By New Jersey State Senator, Joseph Vitale
Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2012, 8:29 AM in the Star Ledger
Walking into the small, cement-block room for our first meeting with dozens of young girls — survivors of rape, human trafficking or abandonment — something washed over us: we looked at one another and knew that, amid the horror of what these girls had been through, there was a presence that was so powerful, maybe spiritual, that it overwhelmed us.
Was it the recognition of the abuse these children have endured and the sadness we felt for them? Was it for one of the youngest, with her new baby? Or was it a greater sense of urgency for the work ahead? Looking back, it was all of those things and more.
That day was the start of several days of what became a two-country working tour of Covenant House (Casa Alianza) shelters and safe houses in Guatemala and Honduras.
I joined a team of Covenant House directors from the United States and Canada, led by president and CEO Kevin Ryan and Central America site liaison Peggy Healy. They were there to support local leaders and assess the ongoing need for resources as part of the Covenant House International mission. As a friend of Covenant House and Ryan — New Jersey’s first child advocate — I hitched along. I was not prepared to experience this level of suffering and damage to so many young, innocent children.
It is difficult to describe the poverty, the profound hopelessness and the dead end that the streets mean for these children. United Nations statistics show Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate. Between January and August 2011, there were 779 documented killings of youths under 23, of which 186 were under 18. Guatemala ranks No. 4. It is against that backdrop of death, rape, hunger, gang violence, drug cartels, sex traffickers and homelessness that Covenant House does remarkable work.
In these two countries, in addition to Nicaragua, Casa Alianza provides safe harbor, nutrition, education, healing, protection and, above all, hope. On one visit in Honduras, we met several homeless teen boys, a girl and a few others our guide had met before. Their home is at the foot of an open-air market, an open, concrete wall enclosure occupied by a garbage container. Their furnishings are a collection of cardboard, a twin mattress, wood pallets and a pile of rags. Through our interpreter, we made small talk and laughed while noticing that two boys were huffing: getting high by soaking a rag in solvent, wrapping it around a hand and sniffing it. This cheap and dangerous high, in addition to cheap knockoff crack, have addicted thousands of street children. It’s no wonder. Living with danger, violence and hunger, it is their escape. It also is the way cartels control and use children.
Eventually, our guide told us it was too dangerous and time to say goodbye. As we left, we saw one child fishing old donuts out of the garbage bin. There are no official times to eat.
The conditions under which children live on the street, where they are preyed upon by pimps, traffickers and cartels, are stunning. Some arrive at shelters after a court orders their protection. One girl is likely the last in her family. She and her twin sister were hanged from a tree and watched as their parents were murdered. As morning came, only she managed to survive. She doesn’t know where her brothers are.
In Guatemala, a girl accompanied me on a tour of her shelter. She beamed as she showed me her classroom, shared bedroom, dining hall and common area. She was kidnapped, raped repeatedly and trafficked into the sex trade. Thankfully, she was rescued from a brothel by courageous Alianza volunteers and is now safe.
Knowing how and why so much evil can be visited upon innocent children is incomprehensible.
One thing I now know: That presence we felt? If God is anywhere, he is in that place and in the hope, comfort and love these rescued children feel, and in the lives and works of Covenant House employees and volunteers.
Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge) is a state senator representing the 19th Legislative District.
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