In a peaceful little clearing at the top of a hill in Jocotenango, Guatemala, Maria Elena Raymundo and her husband Oscar Francisco Alquijay lived with their four daughters. The mountain range surrounded their property like a guard keeping a watchful eye for safety. Trees swayed in the wind, a quiet bustle of the leaves echoing throughout the land. The sky was clear; the sun brightly shone on the mountains. The view was breathtaking.
A clothesline full of clothes gently rocked from the wind. One by one, Maria Elena took the laundry off the line. She folded the shirts and pants, gathered them up and walked toward their house: a small dwelling made with wooden sticks, holding up a tattered tin roof. The sides are open and the flooring was dirt. Maria Elena walked in and placed the pile of clothes carefully on the floor. There was nowhere else to place them.
Despite the picturesque scenery surrounding her home, gloom brewed in Maria Elena’s heart. Her husband had a steady job in construction, but he struggled with an alcohol problem, often exchanging a workday for a drinking binge. To help financially, Maria Elena cleaned houses and even managed to buy a piglet with hopes they could raise him to adulthood and sell him at the market. Still, they struggled to pay rent and often went to bed hungry.
At night with her family huddled close under their small dwelling, Maria Elena would look up at the dark sky filtered with bright stars and petition God for help, always ending with the same request – a home for her family.
Sometimes, she mumbled her prayers aloud. One time, her daughter Leslie overheard her prayers. She leaned close to her mother and whispered, “Mommy, don’t worry. We will have a home.”
For Maria Elena and her daughters, relief came in the form of the Buckner Family Hope Center located near their home. They immediately received food assistance and began attending educational classes and devotions at the center. The family participated in the family coaching program and Maria Elena worked with a family coach to develop a financial, spiritual and emotional plan to help improve the family. Maria Elena and her daughters even obtained psychological help from a therapist to help process some of the hardships they were facing.
The Hope Center brought life to Maria Elena and her daughters. At first they were shy and reserved, but over time, they came to trust the Buckner staff. They smiled. They laughed. They felt safe.
In January 2015, the Hope Center gave children in the Jocotenango community new shoes distributed through Buckner Shoes for Orphan Souls®. Little faces shone with joy when presented with new athletic shoes. Maria Elena’s 5-year-old-daughter, Dulce, received a special pair of shoes (at left). Her pink and white athletic shoes were the 3 millionth pair of shoes distributed though
Shoes for Orphan Souls. There was an excited buzz throughout the courtyard as she received her shoes. Dulce grinned enthusiastically.
Dulce looked up in anticipation as Family Coach Perla Maldonado laced her new shoes on her feet. She immediately leaped to her feet to test them out. She jumped in the air, arms flaring, dark pigtails flying. Her mother and sisters gathered around her, happiness shining from their faces.
But back at home, the darkness edged ever closer. Oscar fell deeper and deeper into alcohol’s pit. He couldn’t hold a job, and the little earnings he received he used to buy more alcohol. He was rarely home with his family and the few moments he was home, he displayed violent outbursts that sometimes ended in abuse. Maria Elena and her daughters huddled in fear at home.
“My life at that time was very sad,” Maria Elena reluctantly confessed. She doesn’t like to speak about that time in their life.
By May, the family was so behind in their rent, they were weeks away from being evicted. Their life never seemed more troubled.
Buckner President and CEO Albert Reyes came to visit the family who received the 3 millionth pair of shoes. He traveled to their property with two donors, Debbie Potter and Dana Stubblefield, and the Buckner Guatemala staff. Before climbing up the hill to their home, the group received word from the family that Oscar was home and quite intoxicated. But Maria Elena sent a message.
“Tell the Buckner staff I hope they can stay,” the messenger said. “Because when they’re here, I feel safer and maybe they can pray for my husband.”
When they heard the message, they immediately began trekking up the hill. Halfway up, they were greeted by all four of Maria Elena’s daughters. The youngest daughter, Gloria, ran up to Reyes and gave him a giant hug. Her jeans were dusty and her face was smudged, but he held her tight. Reyes tickled her gently on her arm. Gloria rolled her head back and joyously laughed.
The guests turned the corner to the Alquijay home. In one corner, a giant pig rested in the sun and dogs and cats raced across the yard. Maria Elena greeted her guests. Oscar, though clearly intoxicated, did not cause any trouble.
The girls picked up puppies, holding them close against their clothes, sometimes rocking them like they were babies. For the first time in a long time, laughter echoed through their home as the adults played games with the children.
Maria Elena proudly displayed a new dresser she just received. Now her clean clothes wouldn’t need to sit on the dirty floor undoing all the back grinding work of washing them clean in buckets of water she gathered from a community well at the bottom of the hill.
“She graciously hosted us in an environment that for most of us would be a downgraded camping experience,” Reyes said. “It’s a little shocking to think about this being normal everyday life for them and that a victory for these people is that they have a dresser so their clothes don’t need to sit on the floor.”
As they were preparing to leave, Reyes looked to Maria Elena and asked if he could pray for her family. With tears in her eyes, Maria Elena answered, “Yes, please.”
Maria Elena stood in front of her guests. Gathered close to her, her four daughters leaned close to hear. Her requests came easily; the prayers she mumbled often to herself had an audience for the first time.
First, she said, she wanted to learn to read.
“My life’s dream and highest aspiration is to some day be able to read the Bible for myself,” she said. “I’m learning but I’m afraid I’m going to quit. I ask you to pray so I can finish and read the Scriptures for myself.”
When she first asked for prayer, Reyes assumed she would ask for food or furniture, something material. He was unprepared for her first request. “I just got choked up,” Reyes admitted. “I turned to Debbie to try to translate her request, but I couldn’t get it out. I started crying. I could think of a dozen things that the average person would ask for. I thought her request was pure, honest and sincere desperation. When have I been that desperate? I couldn’t even repeat the request because I was so broken. That doesn’t happen very often.”
Her second request was for their difficult housing situation. Reyes looked around at the open shed they called a house. With no doors and a roof falling apart, he thought he understood her request. Later, he was told about the eviction.
With her third request, Maria Elena’s eyes filled with tears. “My husband is sick,” she said in regard to Oscar’s alcoholism. “He has this disease. I have tried everything I can think of, and I love my husband, but he is sick. I just don’t know what to do. All I know what to do is to pray that God will do something.”
They all clustered close together, holding hands as Reyes prayed for the family.
“I gathered up as much focus and concentration to do the best prayer I could think of and just begged God for him to intervene in her life,” Reyes said.
While walking back down the hill to the vehicle, Potter looked to Reyes and made a promise. “We can do something about this,” she said. “We can make a difference.”
Potter and Stubblefield returned to their church, Trinity Baptist in San Antonio, determined to raise enough funds to buy the family a new property to build a home on. Within three days, they met their goal.
As the visitors left the house on the hill, so did the temporary ray of light. The smiles faded from their faces and the only noises heard were the soft tunes of music wafting from a neighbor’s home.
The day after the visit, Oscar was required to see a judge regarding his alcoholism and abuse of his family. The judge ordered him to leave the home and attend a rehab clinic.
Though Oscar remembers attending rehab, he can’t recall who told him about it. What he does remember is the support he received. He was never alone. Members from a local church connected to the Hope Center came alongside Oscar and supported him on his path to sobriety.
At first Oscar wasn’t sure he needed help, but the men from the church were not discouraged. They continued to offer their support. “They told me that they were doing an effort to find new land for my family to live,” Oscar said. “And if I wanted it and wanted to change, Buckner was going to offer the help for it. That’s when I realized I needed to accept help.”
While Oscar was in rehab, men in the church encouraged him and shared the gospel with him. He accepted Christ, got baptized and took control of his alcohol problem, choosing to be sober. Oscar came back to his family a changed man and it showed.
“He changed because he accepted God,” Maria Elena said about her husband’s transformation. “He told me that God changed him, and we are nothing without him. I asked him just this morning if he sometimes wanted to have a drink, but he said, ‘I don’t want one. I’d rather eat than drink.’”
With the money Trinity Baptist Church raised, they purchased property near the Hope Center. In July, a missions team came and began construction on the new home. Instead of sticks and tin, the new house was built with sturdy cinder blocks. There are doors to the bedrooms, a sturdy roof and concrete flooring.
“I feel so happy since the first night we slept here,” Maria Elena said about their new home. “And the girls are so happy as well. I tell them, ‘This is yours. Don’t be afraid somebody is going to kick you out.’ We are all so happy.”
Their home is still tucked amongst the trees. The mountains still provide a protective hedge. Dogs still wander throughout the property and the pig still rests in the corner, contently grunting.
The atmosphere, however, has changed. Oscar joyfully goes to work at a nearby coffee plantation to provide for his family, and he’s sober. The girls smile more. They play with their toys and help with the chores. After school, they sit outside and dutifully work on their homework. The sense of permanence soothes them, and no longer do they fear their father.
At the dedication of their new home, the family gathered for a photo. Their oldest daughter, Michele, stood close to her father and wrapped her arms tightly around his arm. They are at ease with each other. There is peace. “I used to bring only conflicts and fights before,” Oscar said. “But now when they see me here, they know I am doing something for the house or for them. They can have tranquility and know that I am here and not running around drinking. Now, I give them safety that I am here, and they don’t have to worry.
“I feel very happy to have this home. It’s not something I expected to have in my life because of my situation and not having a job. I didn’t know what we were going to do, but I think this is a present from God. If it wasn’t for my wife and kids, I wouldn’t have this home, and if I didn’t say yes to Buckner’s help, I wouldn’t have this change in my life.”