Duncan’s talk, although arranged at extremely short notice, was eloquent, enthusiastic and often very moving.
In the early 1990s he happened to see a tv documentary about the 5000 children who were living on the streets of Guatemala. He was so appalled by the children’s plight that he decided he must try to do something to help them.
Before long he had actually moved there.
His first encounters with the children were not very fruitful. The children’s trust in adults was extremely low. On one occasion he felt a machete against his neck and heard a child’s voice threatening to kill him if he ever came back.
But Duncan did go back, and the child who had threatened him became his protector. And little by little he gained the children’s confidence.
He spent a lot of time at a grim narrow alley called The Hole. Here 60 children lived in fear and squalor. One child, Reuben, who was fleeing from an abusive father, told Duncan that it was pointless dreaming of a better life because they were all going to “die on the street”. A few hours later, Reuben was shot dead by the police.
But gradually, more and more children were taken off the streets. Six years ago, after Duncan had devoted 25 years to his cause, the very last one was removed.
The policy now is Prevention. The charity has a Mentoring Centre where children spend an hour a week.
To qualify for this, a child must be having full-time education. But during Covid, the government closed all schools. So the charity began its own schooling. Now they have a 99% pass rate compared with the national averaged of 67%. And their grades are an average of 30% higher.
The main source of children suitable for mentoring is a notorious rubbish tip where whole families spend their lives looking for things to sell in order to stay alive.
One little boy who Duncan assessed would gain from mentoring was David. Duncan approached his mother who also spent her life on the tip. She agreed, but told him that David’s brother Danilo needed help even more. His life consisted of mugging, selling drugs and working for gang leaders.
The mentoring was so successful that Danilo’s live changed completely. He studied hard and last year he graduated.
This is where things got particularly emotional. Sitting next to Duncan while he spoke was a pleasant, unassuming young man. It was Danilo.
With Duncan translating from his Spanish, Danilo told us how he had lived on the tip, inhabiting what he called The Red Zone, a world of drugs and constant killings.
He was one of 7 children for whom their mother had no time to care or give them any love. His dad had died when he was 2. His eldest brother had been killed by a gang leader. He felt alone, abandoned and depressed.
He now works at the charity’s centre and helps with the work of preventing children from living on the streets.
His dream is to go to university. Which is why he is now in England. But when he graduates, he will definitely go back to Guatemala. It is far too cold here!
Report by David Bull