I have just returned from an amazing journey into the heart of the ancient Mayan civilization -- a weeklong odyssey to Guatemala.
But beyond the breathtaking ruins of Tikal and Chichicastenango, my most memorable visit was to a sprawling complex -- a beautiful mansion -- nestled in the old provincial capital of Antigua. It is home to an organization called the God's Child Project, an award-winning international charity and one of Central America's largest and most comprehensive health, education and human rights protection services. It's run by two Americans: Patrick Atkinson and Jenna Gullo.
This is where too many modern-day Mayas -- impoverished and imperiled by discrimination and outright racism -- now seek refuge. The God's Child Project -- run mostly through private donations -- has quite a history.
In July 1983, Atkinson, a native of Bismarck, N.D., arrived in violence-torn Central America to begin a six-month volunteer position assisting Mayan refugees in Guatemala's mountainous highlands. He says his intention was to work the fields and provide a measure of safety to Mayan widows and orphans who had survived the massacres of their villages, and maybe learn a little Spanish at the same time.
Instead, he was tapped to run an orphanage for war orphans. He gave all his energy to the project but then had to leave to document human trafficking in Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, civil unrest raged on in Guatemala, and the victims of war and poverty beckoned him back with a letter-writing campaign. All the letters had a similar theme, says Atkinson: "You were like our father before," the children pleaded, "but now is when we need you the most."
The God's Child Project Is Born
Atkinson returned to Guatemala in 1991, brought the children together once again, and founded the God's Child Project. Since then, both children and adults -- who have no place to live but the streets of Guatemala -- have been arriving every day.
Among them are children like "Edwin," a 15-year-old boy we met living in a dump in Antigua. The project's executive director, Gullo, and I found him ravaging for food scraps in a heap of garbage, fighting with dogs for his next meal. He was high as a kite … sniffing glue from a bottle hidden in the sleeve of his dirty sweatshirt.
It's children like Edwin who are picked up by the project's volunteers and provided with food, clothing and an education.
"Each individual gives us a chance to grow learn, and become stronger," Gullo says. "We can just never forget that we do what we do to serve God and the poor. The work will never end, so we count our victories one at a time."
A timely reminder as so many of us in the United States count our blessings this Thanksgiving.
The God's Child Project is not an orphanage. Atkinson and Gullo insist on placing orphans with foster families in Guatemala. Through local charities, the project now cares for and educates 2,700 poverty-stricken boys and girls, and provides medical care, food, clothing, education and human rights protection to an additional 8,500 widowed or abandoned mothers and their dependents. Patrick Atkinson and Jenna Gullocan be reached through the organization's Web site at www.godschild.org.