time with the children they took me aside and told me that the children would need to stay the week as Marielos was receiving threats from a "señora" against herself and the children.

As things go in this country, which is really a small town, the next morning I ran into a fellow who had done some finish work in my new house. I knew that he lived in the same community as the children and their family and that his wife knew their mother. I asked him what he knew and he told me that Marielos owed over $2,000 which is a huge amount of money here, equal to five or six months of salary, to a señora whose husband had just been released from prison and had indicated that he was looking for Marielos. My suspicion was that the "borrowed" funds had wound up in the hands of Alex in prison. He was very capable of working this woman for his own gain without a moment of remorse.

In the interest of being very careful I invited Aunt Gladys, to bring her parents, the children's grandparents, to see the children. We settled on a time and the entire family minus one who was working and another in the US showed up. It was Marielos's birthday and I had suggested a birthday party for the children's mother in the interest of keeping everyone happy. The children showed the family every inch of the house and then they sat. It was apparent that they were going to sit for a while so I offered juice, chips, pistachios. The psychologist was due and I thought it only fair to alert her to the fact that the entire family was present.

I took my dogs out for a walk and waited for Olga who quickly decided that she would work with Marielos for an hour then Diego then Aunt Gladys. I poured a large glass of wine into a coffee mug and went about turning a dinner for five into a dinner for eleven. We ended the evening with a birthday cake and on very pleasant terms. The grandfather blessed me as he always does. Diego asked if he could walk out to the gate with his family. When he came back he was beaming, gave me a big hug and said "thank you."

Family birthday party.

I felt that the extended family all then knew that the children were in a good place and being well cared for if not by their mother.

I had contacted my attorney as, in reality,  I was housing abandoned minor children and the Guatemalan government takes a dim view of white people with brown children. I had already been told that the law required that I report the situation to the courts and that they would come and take the children and put them into separate foster homes pending a lengthy and expensive process to determine their disposition. Even my attorney said this was not a good solution and suggested that I get the mother to come into her office and sign a power of attorney to protect not only myself but the children.

The psychologist also told the mother that this would be necessary if they were to stay any longer in my house. Marielos agreed and an appointment was made for the following Monday morning. The lawyer asked me what the plan was for the children and I deferred to Marielos. I expected her to say that her family had agreed to keep the kids and was very surprised to hear her say that the children were to live at my house during the week and visit the family on weekends. So be it. I had no other option but to put them outside the gate and tell the guards to not let them in or call the government.

Marielos told me that the previous night at the aunt's house Mishelle had cried and wanted to return to my house where it was quiet and she could sleep alone. While I had not seen their quarters in the aunt's home I guessed it was no different from the previous home where the four shared a nine foot square room and two beds.

That afternoon, after school, we went to their aunt's house and collected their worldly goods all of which fit quite nicely into their small backpacks. Over dinner we chatted about their school day and some time later I found the three scattered around the house each in their own space doing their own thing reveling, I guessed, in the space and in the peace and quiet.

Yes, I questioned, once again, my own sanity. I realized that this could be a ten year commitment. Maybe on some level I knew it was coming. I had always thought that Diego might end up here but never dreamed that all three would be more or less dropped off. Many had asked why I had built another house and I didn't really have a good answer. Now I do.

The younger two children told my housekeeper that they were very happy to be at my house because there was so much fighting and shouting in their aunt's house. Only then did I realize how much tension they must have been living with. The mother left them with the family. The family was angry that she wasn't taking responsibility for them. Often they were hungry. I guessed that often they thought of themselves as the cause of the strife in the home.

A friend who had once done social work told me that it wasn't unusual to see really well behaved children emerge from questionable situations and that often those kids went the other way once they were free of the oppressive situation. I decided to maintain the relationship with the psychologist and be vigilant.

Officially, the new arrangement was to be temporary until Marielos who had already demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to care for her children found a suitable apartment to rent. She told everyone that the incarcerated Alex was going to give her the equivalent of $200 a month from his questionable activities in prison yet, the first payment was diverted, not surprisingly, into something Alex needed for himself. I suspect the subsequent payments will go the same way. Alex knows very well that the children are better off in my house and no doubt he dreams of their successful futures and eventual contributions to his well being. And he had a history of never giving money to anyone, not even to the many mothers of his children.

So, there we are. I am learning to provide three meals a day. On Friday we went to a Paca (the Guatemalan equivalent of a thrift shop) and the three kids were given a cart and set loose to find some clothes for themselves. Most of all the children seem to enjoy the space and the quiet. I often find them scattered throughout the house doing their own thing. Slowly, we will introduce more reading and less screen time. More board games and less screen time. Earning screen time by reading and working with the Khan Academy.

Shopping for clothes

Their first morning I was surprised to find them up, smiling broadly, showered and dressed with their beds made ready for breakfast and school.  And quite obviously happy.


As the mother was once again using the psychologist to lobby for financial gain Olga and I decided together that no amount of therapy was going to turn her into a responsible parent thus the efforts of the psychologist going forward will be to help the children adjust to their new circumstances without feeling rejected by anyone in their family.

One day at a time.