By Chelsea Quackenbush
The height of the Martín Prado Vélez Bridge, better known as El Incienso Bridge, in Guatemala City is enough to make even the bravest of souls a little queasy. The 660-foot bridge leads travelers out of the main part of the city toward El Cerrito, a community of extreme poverty and despair.
The bridge stands over a steep-walled gorge, flanked with dilapidated tin shacks stacked on top of each other. It’s so high that the stream the flows beneath is barely visible to the naked eye.
Guatemala is a country marked by poverty. There are malnourished children, wild dogs in the streets and large families crammed into tiny houses.
But there is a ray of hope in El Cerrito… It’s the Buckner Community Transformation Center.
The El Cerrito CTC serves an overwhelming number of people every day. Some days, the line of people waiting for services winds around the building and spills into the street. At the Buckner shoe distribution in the building next door, it’s clear that many of the children who live in El Cerrito desperately need new shoes.
Some of the children are reserved and cling to their parents. Others are fascinated by the camera equipment and beg for photos. They loved to look at themselves on the display screen after each shutter snaps.
This is something they aren’t used to, having photos taken. No school portraits, no family Christmas cards, no birthday party shots of all the kids gathered around the cake to blow out the candles.
There is no way any of these families could afford a camera when the majority of families live off the equivalent of $2 a day.
The bridge that leads into El Cerrito is known locally for its high number of suicides, which is a direct reflection of how little hope there is in the community. It’s one of the poorest in all of Guatemala.
According to the Associated Press, in 2009, suicides from the bridge spiked. It motivated a local church to put a sign on top of one of the houses that could be read by potential jumpers: “ALTO. NO te hagas. Cristo te ama.”
Stop. Don’t do it. Christ loves you.
One conversation leads to ministry
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Buckner’s work in Guatemala. What started as a friendly conversation at a local hotel in Guatemala City exploded into a ministry that serves thousands of people in three of Guatemala’s poorest communities each year.
It started with Amed Bendfeldt, who managed the Vista Real Hotel in 2002. Several Buckner staff members traveled to Guatemala to meet with government officials to discuss adoption. Bendfeldt said as soon as he learned what Buckner did, he was hooked.
When Buckner staff got to Guatemala, they immediately realized there was a lot of need in terms of humanitarian aid, government orphanages and social services and, after meeting with government officials, decided to establish a nongovernmental organization, Buckner Guatemala. Buckner already had international ministries in Russia and Romania, but Guatemala was the first Latin American country Buckner ventured into.
Bendfeldt started volunteering with Buckner as services grew. He joined the Buckner board of trustees in 2005, became the director of humanitarian aid in 2007 and now holds the title of country director.
“After I met people from Buckner, I started thinking about my focus in life,” Bendfeldt said. “Like in Matthew 25 and James 1:27, because the Lord is sending us to help people in need: ‘When I was sick, you visited me, when I was naked, you provided me clothing.’ And James 1:27, the willingness to help the widows and orphans.
“When you start helping others, you feel more satisfied in your life. Because by helping others, you can be blessed twice. Once you start helping others, you will never stop. It’s like having something in your blood.”
In 2003, Buckner started sending volunteer mission teams to Guatemala and distributed humanitarian aid. In 2005, Buckner opened foster care homes, and after that, the Community Transformation Center was born.
The need to assist in the government-run orphanages was evident. So Buckner staff created foster group homes for children ages 12-17, and youth transitional homes for children ages 18-21.
Their goal was to prepare children for independent living because once they leave the system, they’re vulnerable to gangs, violence, drugs and poverty. Buckner wants to change that reality.
Olvia Iamiiez, better known as Suzy, was one of the first girls to live in a Buckner Guatemala transition home. Before that, she lived in Manchen, a government-run orphanage in Antigua, for three years before meeting Buckner staff.
Suzy ran away from home when she was 11. She told us her stepfather “was a mean person” and that her mom had an accident when she was Suzy’s age and since then, hasn’t made good decisions.
She went to the police and they took her to Manchen. She lived there for about three years with 200 other girls. She made a friend, Celeste. Some girls in the orphanage were threatening to hurt Suzy and Celeste, so they decided to run away.
The pair met Leslie Chace, now the Buckner director of international business development, while they were in Manchen. They knew about Buckner. When they ran away, they made a phone call and were placed at the transitional home.
“It meant a lot to have someone believe in me,” Suzy said. “I would be living on the street right now … But I have a place. It’s good for me to know that when I finish my job every day, I know that I have a place to go, and I can say ‘home.’ That’s Buckner.”
Suzy is studying hotel management at a local university. She also has worked her way up in the ranks at her call center job. She loves soccer, dancing, singing and hanging out with her three roommates, even though she admits that they get on each other’s nerves sometimes.
Celeste’s story has a happy ending, too. She is studying human resources administration at college and has worked in the Buckner Guatemala office for two years. She lived at Manchen for almost two years, and was 17 when she moved to the transitional home. Celeste always had a desire to study and go to school, and because of Buckner, that dream came true.
“Buckner has given me a lot, and they have the patience to teach me,” Celeste said. “I feel happy because being at Buckner I graduated from high school and I have been in college for 3 years. They have given me the opportunity to grow. I have learned many things for life, and to be a better person, and I continue to grow.”
A lot of the staff at the corporate office have grown with Buckner Guatemala, too. Like Roberto Tejada.
It’s rare to see Tejada without a smile on his face. He’s worked for Buckner for more than seven years. He started as a part-time translator and worked his way up to the director of community programs. In between, he’s worked on projects with mission teams, construction and other in-country projects.
There seems to be a theme at Buckner Guatemala: from less to more.
“Buckner Guatemala has been growing during the past seven years, and I’ve been a witness of the work in Guatemala by impacting more and more people every year though the different programs,” Tejada said. “We have the community centers, transitional programs and humanitarian aid. It’s impacting more and more people.”
Greater impact, greater change
One of the newest and most exciting programs in Guatemala is a partnership between Buckner and International Justice Mission, a human rights agency based in Washington, D.C., that rescues victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression. The partnership began in November 2011 and established the Child Advocacy Center in Guatemala City. The center serves as an advocate for victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking.
Buckner staff handles the social work side of cases while IJM handles the legal side. There are psychologists on staff who work directly with victims and their families. They offer short-term and long-term therapeutic care, as well as emergency placements if necessary.
Marlo Hernandez, the CAC director, said they’ve already had 19 legal prosecutions and four people caught as a result of the partnership in Guatemala. They served 27 cases in the first seven months.
“We know of no other program like this in Guatemala,” said Phil Brinkmeyer, Buckner regional director of Honduras, Guatemala and Russia. “And beyond that, we haven’t really seen anything comparable in other countries we’re working in. It’s fabulous because we’re leaning on the strengths of each other and it’s a model that can be developed in other countries.”
Models of change
In contrast to a few years ago, when the emphasis learned more to orphanage support, Buckner now focuses more on helping families – and preventing the need for children to be placed in an orphanage – via the CTC model.
The CTCs in Guatemala are thriving. In the three areas where Buckner works – El Cerrito, San Jose Pinula and Jocotenango – poverty is a mainstay, health care inaccessible and clean water unattainable. Food aid is necessary just to help families survive.
Cobblestone streets and historic building lead the way to the CTC in Jocotenango, a community in Antigua. It is there that Alejandra Aracely Linares, a 26-year-old mother of three, took computer classes at the CTC and was able to open her own Internet café.
“I tell people to sign up (for classes at the CTC) all the time,” she said. “Sometimes someone might want to start up a business, but the main factor is that won’t let them is money, and sometimes it’s fear. But you have to continue, you have to fight for what you want.”
Ana Elizabeth Sipaque Silvestre, a 30-year-old woman with polio, first visited the San Jose Pinula CTC two years ago. Prior to that, she said she was ashamed to go out of her house because of her illness.
Ana lives with her two sisters and mother, her niece and her nephew in a tiny house with dirt floors and cinder block walls.
“I isolated myself for a long time because I did not want people to see me like I was,” she said. She went on to explain that going out is difficult for people with physical handicaps in her community because of slippery surfaces and a lot of cars.
At the CTC, Ana enrolled in computer classes, English classes and learned how to make picture frames and candles, which she sells to make extra money for her family. She also learned how to sew.
“Here, the thing that does the most damage to families is the lack of work. Their strength is how they see a hope; that through education there can be a better future,” she said.
Ana’s situation is typical of a lot of the families in Guatemala – and a lot of the families Buckner serves.
And then there is El Cerrito, a community of very little hope. The paths from the main road down to the homes grow more dangerous lower into the gorge. The dirt paths and tiny stone staircases wind steeply between tin shacks.
Esmeralda Herrea Castillo and her two sons, Larry, 6, and Jerry, 5, are one of many families to receive new shoes at the Buckner shoe distribution next to the CTC.
Esmeralda originally brought her children to the CTC because they were sick and underweight due to parasites. One of the boys had hepatitis, so they gave him medicine. They also pulled some of their teeth and gave them clothing.
But she also got help that she needed. She got counseling for some problems she was having, as well as English classes and job skills training. She sells crafts at a local market to support her family.
“If they didn’t help me … It would be a little hard, a little with food, because from the beginning I did not know how to feed them, what to give them, what was good and what was not,” Esmeralda said.
The future of Buckner Guatemala
As many pause to reflect on the past 10 years of service in Guatemala, there is palpable excitement about what the future would bring.
“We believe in the institution of family,” Amed Bendfeldt said. “We want to preserve the family. So working in communities like San Jose Pinula, we can reach 2,000 families. We reach children, youth and adults. But working with communities, you will see. We can reach a lot of people and families. And we are reaching more people. We’ve grown from the beginning to the point that we are now, because we start working with 40 children here; Now we are working with communities, 10,000 to 15,000 people.”
The areas where Buckner works are poverty-stricken, overcrowded and at times, dismal. But through small changes and small acts of help, individuals are changing. And their families are changing. They have hope.
And if the families are changing, the community is changing. And one by one, changing communities will change Guatemala.
Get uplifting stories of how Buckner is shining hope in the U.S. and around the world!