So, I’m super behind with sharing details from the girls camp…. sorry about that.
Background, this is my 4th youth camp with Champions in Action. Every summer, we host youth soccer camps for our boys and girls programs. Our mentorship program is a 1-year program that is kicked off by a week at a retreat center on the eastern coast of Guatemala, 6 hours from the capital. Camp initiates the bond between youth and mentor and allows us to ‘break down’ the kids in order to build them back up. The vast majority of the kids come to us hardened and with so much anger and hate in their hearts. In order to be successful, we need to dig in, open the wounds and build each of them back up.
Previously, every camp I’ve been to has been a boys camp. The boys are 11-13 and while having their own set of behavioral issues, they are pretty manageable. They live, breathe and eat soccer. If you threatened soccer, whatever the behavior issue was soon disappears. I can now do boys camps in my sleep. This camp was a girls camp and girls 12-16. I instantly had horror flashbacks to my teens. I wondered if payback had come for me so soon.
Fortunately, my imagination was way worse than reality. Of course there was attitude, but nothing to the extent I imagined. A blessing and a curse behind being part of the staff is that, generally speaking, I’ve usually met a good amount of the girls coming into the program. If not, the mentors have communicated their stories and situations prior to camp. So, I walk into day 1 of camp already knowing the horrifics that these girls have lived through.
At every camp I interview every single child that enters into our program. So far that has been 300+ kids. On a lighter note, I’m a walking encyclopedia on the most random facts for the youth we work with. On the heavier end, I also walk around with the weight of some of their darkest secrets and pain. At boys camp, the boys are pretty frank with me and let it all out when we talk one on one. The girls were different. I was taken aback by some who, once you asked one probing question, they just went on and on about every thing that has happened to them; grateful to finally have someone willing to listen to them. On the other hand, there was one particular girl that I knew specifics about the situation at home. When I asked about her, she straight up lied about it and continues to this day.
In addition to my official capacity with Champions in Action, I do my own work to empowering the next generation of girls. With a handful of the girls that went to camp, I have an existing and ongoing relationship with and they are a part of my work. Several others whom I met at camp, will likely be joining in and be a part of my work going forward.
Guatemala City lies in the mountain of Guatemala – we stay between 60-80 degrees year round. Land of Eternal Spring. Yeah, throw that out the window when you get to Puerto Barrios. Somewhere in the 6 hour drive we left warm, but breezy and arrived in hot, steamy Caribbean wasteland. Usually the bus AC breaks down on the way. Fortunately not this year #smallvictories. This August, camp was particularly sticky. It’s a stickiness that brings a general agitation to everyone and the only way to escape is to hide out in your air-conditioned cabin. But they are small and usually a scorpion or tarantula sneaks in, panic ensues and you miss out on the fun with the girls…so that doesn’t work. Fortunately, after a year and a half here, I’ve started to acclimates to the shock to the system that my biannual Puerto Barrios visits bring.
At camp, it is hard to be able to give the attention I want to each group when there is only one of me and 110 girls. I usually end up being ‘adopted’ in by one of the groups. Fortunately, I live here year round and am able to continue building upon the relationships with the girls throughout the year. This camp, I was adopted into a group who I knew had some of the toughest stories as a whole. This particular group of girls were mad at me the night before because I “ask tough questions”. [Insert eye roll here] So I was giving them some space until the next morning one particular girl in this group told me to sit next to her. This girl is the niece of one of the most notorious gang leaders in Guatemala — more on her later. When she tells you to sit down, you sit. So I sat. And from then on I was one of them.
There were two sisters. Mom works as a prostitute in the community they live in and is in an abusive relationship with their step-father. One of the girls was almost raped at her school, the most notorious and dangerous school is the community. There are weekly murders at the school.
Another girl’s mother abandoned her family when she was a small child. She is forced to raise her younger siblings. She got involved romantically with a guy in a gang who sexually abused her. While she is no longer involved with him, her father periodically beats her. She has self-harmed herself and tried to commit suicide.
Another is pressured on a regular basis by her mother to sell her body on the street in order to make money. Her mother tells her they wouldn’t be poor anymore if she brought in some money selling ‘that booty’. She also has previously self-harmed and tried to commit suicide.
The girl who told me sit next to her the third day of camp is the niece of the most notorious gang leader in Guatemala. He is currently in prison but his name still strikes fear in people. Her entire family is in the gang and it has has such an impact on her life. At 11, she’s already been expelled from a school because of her family – the school wanted no type of association with them. She used to use drugs on a regular basis to escape from reality. She has the scars of cutting up and down her arms and has already tried to commit suicide.
These are just half the stories from that one group and they continue group after group: family killed by the gangs, raped by family members or trusted adults, being sold for sex by their family, abandoned, verbal abuse, physical abuse, working 5 hours a day after school or leaving school at 5th or 6th grade to work…. it goes on and on. These girls carry the weight of their families on their shoulder and often take the brunt of the abuse as well.
Ultimately, the week at camp is a week of escape: from reality, from school, from violence, family, from their problems. It’s a week to play, be a teenage girl and make friends. We are all aware the problems that they face will still be the same when they go back. But they are different. They have their mentors. They have each other. They have the knowledge that the lies others tell them do not define them. And they have the staff – between us and their mentors, each child we work with have an unrelenting network of advocates and people fighting for their success. With the girls, we have a lot of follow-up to do, assessing the abusive situations we heard about and working to develop the best methods to intervene. There is a lot of heartbreak. But there is a lot more hope. These girls are the next generation of women for Guatemala. They will rise above, they will overcome and they will change their country for the better.