Mateo came to the orphanage in Zacapa, Guatemala when he was 6 years old. At the orphanage, he shied away from attention, choosing solitude over companionship. Due to abuse he suffered from a male relative, he was hesitant with adults, especially men. His brown eyes showcased his fear and often tears fell down his cheeks. Despite his fear, he had one wish: to have a family.
One month after Mateo was placed in the orphanage, Buckner International President and CEO Albert L. Reyes visited with Buckner staff. When Mateo saw Reyes, Mateo ran up to him and grabbed his leg. With tears streaming down his cheek, he anxiously pleaded with him.
“Please take me home,” he cried. “I just want to go to a home. I don’t want to stay here. I will be a good son. I will obey. I will do my best. I just want to go home and have a family.”
The social workers at the orphanage were shocked at Mateo’s instant connection with Reyes. The confidence Mateo displayed while running to Reyes was a complete turn from the shy child who hid in fear.
“I felt as if he was begging me to take him home,” Reyes said. “I will never forget the look on his face and terror in his eyes at the thought of not having a family, of not belonging to anyone. His words penetrated my heart, and I felt a deep sense of sadness for him. I can honestly say I have never met a boy with so much anxiety about get- ting into a family and into a home.”
On that day, the best Reyes could do was not push Mateo away. He let Mateo cling to him as he offered words of encouragement. He offered hugs and comforting words to the little boy desperate for a family.
Three hours away, Irma Casasola De Gonzalés and Winston Gonzalés Rodas also desperately desired a family. The couple wanted children, but after multiple fertility treatments over the span of 14 years, they were unable to conceive. When they heard about the opportunity to be foster parents through Buckner, they signed up immediately.
“We are called to serve and give because everything we have is from God,” Irma said. “When you have love in your heart, you want to give.”
They waited anxiously for a child. At first it looked like they would be welcoming two toddlers, but the toddlers’ grandmother decided to be their caregiver. At first the news devastated Irma.
“We were making plans and getting the rooms ready,” Irma said. “We were prepared for the possibility they would go with someone else, but I was still sad when I saw their grandma. But I admire her for wanting to take care of her grandchildren. I would have done the same thing.” Their sadness soon melted into joy when Christi Roca, a Buckner social worker, called that same afternoon about Mateo. They immediately agreed to bring Mateo to their home.
Many foster families are nervous about children with a history of abuse joining their home because they are not ready for the challenges the child may present, but Irma and Winston didn’t hesitate.
“This couple knew about Mateo, and they knew his story,” Roca said. “They hadn’t seen him or any pictures, but they didn’t care. They only wanted to help him.”
Four days after Roca’s phone call, Irma and Winston went to Zacapa. They were excited but also nervous.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Irma said about meeting Mateo the first time. “We only had his name, that’s it. But I was so excited. When I saw him coming toward us, I looked at Winston. ‘Papi,’ I said. ‘What are we going to do? He’s so skinny.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, he will soon be [healthy] in a little while.’”
Mateo instantly connected with Irma and Winston. Within minutes, Winston was able to draw him out to a soccer game. For the rest of the afternoon, the three played games together.
Fifteen days after that first meeting Mateo went to live with Irma and Winston. They decorated his room with balloons, and the minute he walked in the house, he claimed it as his home.
“This attitude shocked me,” Roca said. “Mateo never had anything to call his own. He didn’t have family. He shared rooms. But when he was integrated into the family, he kept declaring, ‘This is my room. This is my family.’ It was amazing because it was so new for him.”
Though Mateo was happy to be living with Irma and Winston, the first week still had challenges. He had never been to school, so Irma taught him how to hold a pencil and write. Emotionally, the transition was hard as well.
“Mateo was very serious,” Winston said. “He was socially retracted, always looking away and never in the eyes of people. He would always be by himself and he would hit his head repeatedly.”
When Irma and Winston saw him hit his head, a physical reaction often displayed by children who have been neglected, they would hold his hand and kiss his forehead instead, reminding him he had a family now.
After a week, Roca visited the family and was amazed at the difference in Mateo.
“He’s a whole new person,” she said. “I know he is being taken care of just as any other kid should be taken care of, and he is receiving attention. He is getting everything he needs. I don’t have any doubt that Mateo is with the right family right now.”
Winston kneels beside Mateo, a guitar resting across his knee. He strums it and looks expectedly at Mateo. At his cue, Mateo sings the song complete with hand motions. Irma claps along, squealing with glee when they finish.
Eleven months have passed since Mateo was placed with Irma and Winston and singing together has become a nightly ritual. After the song is finished, Mateo and Winston look into each other’s eyes for a second. Suddenly, Mateo kisses Winston on the cheek.
“Thank God for their relationship as father and son,” Irma said. “They love each other, and I’m really happy this is the plan God had for us. We could have had the other two boys, but obviously that wasn’t God’s plan. Now, I think my house shines with Mateo’s coming.”
Another nightly ritual is devotions before bed. Irma sits on Mateo’s bed and enthusiastically reads him the story of Jacob’s ladder from his children’s Bible. Jacob’s ladder is the first Bible story she read to him when Mateo first came to their home. It was the first Bible story he had ever heard. It is his favorite.
Irma turns each page, occasionally glancing at Mateo as he listens with a wide grin. When she finishes, she shuts the Bible. Mateo begs for more.
“OK, next story,” he says. Irma laughs at his eagerness.
“Remember,” she tells him. “If you’re going to go on a trip like Jacob, God will always be with you.”
The promise of God’s continued presence is something Irma is trying to impress on Mateo. The investigation on Mateo’s case is exhausted with no family members wishing to resume care of Mateo, the reality is Mateo may at any time be removed to another home. They pray that won’t happen.
“I don’t know what is going to happen if Mateo doesn’t stay with us,” Irma said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. That’s the part I don’t like. But he’s so happy now, and we try to give him that security and love he needs.”
They build a “life book” of all Mateo’s experiences while he lives with them. There’s his first birthday party, holidays with the extended family, volunteering with Irma and Winston, a letter from Irma on what it means to be a parent and a Mother’s Day craft project of a flower with the words “I love mommy” written in Mateo’s shaky hand.
Every picture has a story – a story that begins when a little boy desperate for a family ran up to a stranger and begged him to find one. It’s the story of hope shining into a little boy’s life.
“Hope comes in all shapes and sizes and at times we do not expect,” Reyes said. “It is truly an incarnational experience. Hope means having the courage to show up and be vulnerable for a change. In the case of Mateo, hope led to a family. A family that changes his life daily.”