GUATEMALA CITY – A group of 34 girls gathered around the campfire. There were s'mores and laughter and constant chatter, broken up by outbursts of song. The scene is easily imagined by many around the world, especially boys and girls who quickly call to mind their own summer camp experience.
But for most of these girls, ranging from 11 to 18, this was a first-time experience. IJM Guatemala's aftercare team was hosting a retreat especially for them. It was a time to play and laugh—little luxuries for these girls, all coming from impoverished families. And it was a time to share and dream and encourage each other in their ongoing journey of healing—all of the girls are survivors of sexual violence.
IJM Guatemala Director of Aftercare Delmi Ramirez explains that many of her clients live in "red zones," neighborhoods where many of the residences were built informally, and areas that are deemed unsafe and dangerous by the government, often because of crime and gang activity.
The simple camping lodge, with its smooth concrete floors, comfortable beds and even white cloths on the table, was a special treat for the girls. "Due to the circumstances they live in, many clients are unable to play soccer, run in the grass, or go to playgrounds outside; rather they are forced to stay in their homes," Delmi adds, noting that having this "big open space" was "a huge luxury."
Some of the girls knew each other, but many did not. There were ice-breaker games and lots of outdoor activities to keep them energized and engaged with one another, including a daytrip to the beautiful town of Antigua and a visit to the petting zoo.
There were also quieter moments throughout the retreat, when a couple girls shared their testimonies. One of the girls started by sharing how she had felt "like trash" after she was abused, but told the other girls that now she can say "God is good" and mean it. Both said they first felt alone and unworthy, but now they know God is good because they believe he has a plan for their lives.
IJM psychologist Miriam Cruz said she was struck by how the other girls empathized with these testimonies, clearly encouraged by the honesty from their peers: "They were inspired to move forward, to heal, knowing that others had been able to overcome these great obstacles and knowing that they were not alone."
Throughout the retreat, that spirit of "moving forward" was palpable. The girls heard from an older woman who had been abused as a child and is now working at the Public Health Ministry and regularly serving at a local church. One night, the social workers led the girls through an exercise where they each wrote down obstacles that block them from reaching their goals. Then the girls dropped the pieces of paper into the fire, watching those obstacles vanish and daring to dream of what might possible.
Some of the girls started to share bits and pieces of what they had learned that weekend. There were breakthroughs in how they were processing the betrayal, false guilt and hurt.
One girl stood up before the group. With tears glistening in her eyes, and her hands over her heart, she shared how her father had abandoned her and her stepfather had later abused her: "My father neglected me. He never told me he loved me. The man who abused me, I loved and trusted like a father." She faltered for a moment, then said resolutely, "From this, I have learned to love. I still want justice, but I have forgiven my father, and I have forgiven the man that abused me. I know that God has great plans for me. So, sigamos adelante! Let's move forward together!"
The next day the girls got new pieces of paper, blank ones. This time, they were asked to write down or draw pictures to symbolize their dreams. The ideas were already there, and they emerged as clear statements on their pictures: I want to be a secretary! I want to be a doctor! I want to be an engineer! I want to be a professional painter!
"It is great that they can dream big, because each of these girls has so much potential," said Claudia Oscorio, one of IJM's social workers. She added that they led a practical workshop during retreat to help the girls learn how to plan for their dreams and make those aspirations attainable goals. She added, "We want them to be sure that they can accomplish their dreams and that God has big plans for them!"
After a full morning, the retreat came to a close when Delmi Ramirez, IJM Guatemala's Director of Aftercare, asked the girls to share their thoughts on the retreat. Many shared that it was a time to learn that they are not alone. And so as, the bus pulled up to the IJM office to drop off the girls, they walked away knowing that they are not alone, that they can hope, and they have a future.