All seven called him “Dad.”

25 Apr

It was somber as we drove through Henderson thinking about how unfair it felt that Sharon’s family would most likely be split up at an impending custody trial. It had only been a few months since Sharon’s death at the hands of lung cancer.  We (Kendall and my fiancée Katie) arrived to the center with heavy hearts. We would hear the court’s decision very soon. Three years spent building relationships with this family and we could find ourselves with only a few days left with most of them.

Sarah, the third youngest of seven children, arrived to the center wearing her emotions on her sleeve.  She wanted to talk, but she didn’t have to.  Her face said it all.

I came to say goodbye Mr. Kendall. Today will be my last day at the Learning Center. All of us have to move to live with my aunt (Sharon’s sister) except for Jessica and Rachel (who are her two youngest sisters and daughters of Derick, Sharon’s boyfriend of 10 years).”

The court custody trial was between their aunt, who wanted the older five children for the government assistance that would follow them, and the only man they have ever known as Dad. The decision would be announced the next day, but Derick knew he probably wasn’t going to get custody.  He and Sharon had never married. Though only the two youngest girls were his, he loved all seven with all his heart. All seven called him “Dad.”

court

If Derick lost the custody battle, the five oldest children would be taken immediately, including Sarah. This tragedy seemed like it was never going to end. Not only do these girls have to work through losing their mom, but the rest of the family would be split up.  No more Mom, no more Dad, no more brothers and sisters.

Feeling like this might be the last time we see her, we sat down with her while the rest of the kids started their homework. As we opened up the Bible the scripture we turned to was Psalm 23…

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

Katie, who had been her Bible Study teacher at Club Christ for a few years, told Sarah, “God loves you and your siblings so much. He will always protect and comfort you, but he needs you to be a leader.” You could see in that moment that Sarah understood. I asked Sarah, “What are you going to do when you move in with your new family?” Sarah stoically said, “I’m going to be a leader.  And I’m going to help my brother and sisters by loving and trusting God.”

I could not be more proud after investing into her at Club Christ.  She had grown so much as a leader, student and follower of Jesus.  I was heartbroken that this would be the last time we would get to have her in our Center, but I’m glad she planned to hold fast to her faith. Katie and I prayed with Sarah and said our goodbyes as she left.

Derick lost the custody battle.  The police picked up the siblings at school and they were taken to live with their new family. They left behind a heartbroken single father and their two younger sisters. With the swing of a gavel, the family of eight was reduced to a family of three, and five siblings were sent away.

Our team of staff and volunteers at Club Christ Ministries were humbled that we had an opportunity to be part of Sharon’s story. Thankfully we get to continue to pour into the lives of her two youngest, Jessica and Rachel, who are still with us at the Henderson Center today. Please pray for Sarah and the rest of her family.  Pray that The Good Shepherd will see them through.

shoulders lyrics

Someone I love Died.

20 Apr

The last time I (Evan) saw Sharon was when she stopped by our center to pick up a bag full of food we were giving to families for Thanksgiving.  Her youngest, Rachel, is a little spark plug who always has something to say.  “Mom what did we get?” She was holding her mom’s hand as I explained how proud I was that her three youngest daughters were doing so well in school.  She looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you so much Mr. Evan.  We love the Learning Center.”

That next week little Rachel walked in the door and she wasn’t her usual, bubbly self.  “Mom is in the hospital.” I asked, “What’s wrong with her?” She didn’t know.  Her mom was just really sick.  I later found out that her mom, Sharon, had stage 4 lung cancer.  She hadn’t been to the doctors in years so there was nothing they could do.

Sharon wasn’t coming home.

All of a sudden her seven children had lost their rock, their comforter, their momma.  And we lost a friend. We had never dealt with this before at Club Christ. All we knew what that the kids would take this really hard and we needed to help them make sense of it all.  So when they returned to the center we stopped our normal scheduled program and spent some time reading a children’s book called Someone I Love Died.  While three volunteers and I sat across from Rachel she looked up from the book and said, I’m not sad… I’m just so mad.” I shared glances with the adults in the room and we all understood that this little second grader needed God’s help to heal.  So at the end of the book we all bowed our heads and prayed.

someone i love died

I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.  Because Christmas was only a couple weeks away I put it out there on Facebook that we wanted to bless a family in need.  Just 48 hours later my office had three bikes, boxes of household supplies, a Barbie playhouse, and hundreds of dollars in gift cards.  I was overwhelmed.  In the midst of such a heart-breaking tragedy we had been able to give them a Christmas that would have made their mom smile. I felt like I could see her again standing just outside our doorstep saying, “Thank you so much Mr. Evan.  We love the Learning Center.

I wish I could say that this families’ trouble ended there…

Next week: Kendall will share with us what happened next with the kids and the fight for guardianship.

A rough first impression

12 Apr

Though the door did not bang as the mom exited, I felt like it should have.  Seconds before, she had briskly left the room with two kids and a frustrated spirit in tow.  That was my first encounter with Sharon.  Though the center was literally feet from her porch, that was the last time she would enter it for the next three years.  Past hurtful interactions with Christians had caused her to deny God and in turn, reject us.

For the next two years, a sort of unspoken battle was waged. Glares were common.  Our kids took the brunt of it though.  They were frequently in trouble for lining up too near her backdoor.  My heart felt heavy for this woman who felt that we were the enemy when we could have been an ally.

Change comes through the most unexpected means.  For Sharon, it was a flier for Girl Scouts.

I’d like to sign my girls up for Girl Scouts.  How old do they need to be?” she asked gruffly.  It was a surreal experience answering each of her questions. Yes, everything is free. Yes, they could get help with their homework. Then came the question that still causes me to well-up with joy.

And I heard you do Bible study.  Is that right?” Sharon asked.

My reply was a simple, “Yes.”  I expected her to deny them the opportunity to attend.  Instead she said, “Good, I want them to be involved in that.”

For the first year, she approached us with caution.  Guarded as ever, she watched as we served her kids.  Gradually though, her heart softened toward us.  We grew closer to her six children and to her youngest children’s father.  A love for Jesus was birthed in the hearts of her children through Bible study.

Sharon soon became a fixture at the center.  After dropping off her girls, she stop and chat.  Volunteering when we were in a pinch became common.  She even served alongside our teens during a community service project.

At that community service project, she shared, “I really appreciate all you’ve done for my kids.  I see how much you care about them.”  My mind swam of images of Sharon opening her heart to Christ.  I anticipated growing our relationship.

door

Let us not grow weary!

22 Mar

Written by Kendall Demavivas, Henderson Center Director

I love coming to the Learning Center!”- Melissa, 4th grade student.

This past January I walked to Melissa’s house to remind her that Club Christ has reopened for the semester like I normally do. Her mom, in tears, answers the door and says, “Kendall, Melissa and her Dad moved away, and they won’t be coming back. I’m so sorry.” My heart dropped and my head started spinning. Two weeks later, Melissa’s mom is evicted. Just like that, Melissa is gone from our program after three years of faithfully coming every week, unexpectedly and without a chance to say goodbye. This is a feeling I know too well as the Henderson Center Director.  I have had to say goodbye to dozens of families who have moved away due to evictions, violence or other symptoms of broken homes.

I arrive at my center with a heavy heart, still anxious for the start of the spring semester at Club Christ. Just then, students come running to the center shouting, “Can we come to the Learning Center today!?” The conversation moves to telling stories of our winter vacation, playing games and then on to homework and reading.  We pick up where we left of last semester, but this time, without Melissa.

During these difficult times when a student is taken away from the center, I cling to the victories we see during their time at Club Christ. I had the joy of praying with Melissa and three other students when they gave their lives to Christ. We may not be able to walk with students as long as we would like, but God captured and changed Melissa’s heart. Melissa improved her grades with the help of our faithful volunteer team and I saw her develop a heart to serve Christ here. I could count on her stopping by early to ask if she could help me clean the center or get prepare the day’s snacks. Melissa loved Jesus with all her heart.

Galatians 6:9 says “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

Though this has been a difficult season with many of my original students moving away, we are reaping a harvest of students coming to faith in Jesus. Nearly every student who comes to our center develops a relationship with Jesus. We poured deeply into Melissa and the lives of each of our students during their time at Club Christ. And we’re reaping a beautiful harvest that will bloom in the years to come.

do not lose heart

How it all ended up

16 Mar

Home was a terrifying place to be. Cristina got home later that evening and started scrubbing and cleaning up all the blood. I can only imagine how she must have felt as she tried to scrub away the memory of him. A few hours later she picked up her kids from her neighbors house and brought them home. They all slept in the same room that night, hoping he wouldn’t come busting through the door again.

She couldn’t believe she had let a man like him control her like that for so long, she wouldn’t let that happen again. In the days to come Kendra and I were calling shelters and to get them out of that house as soon as possible. Everyone told us they were full and we would need to call back everyday in hopes of a spot opening up. Because of the great threat we couldn’t let her stay in that house after everything that happened. We booked them a hotel near by and told them to stay there on us. Days went by and her ex seemed to have left her alone…for now.

Thankfully one day we got the news that a spot opened up at a local women’s shelter.  But her fight wasn’t over. She was given a lawyer, a court date, and asked to collect any and all evidence of what had occurred. I joined her at the first appearance at court to show my support.

Unbelievably he tried to say it wasn’t him. His sleazy lawyer said he had an alibi from work that could prove that he was working at the time of the incident. He was lying through his teeth and I wondered if the judge would see the truth. In the end all he got was a slap on the wrist and a warning that next time things would be worse. I’m praying there won’t be a next time.

As of today Cristina and her ex now share custody of the kids. She continues to collect evidence to prove he shouldn’t have custody at all. Since the incident he has taken them to California without her consent and refused to bring them home on several occasions. She calls the police every single time. The other day Cristina looked me in the eyes with such gratitude and remarked, “Club Christ saved my life.” I always remind her that God was the one who sent us to open the Learning Center. He saved her life.

Each week Cristina brings her kids to our center and she is the only parent who offers to stay and help. She makes sure that the center is picked up and scrubbed down. Then she begins work on her own English homework. Her goal is to learn English and start a new life with her four beautiful children.

Please pray for the Gutierrez family. That they continue to be protected from any kind of abuse. They were told they have 2 more months left at the shelter before they need to leave. She needs to find a place to stay that is safe, affordable and close to her children’s school.

find-a-new-home

A hand to hold

9 Mar
I’ve always found comfort… uncomfortable.  It’s as if my mail was stolen the day everyone else got the pamphlet entitled, “Comforting Words and When to Use Them.”  When Maryann shared about her struggle wrestling through the emotions she felt as she supported Cristina, I felt ill-prepared.   Nodding felt insufficient. If only my words could convey the content of my heart.
Perhaps like me, you think you have to be strong, so that they can find strength?  Perhaps you desire to fix it (whatever IT is)?  Perhaps you have come to discover that disingenuous words fall as flat as the paper they are written on?  True comfort is not something you offer, but a character attribute you embody.
That was who Maryann had to be the day of the horrific event unfolded at the Gutierrez home: comfort incarnate.  As she translated her story to the police, she bore Cristina’s burden alongside her.  She helped her into a hotel for a few days, while the shelter prepared a space. When Maryann awoke to discover that each night had passed without incident, she breathed a sigh of relief.
I knew there had to be a place Cristina could go with her four children so I called every women’s shelter in town. And we prayed. At first there were no beds open. And we prayed some more. Then we got the good news. She got in! The evening before she would leave her home and all her possessions to begin a new life we began to see how God had carried her through this tragedy.
We couldn’t offer much, but we gave her telephone numbers that became lifelines and advice that became parachutes.  As the day of her departure arrived, we prayed. Prayed that this step was the right one.
two-people-holding-hands-you-are-not-alone
Next week: “How it all ended up”

“Take care of my kids.”

28 Feb

“How bad is it Angela?”

“It’s bad Maryann, it’s really bad.

I got the call from our intern Angela and I was panicked for two reasons:

1. I wasn’t sure if Cristina was safe and alive.

2. I wondered if  the kids were okay.

I made a quick u-turn and made it back to their street as fast as I could. There Cristina was, on a stretcher, drenched in blood. I saw her being put into an ambulance when I parked my car. I hopped right into the ambulance to hold her blood-covered, trembling hand.

“Maryann, cuidame los ninos por favor no dejen que me vean asi, por favor di le que voy estar bien…. Take care of my kids, please don’t let them see me like this and please let them know I’m going to be OK.”

I could barely breathe. The first words she gushed out of her mouth weren’t about her safety. They were about her children. I jumped out of the ambulance with the promise that I would come back to check on her.

I ran to the neighbors where I knew the kids were and found Angela. She was making sure all the kids were okay. God always seems to have Angela at the right place and right time, and this was no different. I needed to get to the bottom of what happened so I started talking to the two oldest kids, the police, the neighbors, and the paramedics.

“It’s clear what happened here. This is a domestic violence situation.”

To my heartbreak, this wasn’t the first time the police had seen something like this. They needed more information, so I came back to her and asked as gently as I could,”Cristina, que paso… what happened?”

Since her divorce, Cristina shared custody of the kids with her ex-husband.  Her youngest had signs of abuse when he came home that week and she wasn’t taking any chances.  She decided to pick all four kids up from school the next day instead of letting them ride home with their Dad.

That afternoon, Cristina brought all four kids to our Center and I took her aside to see how she was doing. I could sense something wasn’t right and asked her to stay at the Center, so she did’t have to be home alone.  “No, no, voy a estar bien. Muchas gracias Maryann.” “No, no, I will be okay.  Thank you so much Maryann.”

Cristina’s ex-husband was waiting in his truck just outside her home. After he knew she was alone inside her home, he banged on the door until she tepidly opened it.  He immediately hit her with a blunt object on the head and then punched her in the face, she then fell on the floor and blacked out. Her neighbors then noticed a truck speeding out of her driveway and they ran over to find her on the floor drenched in blood and unconscious. That’s when Angela had found her as she dropped off the kids from our Learning Center.

As the paramedics shut the doors to the ambulance, all the strength I had mustered escaped me and I burst into a stream of tears. Once again Angela was there arms full of comfort and words of compassion. We jumped in our cars and headed to the hospital. When we got there Cristina was surrounded by police and hospital staff. Angela and I spent a couple of hours with her. I translated for the hospital staff and all three of us tried to calm down. But in the backs of our minds we were so scared.

When we left late that night, we weren’t sure of what would happen next for the Gutierrez family.

ambulance

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