Hard Call

A Tomball woman took on street waifs to find the truth: Comfortable can't compare to comforting

Elizabeth Ann Gilderson grew up in Canterbury, England, during World War II. She was a teacher because, she says, all women in England back then were nurses or teachers, and "that's what we all did." She married and moved with her husband, a research chemist, to Edmonton in the Canadian province of Alberta. She taught primary school till she had her babies -- five in all -- and then she and her husband moved all over America following his jobs for oil companies. She lived in the Houston area three times.

One Sunday at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Tomball, a now-divorced Gilderson listened along with others in the Episcopal congregation as a visiting priest told of the need for teachers at the Holy Spirit School in Tela, Honduras. One of the parishioners leaned over to Gilderson, asking: "Is the Lord speaking to you, Elizabeth Ann?" Gilderson said she didn't know. She went and talked to the priest. He had shown slides of the street children, and that's what really attracted her to the idea. She told him she wasn't free to come yet -- her youngest was still in high school -- but in a couple of years she would be.

And so in 1988, with no Spanish and little acquaintance with a lifestyle far removed from her upper-middle-class life, Elizabeth Ann Gilderson, British accent and all, went to Tela, Honduras, a sad city in a very beautiful but dirt-poor country. She became a missionary from Tomball, Texas.

Belkis Cruz, Melissa Reyes, Ledy Reyes and Kevin Andrade traveled from Honduras with Elizabeth Ann Gilderson.
Deron Neblett
Belkis Cruz, Melissa Reyes, Ledy Reyes and Kevin Andrade traveled from Honduras with Elizabeth Ann Gilderson.
Elizabeth Ann found her calling after raising five children of her own.
Elizabeth Ann found her calling after raising five children of her own.

"Do you ever cry?" Marvin had just woken up after spending another night on my couch. He has more or less moved in. At least I know where he is now, and I don't have to worry that he's on the street. Marvin and his family have never lived in a house. When I first knew him he was sleeping in a hut temporarily constructed to store building materials. They had no water, electricity or windows. Later Marvin, his father Berto, and the seventeen year old girl who had just become the mother of Berto's baby, moved to a shack right on the highway, very dangerous and dusty. Marvin wasn't registered in school, and things looked bad. Marvin started spending every Saturday night with me, and sometimes other nights besides.One Sunday evening after dark, Marvin arrived at my gate after running more than four miles. Isabel had thrown a machete at him.I'd often wished I had something to use legally to get Marvin into an orphanage, and it seemed I might have something now. However, I would have to file and petition the courts to put him into an orphanage I knew was reliable rather than allow Marvin to end up in a worse position than he is in now. -- Elizabeth Ann Gilderson, September 7, 2000

Gilderson's first disappointment upon arrival was to find out that the program for street children had been discontinued. The headmaster at the school urged her to restart it, but Gilderson felt ill-equipped; her Spanish was nonexistent. So instead she focused on her teaching at the Episcopal school, which was mostly for rich children, although some were there on scholarship. Eventually, though, she got together with a friend, and they started Bible classes on Saturday nights for the street children. Their cooking was a draw. The children started coming in during the week, too, for games, puzzles, milk and food. More of them came.

"You just befriend them. They come," she says. Soon she wasn't just teaching them to read and playing games and feeding them. She was doctoring their injuries and diseases, and getting them to clinics.

She stayed there for five and a half years, returning home about once a year for visits. Then her father became ill and asked that she come back to nurse him. After a year of that, she asked Father Stan Gerber if she could go back to Tela. On her return, she cut back her hours at the school, now teaching only Bible class and chapel music so she could devote more time to the street children. After the 1998 hurricane, she resigned completely from the school, making the street children her sole ministry.

Throughout this, she's been dependent on one sponsor or another for money. First it was the national Volunteers for Mission, and now it's Good Shepherd, her home church, and some other Episcopal churches. She is still dependent on donations to make ends meet, and on her visits home she talks of the children's needs at local churches -- though she doesn't ask directly for money. She lives far from a lavish lifestyle in a small house in Tela. Her visa runs out in February; she'd like to renew it, to stay at least one more year, but doesn't know if she'll have enough money to do that.

In Tela, mornings are spent getting ready for the children, often walking to the market to buy bags of powered milk for that day's sessions at her house. She usually makes the children cheese or peanut butter sandwiches. Many of them are always hungry, she says. Some live on the beach, a dangerous place. "These are very, very poor children. They don't have refrigerators. They don't have glass in their windows. I don't have glass in my windows." Often the children are neglected by parents overwhelmed by poverty and too many children, she says. Eleven-year-old Marvin told her she was the first person who had ever hugged him in his life.

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