Some things I can fix. Some things I am still trying.
When I was here a year ago with the St Aloysius College choir, I noticed some blue-eyed girls in our school’s touring party catch the attention of some young boys. The boys, like any young teenage boys, collected in the corner and conspiratorially sniggered amongst themselves. I asked one of the St Ethnea girls to find out what the boys were up to. One of the boys liked ‘Erin’ and wanted to give her a drawing.
The smallish boy with the cheeky smile hid behind the others and urged his friend, Jonathon, to give her the drawing. The operation went smoothly and the boy in the shadows laughed nervously. He was full of energy, full of life.
As I was about to move on from this exchange, our accompanying social worker, Josefina, held my arm and told me a story. ‘That boy heard your Australian Choir was coming. He saw the other children reading a poster on the wall………..Juan can’t read but he quickly got a pencil and paper and copied a picture of his Football team’s logo. River Plate. The first letters he ever formed were RP for Erin.
I was touched.
Later that night, I was enjoying dinner with Josefina and others when she told me another story. ‘Juan is violently abused by his father. I have never seen him relate to a male as he did with you today’. Juan’s mother has had many lovers and each has abused Juan.
That night a mad passion crept into my heart. I felt I had to return to Argentina. I wanted to help kids like Juan. I wanted to offer a positive male presence. For the next seven months I wrote to many of the St Ethnea College kids and wrote emails directed at Juan. At first he refused my emails. The St Ethnea girls persisted in translating them.
Josefina told the disappointed Ethnea girls that this was Juan’s defence mechanism. She encouraged them to continue reading the emails, assuring them that he would listen. They read them. There were stories about Australia and my son Josh. Silly stories about us playing tennis or soccer. Stories asking about Juan’s preference as a soccer forward or defender.
The girls read on. When they finished, Juan uttered three simple words. ‘Read them again.’ They read the stories to Juan about three times that day.
In the next email I introduced myself to Juan formally and asked for his permission to write to him. I wanted to empower him. For the next seven months I wrote little emails to Juan and occasionally, at Josefina’s suggestion, to the other children of Comedor Angel.
I arrived back in Argentina in April. The first meetings with Juan were very cautious on his part. Over the next 2 months I worked on him, gradually getting to the point where he would sit down next to me, never really participating in the guitar lessons, but offering assistance to the younger kids as my helper.
As Juan suffers from Hepatitis A and is very thin, I began supporting his family with money. His mother had abandoned him and left the kids to fend for themselves. Juan began to lose so much weight as he was not eating on the weekends. He could attend the Comedor (food distribution centre) for his daily meal on weekdays but on the weekends he did not eat. The money SAC had fundraised was put to work by making food available to Juan and the other children in his family for a year.
Then Juan went missing.
On my visits to Comedor Angel we didn’t see him for about 4 weeks and we became concerned. Josefina and I attended his public school and spoke to the Principals and the teacher. We visited his class – classroom 5A. Juan is 13 years old and he is in Year 5.
Juan had been withdrawn from the school by his on/off again mother. Josefina had put pressure on Juan’s mother to return to Juan and care for him. Josefina puts pressure on many of the barrios’ parents.
Juan was in trouble with the school. There had been confusion over the theft of a wallet. Many felt with Juan’s gentle heart and quiet nature, he was not likely to be involved in the theft. No-one really knows who stole the wallet but Juan didn’t defend himself. He stayed very quiet as the accusations flew.
We talked for many hours about the possibilities for Juan. All agreed that this kid had special qualities. He had fragility. He had a sweet heart and a cheeky smile. We had all been touched by him in some way.
After an extensive meeting (Argentinians love a good chat), we went to visit another problem family – little 6 year old Rosio’s family who are very poor. This is another family that SAC is supporting by having water supplied to the family home.
Rosio is the little girl I have written about, whose mother was not caring for the family after Rosio’s older brother was stabbed and killed in a night club. Rosio was occasionally left to care for the little 6 month old baby.
As we travelled down the terrible streets, both Jose and I screamed out ‘There’s Juan!’
Jose, a terrible driver but an inspiration to me, threw the car to a bone-shattering halt. We jumped out like the 70s television cops, Starsky and Hutch and bolted for Juan. He was all smiles and overwhelmed to see us. He appeared to be very happy to see his loco Australian amigo. I hugged him and kissed him in the traditional Argentinian style on the left-hand side of the cheek and asked how he had been.
I entered the gate and spoke with his brother………………. A problem brother. Juan’s brother bashes him. Juan’s brother is ‘malo’ (bad), a real problem for the San Ambrosio barrio community.
I returned to Juan and suggested a photo. He obliged but as soon as the camera appeared, Juan’s smile disappeared. He doesn’t like being in the spotlight and doesn’t like too much attention. Juan knows that being noticed usually means a bashing and so he prefers to dwell in the shadows.
Juan is a 13 year old boy who has Hepatitis A. He can’t read or write. He lives with a mother who abandons him. His older brother is abusing him and he has lost contact with his school friends. Juan’s mother didn’t like being pressured by Juan’s school principals about the wallet and so now he is at another school. Josefina and I visited his new school and were not impressed with their lack of concern for their students’ whereabouts.
What to do to help Juan?
One of our ideas was to introduce him to Luciano, a great priest who runs an excellent barrio project where kids are taught metal work, music, brick making and much more. Perhaps I could organise a Remise (a cheap taxi) to pick him up each weekend and take him to Luciano’s. Perhaps he could work along side Julio, an excellent handyman working on beautifying Comedor Angel which is my parting gift to Comedor Angel.
If Juan continues living with his brother he is likely to come under his wayward influence. Juan has a soft, gentle heart and a great smile.
I can fix Comedor Angel. Work is progressing well. But what to do to help Juan. Life in the barrios is not easy. Working in the barrios is downright sad. I hope that Juan’s soft, gentle heart and cheeky smile continue to touch the hearts of people like Josefina, the former school’s principal and teacher.
I can’t fix this problem in the little time I have left here. The boy who has inspired me to work in the barrios. The boy who is largely responsible for me being in Argentina with a passion in my heart.
Say a prayer for Juan.
Te mando un beso grande
I have had some success with Juan.
Julio, who is carrying out work for me on Comedor Angel, is a man of the barrios. Not Juan’s barrios but he understands the workings of the place. He has agreed to let Juan work alongside of him and pay him a small amount for his work. ‘There is hope in my heart for Juan’.