In a Town without Men, Street Children in Honduras Find an Unconditional Advocate
A Life of Service—Gregorio “Don Goyo” Alonso Garcia has been leading Horizontes al Futuro for 21 years. Horizontes provides shelter and education for street youth and seeks to inspire new models of manhood to break the cycle of poverty, abuse and family desertion.
Horizontes al Futuro is a non-governmental, non-profit organization formed in 1988. It is a rehabilitation center for street children in Comayagua, Honduras. Horizontes does not receive any help from the national government of Honduras. The center is supported through a Marist NGO in Spain whose work is based on the principle of “SED” = Solidarity, Education and Development.
Under the leadership of Executive Director, Gregorio “Don Goyo” Alonso García, Horizontes is home to 40 boys ranging in ages from 6 to 18 years. At the center, they receive an education based on dialogue, understanding, and love. The aims of Horizontes are for destitute children to experience a feeling of belonging, to complete the highest levels of education possible, to develop specialized skills, and to reintegrate into family and society.
The center provides them with an holistic education, including: intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, and recreational needs. All the boys go to school in town. Horizontes also provides vocational training in tailoring, welding and computing.
A goal of Don Goyo is to ensure that those who want to earn a college degree receive as much support as needed. To ensure graduation, Horizontes helps its college attending student by providing them with shelter and food so they can finish. In turn, college students give back by helping Horizontes’ mentoring of incoming street children.
Some 300 boys have stayed in Horizontes in the last 18 years. Some have stayed for a short season; others, have completed high school or learned a trade. Some have returned to the streets, some have ended in jail, and a number of them have made it to college.
Horizontes al Futuro believes that homeless children represent one of the most serious human rights violations in Central America. Living in the streets to fend for themselves, they are deprived of their most basic human rights. Under the guidance of Don Goyo, and through the efforts of his team, Horizontes sets out to restore dignity, self-esteem and the life expectancy they deserve.
A Life of Service
Don Goyo was born in Spain and is a member of the Maristas brotherhood. He spent 14 years in Africa. Twelve of those years were spent in the Congo. He also spent a season in Rwanda and 15 days in Kenya. The Maristas are a spiritual and educational group started by St. Marcellin Champagnat, a French priest that founded the Congregation of the Marist Teaching Brothers in 1817. They are dedicated to youth formation in the neediest communities in the world.
Don Goyo studied psychology in the University of Salamanca and completed a magisterium in theology and psychology. After his mission to Africa, he returned to Spain to complete his university studies.
“These were the 70’s and I was very interested in the liberation movements in Latin America and the theology of liberation in particular. This was a time rife with warfare in Central American countries, like Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. My dream was to move to Central America and help destitute children there.”
What follows is the story of Don Goyo’s efforts to help children against all odds and with unwavering resilience.
An Interview by Soledad Quartucci
A Home for Homeless Street Children in Comayagua, Honduras.
Horizontes al Futuro is a center that assists street children in Comayagua, Honduras. It was already in existence when I arrived in Honduras. In fact, I was sent to replace a failing administration. The budget was not properly balanced and the infrastructure needed work. The Maristas brothers knew that my dream was to be of service in Latin America and sent me there. It’s been 21 years since I became the director of Horizontes al Futuro. I hope to keep going as long as God gives me health. I’ve managed to stay healthy and disease free, except for a minor bout with malaria.
How Do Street Children Find Horizontes?
In my 21 years in Honduras I have met so many people. Most people in Comayagua know me personally, or know of Horizontes. Sometimes, I find the children in the streets; other times, mothers and grandparents bring them to the center. The national center for children and families send them to me as well. Children who are removed from homes, are first taken to DINAF, the national organization for children, adolescents and families. DINAF contacts me, and if I have room, I assume their care.
Sometimes mothers bring them. Other times, when our children go home during vacations, neighbors notice a positive change in the children’s behavior. They ask about Horizontes, and then they bring their own children to the center. When this happens, I have to communicate with DINAF. They are supposed to conduct a socio-economic study of those homes, but it does not always happen. If DINAF determines that a child needs to be removed, they give the child’s family an order of enrollment and we make room for him. But simply put, many children show up and ask for help.
New Families-New Hope
We are mothers, fathers, and educators. We try to provide them with everything they need. Food, shelter, scholarships to private schools, after-school academic support, a local psychologist and spiritual support. We also provide workshops and clinics, some on location, and some out in town. Our students are working in welding, tailoring, painting and technology.
Horizontes’ Beginnings: An American Base Provides Opportunities and Challenges.
Horizontes started in 1989. The center was built at a time when the Americans had opened a base close to Comayagua, about 8 kilometers from here in a place called, Palmerola.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that the American base is to blame for the rise of street children, but it is true that it has indirectly played a big role.
On the weekends, Americans wanted to go to Comayagua to dance clubs, to the restaurants or to travel outside the base. Local poor children saw an opportunity to make a few dollars by showing Americans around and catering to them. When a few started earning a dollar per gig, many children who were living in poverty flooded the streets looking to earn a little something from the Americans. They watched their cars and showed them around. The wave of street children contributed to gangs, drugs and organized crime.
Friendship, Soccer and An Opportunity for Healing
Today, colonial Comayagua is a beautiful place. You don’t see street children here.
When I first arrived in Comayagua, the colonial plaza is where I would find the young men, sleeping, living in the park, and getting high. My strategy to help them unfolded step by step. I first approached the oldest members of the group, about 7 of them. I invited them to start a soccer team and I would talk to them, but mostly listen. At the beginning of my time in Comayagua many children lived in the streets. They slept there, begged, stole and everything in between.
I’m not saying that things have drastically improved from the way things were 20 years ago. Today, you won’t find street children in central Comayagua. But in the colonies, that’s where 90 percent of them live. That’s where you’ll find children who don’t go to school. Many are gang members. I have a group here in Horizontes whose mothers brought them in because 16 and 18 year olds were using their young children to sell drugs. The older ones use the younger ones to sell drugs and also to turn them into users. Then, they can threaten them.
For the youth to have a chance, the situation needs to change on so many fronts.
Of this initial group, some ended up in jail. I visited them while they were in confinement. Today, I am a member of a commission that helps youth transitioning out of jail. We want them to know that someone cares, and that there is support awaiting them once they are released.
Horizontes al Futuro begins to Grow
Horizontes al Futuro grew step by step. We started receiving help from the embassies and from the Marista brotherhood in Spain. First, we focused on improving the infrastructure, the buildings, changing the roofs, putting up windows and as we improved the buildings we could take in more children adding up to 30.
We started bringing educators to the team, and this allowed us to grow up to 45. Today, we have 36 youth living in Horizontes. They stay in three homes according to age. One for the little ones, one for the middle school aged ones and one for the older ones.
Most of these children come from living in extreme poverty and from single parent homes.
Fatherless in Comayagua
Ninety-eight percent of the children who stay in Horizontes do not know their father. A small percentage of the children have a stepparent, but in my years of experience, having a stepparent has in many cases, made their situation worse. Some of the children in Horizontes turned to the streets and against their mothers because of a stepfather.
Who are the Children who come to Horizontes?
The profile of the child that comes to Horizontes is a youth living in a family suffering extreme poverty. The neighborhoods are often surrounded by gangs, and drug consumption is common.
Socio-Economic Realities of Honduran Families
Sadly, this is a common problem because the socio-economic reality of families in Honduras is precarious. We have supermarkets and many shops in Comayagua, but 70 percent of the families cannot enjoy them because products constantly go up in price.
Food goes up. Tools go up, but Salaries Don’t
The great majority of workers labor without a fixed salary. What they earn is not enough to survive. They may have enough to eat, but not enough for clothes or health. The lucky ones with full-time jobs in factories do not make minimum wage, because the companies can pay whatever they choose. Businesses know that people need to work and people need to work so they accept what is offered, even if it’s below minimum wage.
Educational Reform is Urgently Needed
We need a better education for the children. The ministry of education in Honduras does not uphold the laws of public education which state that education should be free and accessible to children and adolescents. Instead, families are expected to pay for salaries, for the building of bathrooms, for a guard, for benches, for painting, for school repairs, but most of our families cannot do that.
There are some teachers who are so lovely and so selfless. They are devoted to their students, and even go without eating so that their students can have a lunch. But there are also other teachers that humiliate the poor student. Instead of encouraging them to come to school with a little notebook, welcoming them to their classrooms, even if they don’t have shoes, they do the opposite. They tell them that without shoes they cannot stay in class. Without supplies, they should not come to school. If you don’t bring this, I’ll deduct 10 points from your homework. This is why we have such high school dropout rates.
Mothers’ Choices Are Complex and Few
There are mothers who don’t enroll their children in school because they cannot afford it. If the mother is a single parent, she has to find ways to find work and to help her family. This means that her children stay home by themselves, and don’t go to school. The house has nothing to entertain them or feed them. There is no refrigerator, food, or light. They are almost forced to go to the streets in search of something to eat and something to do. In such a fragile state, a young boy becomes prey to gangs. He is easy to enlist because there is no one there for him. Mothers have no time to spend with them so they find companionship in gangs.
Mothers become Mothers at a Young Age
Some of the children’s mothers get pregnant very young, as early as 12 or 13 years old. Many of them are abandoned before the child is even born. Often times, the father refuses to recognize the child and moves on. Sometimes mothers may have children from three different fathers and none of them will stay. These young mothers can feel defeated and suffer from low self-esteem. They have been through many abandonments and somehow they have to provide food and work. When pregnant, they go to the hospital and they can sit there all day waiting for help. These mothers suffer on many counts. They want the best for their children, but they lack the most essential necessities.
In a Town Without Fathers, Horizontes Provides Hope
Poor mothers often reach out to us and tell us they are on their own and they need help. In these cases, the father has usually left.
Where have the Men Gone?
Some explanation can be provided through the immigration problem. Due to financial hardship, men and women have left to the U.S., to Europe, and to Spain, specifically. There is also internal migration patterns to San Pedro Sur or other commercial zones.
What is a Day in Horizontes like?
We are in the process of formalizing our day. There have been proposals to build a school within our walls but I haven’t wanted to do that. I want the children to feel as normal as possible. Most people don’t have schools inside their homes. I want them to live in Horizontes as if it were their home, surrounded by a family that loves and supports them, like most families do.
We have 12 year olds that have never been to school or have dropped out.
Here, they wake up, make their beds, take a bath, take care of his personal belongings, the hallways and different chores. Each of them completes a small task per day.
After breakfast, we have a group of 6 who attend private school. I’ve been able to get scholarships for them.
Another school, the Liceo Cardenal Oscar Andres Rodriguez charges us less than regular tuition. I’ve been able to have up to 5 enrolled there at a time, but now I only have two.
I take all the children to school and pick them up. I go to the Inmaculada and to the Instituto Liceo Cardenal. Some of the peer students drop them off in the Escuela Nazareth.
Five of them stay here to attend workshops. Welding is offered from 8-10 a.m. and tailoring takes place from 10 a.m.-12pm.
We have 9 that go out to town for a mechanics workshop. They go to Taller Hernandez, Taller Jonathan, and Taller Amaya. When they return from the schools and workshops, they wash their uniforms, hang them to dry, then take a break, and play a game until dinner.
From 2:00pm to 3:30pm, we have daily after-school support. Schools typically send homework for them to do. We support them with topics, such as writing, and math. We help them improve across the curriculum. After scholastic support, we have soccer matches on Mondays and Fridays.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we have an hour of English lessons. An American woman from Chicago leads these lessons.
We teach catechism, and every 15 days, we visit a nursing home.
When returning from the workshops, they shower, wash their clothes, engage in an activity, have some playtime and dinner.
They play games, watch movies in their homes, and then rest.
On Fridays, from 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm there is a gathering in church. Youth from neighboring villages, about 200, gather to pray.
On Saturdays, some take mechanics’ lessons out in town.
I get together with the middle school ones and the oldest ones from 8:30 to 10 am to discuss topics, such as personality, and dating.
On Saturday, after finishing lunch, if they are from Comayagua, there is a group of them that head home. If they are from another town, like La Libertad or Tegucigalpa, they go home every 15 days and they return on Saturdays by 6pm.
With the children who stay, we organize some outing or fun game.
Sundays at 9:00 a.m, we go to church. The oldest and middle school children are in youth ministry.
Developing a Feeling of Belonging, a Sense of Home and Working toward Different Outcomes
I want the children to feel normal, and to have a healthy routine: go to church, work, go to school, the university, participate at home, go home on the weekends, and reintegrate and contribute to society.
Regarding education and human formation, these are not quantifiable. To shape a person, to help them develop, to bring out their best qualities, to encourage them to give the best of themselves, these processes cannot be quantified.
If you plant love, hope and self-esteem in the human heart, some day it will give fruit.
I will admit that some times there are downturns and frustrations. Sometimes the dreams one has for them and the expectations we build for them are not reached. But I do believe that every good intention planted in their hearts will some day grow.
How to Assess the Value of Horizontes’ Work on Behalf of Street Children
No matter how short their stay, they will leave knowing that while in Horizontes, teachers, catechists, volunteers, American groups, and university students came to Horizontes out of love and care for them.
I have lived through many heartbreaking situations following the sudden departure of a child in our care. In those cases, I am left hoping, if only I had had more time.
Sometimes they opt for the streets and rejoin bad influences, but they also return. We have seen every case.
Some children have ended up in jail.
We have 4 right now in jail. This past week, I visited them.
I tell them, “When you were in Horizontes you didn’t listen to me and now, you call me from jail. “Don Goyo, no one is coming to see me. Don Goyo, I need soap.”
Some Horizontes Graduates Have Made it to the University
Regarding their educational level, they highest level achieved has been university studies. I currently have 4 enrolled in the university. Two of them have earned university degrees. A good group has completed the bachelors’ program. Many others have completed mechanics, welding and painting trainings.
The Challenges of Reintegrating their lives Back Home.
Sometimes a visit to the family home creates confusion, depression and setbacks. There is a little bit of everything. On principle, they have to learn to stay strong in any environment and this includes, going home. It is a true test of character when they go home and they stay inside, instead of going to the streets. We encourage them to be of service, to contribute to their families and to help them. Many are able to manage it well and willingly return to Horizontes on Sundays. For some, home visits are tough. During Holy Week many went home.
When they return, some show decreased enthusiasm, and some go back to vice, but these are real life risks that sometimes they have to go through.
On our end, it is very difficult to watch all the progress made, come crumbling down.
We enlist the mothers’ support in our efforts to help the children. The last Sunday of every month, the mothers are invited. Sometimes we get about 80 percent attendance. We put on shows and plays for them. I tell the mothers, that when the boys come home, to encourage them, to congratulate them when they show good behavior. Help them with supportive words, ask them to help clean their homes.
But sometimes, the environment in the homes and neighborhoods is not the best and it is certainly a temptation. Some are definitely not strong enough. This is a constant struggle and a constant worry.
And even in the worst cases all that we have tried to do has not been in vain. We have showed them respect, love and made them feel valued.
The Horizontes Team:
For formal education they go out in town. I have 3 educators, an assistant director who helps when I’m not here. Two Horizontes’ graduates who are currently attending the university. We help them complete their university studies. They couldn’t pay for transportation and food. They stay with us and help us with the children and we help them so they can afford to finish and graduate.
One of our educators came to Horizontes when he was 7 and he was able to complete his education all the way to a bachelor’s degree, which he is currently finishing. He studied pedagogy in English and computer science. The psychologist we have on staff is from DINFA. We are part of the DINFA network that provides children’s advocacy and rights organization. We currently have a psychologist on staff six days a week.
Our healthcare system consists of a first aid kit. We are also lucky. We are across from the San Benito Hospital. The first consultation with a doctor takes place there. If anyone needs surgery, we have to schedule and wait. When we need ultrasounds or x-rays, those are done through private clinics, and we try to negotiate with them for affordable rates.
Some doctors and dentists also work with us.
We Welcome and Appreciate our Summer Volunteers:
During July and August I have 2-4 volunteers from Spain who are professors in Spain and during their holiday, they come out to help.
Since our opening, we have had more than 100 volunteers from 38 nationalities. We used to have an Exchange program with youth from across the world. They used to come from Norway, Denmark, Portugal and England. We had a therapist come stay with us for 2 months.
When they come in July, they help us with everything. They play, take them to school, support them with homework, accompany us on fun trips. Going to the beach is a 4-hour round trip, but we’ve been there a few times. We do enjoy trips to Villa Mar, a water park. They waive our entrance fee.
When our volunteers visit us, they are like another mother. They share in the daily routine of the children.
In Need of Support: Our Staff Works Around the Clock
We could certainly use more help, but we manage. It entails a sacrifice. We are with them all day long. There are no fathers around. If the father is present and goes to work he barely sees his children. Mothers also work.
Here in Horizontes, the educator stays all day. On the weekends, they take turns going home. They take 3 days off to replenish their energies and to spend time with their own families.
How Long Do Children Stay in Horizontes?
The children that come to Horizontes are at least, 6 years old. We need them to be able to take a bath on their own, and wash and dry their clothes. They are as old as 18. Some of our students stay longer. If they are completing university degrees and workshops, we encourage them to stay. We take into account the possibility of their self reliance once they leave us, and always consider individual and family circumstances. We had a pair of brothers who fared very differently. One ended up in jail the other went on to the university. I stand behind them and want them to finish their studies. Sometimes they stay 2 or 3 years, or leave sooner. It varies.
Leaving Too Soon
I have had very painful experience with unexpected goodbyes. We are in the process of helping them and we are fully invested and care deeply for each of them. We try to provide them with everything we anticipate that they could need: peers, educators, psychologists. We organize soccer matches. We stock our library, we have tvs. We get scholarships for schools. We take them to the doctors. We go to waterparks. We try to cover all the basics but sometimes the appeal of the living on the streets still wins.
Sometimes the teens who come in with drug addictions don’t stay. Age and time spent surrounded by our resources does sometimes affect the outcome of the children’s situation. Our goal is to help them get university degrees and we know most cannot in homes without tables, dictionaries, or the internet.
The children live in homes inside of Horizontes. The homes house them according to ages. Each home has an educator assigned to the group. We have offices, soccer fields workshops kitchen, lunch room, library, televisions. When we dont’ have enough staff, we train our eldest students to help the younger ones. So the children learn to live communally in their homes and within Horizontes.
They are so grateful. For the smallest, little gifts they are so happy. Faith, helps them, too. They couldn’t survive otherwise. Their positive spirit helps them overcome and not despair.
But I do wish they fought more. I see missing a spirit of vindication and fight. All the president and politicians have to do is show up with a bag of concrete, and a bag of lies and they believe them. I wish they stood up for themselves. I haven’t seen much progress, and yet this is isn’t their fault. The government sets the tone. They wait for help from Taiwan for a hospital and for this country and that country’s handouts.
The government is responsible for its people living on their knees, begging for handouts. There is welfare for transport, handouts for everyday things; days where bags of help are announced. Officials make appearances with 50 bags with handouts and 500 people show up. Just barely enough. Countries from around the world send help but it doesn’t always reach the neediest.
What can be done today?
All we can hope is that we give them enough love, education and encouragement so that by the time they leave, we can witness them make different, healthy decisions. It will be up to them. They will have to tap into all the goodness within them. To spread their wings, develop their qualities and live a different life.
I now have 9 in mechanics, and I would love to see them prosper, overcome, make a life for themselves and for their children. I long to see them reach their goals, find a meaningful job, study. As they leave Horizontes, other young ones will need shelter and we will be here for them.
For our students, we hope that they will form healthy families where fathers stay and love their children. That they love their wives, and that they realize how much children need their fathers. I want to see other types of homes, homes with love, support, unity, care and compassion. Homes different than the ones that lead them to the streets in search for what was missing.
I hope they will work in professions that their parents could not. And I also hope that in gratitude they will return and help raise other street children.
We know that what we do is but a grain in the sand.
They need Fathers, but also a Society that invests in them and embraces them, too.
The Ultimate Dream:
Ultimately, the dream is that they don’t repeat the treatment that they suffered through. One of the young men who grew up in Horizontes, David, now lives in the United States. He married a Puerto Rican woman who, unfortunately, died. When his little one was born, he used to get on his knees and whisper to him,
“Don’t be afraid son. I will never leave you. I am your father for life. A different father, a different husband. A father, unconditionally.”
David is a gift in a world of trouble. He is a small but magnificent change. Our work continues and we can only hope for more Davids and more fathers that love their children and stay.
Horizontes al Futuro
Barrio de Tenguaje Apartado 132
Comayagua, Honduras, Telefono 2772 6952, 99494957