Left: George Leger with his copy of "Giovanni's Story." Left: Mohagany boxes made by the Guatemalan kids.

Exactly ten years ago, in May of 1993, George Leger casually picked up a copy of the Boston Globe Sunday magazine section and began reading a cover story about life in Guatemala City. Perhaps he might learn a bit more about their country and culture, he thought--little realizing that by the time he completed his read, the story would have dramatically altered the trajectory of his life.

Titled "Giovanni's Story: The Life and Death of a Guatemalan Street Child," the story chronicled the life of a young boy who had struggled to escape life on the streets--and failed. Unable to find anyone or anything to help, he was picked up by a death squad, tortured and murdered.

"I got halfway through the story and realized that it was affecting me as nothing else I had ever read," recalls George, in his characteristic soft-spoken voice and carefully chosen words. "I closed the magazine and thought, 'You can leave this magazine closed--and perhaps you'll be able to go back to your life as you knew it up until a few minutes ago. But if you do open it and finish reading the story, your life will never be the same.'"

He opened the pages back up and finished the story.

"In the days that followed, I couldn't concentrate on my work. I canceled all my engagements with friends and family and retreated into my apartment, where I re-read the story every night and wept over its pages. By the end of that first month, the pages had become soft, like cloth.

"Giovanni's story just broke my heart. I couldn't believe that millions of kids around the world live like this. It shook my faith in humanity: how was it possible, I asked myself, that we'd been living in this world for thousands and thousands of years, and these sorts of things were still going on?"

At the same time, George was struggling with his own sense of responsibility.

"I realized that now, knowing all that was going on, if I didn't try to do something about it, I couldn't pretend it was because I didn't know. Now I knew--and I could never deny that."

 

One Man's Journey

Realizing that he had to visit Guatemala City and see the reality for himself, George contacted the story's author, Sarah Terry, through the Globe; Terry put him in touch with an organization working with street kids. He flew to Guatemala and spent a few nights out on the streets with some of the kids.

Not only was he profoundly moved by his visits with the kids, but more than that, George found that he loved being with the kids. At the end of visit, he arranged to come back and volunteer that summer. He secured a three-month leave of absence from his job and returned to Guatemala City in July--but when he arrived, the organization was in crisis and completely unprepared to deal with a volunteer. Within 24 hours it was clear: George was in Guatemala for three months--on his own.

"I couldn't imagine just packing and going back to Boston to hang out on the beach. I decided to start working on my own."

He befriended a group of six or eight kids living in an inner city park. With some money from friends in the States, he started buying them one meal a day from a Guatemalan woman who had a small food stand in that same park.

"She was looking out for the kids and feeding them what she could, taking care of them when they were sick, and we developed a partnership. At the end of the three months, I knew I wanted to continue the work. I came back to the States and asked a group of about a dozen friends and family if they would sponsor the organization for $20 a month."

The friends agreed: George began returning to Guatemala City regularly, and his organization, Only a Child (www.onlyachild.org), was off and running.

 

Networking the Vision

Soon they were feeding the kids twice a day and the number of kids swelled. Some were starting to say that they were ready to get off the streets.

At the same time, George began talking with area distributors of a civic-minded nutritional network marketing company whose products he used. Word spread, and he soon found an ever-growing number of distributors getting excited about supporting the project. That support expanded beyond New England; soon distributor groups from all over the country were getting involved.

"One of these distributors gave me the idea of opening a drop-in center where kids could come in and get something to eat, to bathe and wash their clothing and spend the day. I talked with the kids about it--and they said, that was good, but what they really wanted was something more long-term."

George talked to his distributor friend about this; she talked with the company's president, and the company became involved as well. Soon there was enough financial support to move forward with more ambitious plans: in February 2000, George opened a full-fledged shelter.

Today, Only a Child has nearly 200 loyal sponsors and donors. George now divides the year into three-month blocks, alternating between Guatemala City and Boston.

"Within a year, I hope to be down there eight months and here for just four; eventually I'll reduce that to just two months here to continue working for funding and doing presentations. And that's not just about raising funds," he adds. "I do a lot of presentations for grade and junior high schools. We don't usually receive any money, sometimes a token donation from the school--but the purpose is to let the kids know that this kind of thing exists. I think it's an important part of their development as caring, involved, community-oriented adults."

In addition to George, the shelter has a staff of three: a couple who lives in the shelter with the kids, and a staff psychologist who came on board in September of 2000 as their Guatemalan director. When George is in the US, they're in touch four or five times a week through e-mail.

Quite a few shelters have closed down in the past few years, George adds.

"To the best of my knowledge, we are one of only three organizations in Guatemala City giving shelter to street kids--and we're the only one taking kids over age 17. We work with these kids to give them everything they need to become self-sufficient and live independently one day--hopefully never to return to the streets. In addition to providing shelter and meals, we've gotten them involved in various back-to-school programs. We also run a carpentry shop, where the kids make beautifully crafted mahogany boxes--which we sell in the States to keep the shop running."

The program functions, says George, as a large surrogate family.

"The kids know that even when they move on, we'll always be there for them and they'll always be a member of our family. Some of them are orphans, others were abandoned--but most have run away from really abusive homes; we're the only family they have."

 
Giovanni's Story: Ten Years Later

The tenth anniversary of Giovanni's story is just a few weeks away. I wanted to honor the anniversary. I knew I would not actually be there in Guatemala on the anniversary, but I wanted to honor it. I wanted the kids to know.

Before I left in March to come back here, I took my kids to Giovanni's grave site. I didn't tell them where we were going, I just told them we needed to do something together. We took a bus and went to the cemetery. Before this, I had told them bits and pieces of how this work all started--but that morning was the first time I sat them all down to tell them the whole story, of how this little boy's struggle to survive on the streets had so touched me, and had led ultimately to this organization that had now touched all their lives.

I told them Giovanni's story. We put flowers on the grave and offered a prayer. This was an important part of their healing process, helping them to reconnect with humanity, to help them truly become productive members of society. It was a moving experience.

On my very first trip to Guatemala, I visited Giovanni's mom and gave her a copy of the Globe story. I had to let her know that her son's death had affected a stranger some 4000 miles away. She knew that we were out there, working on the streets; I hope that gave her some solace as well.

-- G.L.

Life in Guatemala

When George first arrived, Guatemala was in the last few years of a brutal, 35-year civil war.

"The first few years were rough. Roaming military and police patrols would stop you and hassle you at gunpoint, and they could be pretty abusive. That kind of thing doesn't really happen any more, but they're still struggling to find their way back. There's a tremendous level of violence in the country; people here are way too quick to respond to their problems with violence. I talk to my kids about this all the time, about how important it is to try and solve problems without resorting to blows, and how if the country is going to turn itself around, they really need to change that mentality."

The attitude towards the street population is radically different in that culture, says George.

"Here in the US, we tend to view homeless people with sympathy; Guatemalans tend to see their street population, especially the street kids and youths, as fundamentally flawed people; it's as if they're living on the streets because there's something wrong with them and they somehow deserve it.

As a result, the kids live a life of complete emotional isolation, as well as physical hardship.

"The kids have a great spirit and a good sense of humor, but--while they would never admit it, in many ways they're very lonely. They're completely marginalized, surrounded by anger, discrimination and hostility. These kids not only have no dreams for the future--they don't even have a concept of what that means. For them, life is a moment-to-moment struggle to stay alive; they never look beyond their next meal or next drug fix."

Not surprisingly, the kids who have been living in the shelter are doing much better.

"We've helped many of them find a place through the work program and back-to-school opportunity. Many of them now have plans and dreams for the future."

 

Only A Smile

Only a Child was born out of a month's worth of tears and a broken heart. We asked George, is his heart still broken today?

"No, it's not. One thing that troubled me so much about Giovanni's story was that to me, his death was absolutely senseless. I agonized to find some way to give his death and too-short life meaning. Now, through this work, I've found peace with Giovanni's death: to me, it is no longer completely senseless. Through this organization, something good has come of his death, and many other lives have been touched; some may even have been saved. He didn't die for nothing.

"How do you describe or put a value on what it means to take kids out of despair and utter hopelessness and create purpose and dreams for them?

"You'll be working with a kid for a while, and suddenly one day, he will smile for the first time. What words could describe how meaningful that is, how uplifting and satisfying? If we can find a kid who has felt that his life was utterly meaningless, that nobody cared about that life, and show him that his life does have meaning, that someone does care--how do you put a value
on that?"