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.
Elizabeth Ann found her calling after raising five children of her own.
Elizabeth Ann found her calling after raising five children of her own.
Elizabeth Ann found her calling after raising five children of her own.
Elizabeth Ann found her calling after raising five children of her own.
Elizabeth Ann found her calling after raising five children of her own.
Elizabeth Ann found her calling after raising five children of her own.
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.

Doña Paula was scheduled to have cataract surgery, so last Saturday, Eduardo and I went to visit her in Lagoona, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Tela.Martha, the mother of the Castro Paz children, was to go with Doña Paula. They're not related, but Martha has a heart of gold and takes care of her own six children and Doña Paula, who has become completely blind.

When we arrived, Doña Paula was semi-conscious and Martha was standing by her bed mechanically flipping a towel trying to keep the large black flies away. She stopped occasionally to try and give Doña Paula some juice from a spoon. Then the fanning started up again. I wondered how long she had been standing there. It was obvious there would be no surgery in two days' time.Martha showed me what was left of one of Doña Paula's toes. During the night, a rat had gnawed away her little toe on her left foot. I was horrified, and reluctant to look, but to these people, this is not uncommon. Eduardo and I decided the best thing to do was pray. We got down on the dirt floor, and first I prayed, and then he prayed. Then we left to get some supplies.

Martha was still mechanically fanning when we got back.Martha watched as I first used hydrogen peroxide, then Betadine, then Neosporin, which was like water because of the heat. I covered the stump with a Teflon pad secured by surgical tape. I told Martha to try to do the same a couple of times each day.

Eduardo and I left with sadness and many questions. How could Martha cope when she has so much responsibility? She has six children and goes to homes to do washing. How does she do so much with so little education, living in such small quarters in extreme poverty? Children over here are not sheltered from the reality of suffering and death and learn to deal with things at a very early age. Her calmness put me to shame. Martha's problems are greater because her husband drinks, and he is little help.

I was not surprised when two of the children arrived early Monday morning to tell me Doña Paula had died the night before. She would have to be buried within the next few hours but they didn't have a coffin. I felt they must need more than this so went to Allan's office to call Eduardo's mother. She promised to take a message to Eduardo that I needed his help for the day and would meet him at Allan's.

Arriving at the house, she found Martha still flipping flies. It was as if she had never moved, but she had prepared Doña Paula in a white dress, probably better than any dress she usually wore in life. Martha had changed her own dress, and her hair was combed. She was softly playing her cassettes with her favorite hymns. She desperately needed help. There was no food in the house. They needed permission for burial. Her husband and two other men were already digging the grave, but no one had gone to get permission because they didn't have the money. The pastor was away in San Pedro, but we found someone else to fill in. Eduardo used his stepfather's pickup and took the coffin to the house and later drove it to the cemetery. I presume the few people there were from the church, but Martha was alone. I stood by her during the short service and soon realized she was sobbing quietly. Her husband and his friends had the large hole ready, and he was waiting at the bottom to receive the coffin. He could hardly stand. His two friends had both passed out from their drinking. Merlin, her eleven year old daughter, cried as they covered the coffin with the red clay dirt. I gave Martha a hug, and Eduardo, Marvin and I left. There was little we could do.

Throughout all this experience, Marvin was with me. To him it was normal, and to be honest, he didn't want to miss anything. He declined staying with a friend on Monday morning. When I wrote last I was expecting Marvin to be in Hogar de Fe by now, but he is still with me. The wife of the orphanage director overruled the decision made in her absence. I was devastated at first. The reason didn't really make sense. She was right when she said that Marvin is ahead academically for the children they have. He is also possibly a few months older, but we don't have birth records, so don't know his age for sureThere was no point in arguing.

Please continue to pray, especially for a good home for Marvin. He is getting so used to living with me that it will make it harder on him to be in an institution than if he had gone sooner. -- Elizabeth Ann Gilderson, October 10, 2000

The children sit in a room in the Christian Education Center at Good Shepherd working on their English lessons. Ledy Reyes, 12, her sister Melissa, 13, Belkis Cruz, 18, and Kevin Andrade, nine, look like any other kids you'd see in a Houston school. "These clothes are all borrowed," Gilderson confides. Their education is being sponsored by private donors.

This is the latest installment in Gilderson's great enterprise. For the first time, she's brought some of her students to Tomball with her, hoping to better their English by immersing them in the culture here for two months.

Melissa, the most outgoing of the group, equates English with success. "In all the world, people need to learn English. With English, you have more opportunities," she says. "I want to be a woman, important, in the office, the boss." She says emphatically. And the ultimate goal of all this? "To have my own things, my own house, my own family."

Melissa wants to make her future in Honduras, living there while operating her business in several countries. For now, she lives with her mother, sister, aunt, cousin and three-year-old brother in a tiny house.

Belkis lives in somewhat better circumstances financially with both parents, four brothers and a sister. But Gilderson says things are not going well between the girl's parents. And her English ability is the most limited of the group; she missed the basics, Gilderson says. Belkis hopes to be a bilingual secretary someday.

Kevin, who lives with both parents and a younger brother, is the most fluent in English. He goes to a special bilingual school in addition to studying with "Miss Ann" as the others do. He had another brother who died two years ago of sickle cell anemia, a death that could have been avoided with better treatment, Gilderson says. Kevin is a carrier of the same disease. He wants to be a fireman.

It is interesting to look back and see how incidents in the past form a network, which becomes a part of the future. About twenty years ago, I spent one year in Miami, Florida. While there, I met Linda, who almost became family.Linda wrote me about five years ago telling me of Viva Network, a missions organization which works with agencies involved with children at risk.When Marvin's situation became critical, I decided to call Katja (a Viva representative) for help.

Katja started calling orphanages, and mostly the response was the same: Marvin was too old. She finally found a home where they have two hundred children which is about an hour beyond Tegucigalpa travelling from here. El Orfanatorio Emanuel is sponsored by Amor Cristiano Internacional (Christian Love International).

Marvin's father was asked to sign more papers.He had no problem, but he volunteered that Marvin's mother was living in a village not far from Tela and didn't want Marvin to go to a home.Soon we found this to be untrue because the judge from Family Court together with Allan and other of her staff paid a visit to the mother. The judge decided quickly that there would be no future for Marvin in the poor conditions his mother was living in. Why did she suddenly come into the picture when Marvin had not lived with her since he was three years old? Within a few days, it appeared as if both mother and father were hoping to get some money out of the arrangements we had made for Marvin.

On Wednesday, November 8, the Court Secretary, Allan and I left with Marvin for San Pedro. It was difficult because I was unable to tell Marvin how long it would be before he was in his permanent home in the mountains. How could I trust the system to come through with the arrangements we had made? My faith wavered, but I knew people were praying. The reception in San Pedro was cold. We were instructed to leave Marvin alone sitting on a bench and depart. No one had come forward to meet him or us. The Secretary had handed in a paper with scant details at the desk. In desperation I called out that Marvin had medication with him for his gum disease, and it was important that he use it three times a day. Sadly we left. Allan visited two days later, saw the social worker and Marvin, who seemed very happy. We were expecting the social worker to come to Tela, but instead we heard that they had already transferred Marvin to Guaimaca. It is impossible to express my relief and gratitude for his safety and comfort.

Marvin lived in my house for ten weeks. -- Elizabeth Ann Gilderson, November 19, 2000

Elizabeth Ann Gilderson seems a figure from another era, a Dickens character of sorts. She belongs to a denomination that spends a lot more of its "missionary" efforts on the local front. But she heard a call to go to Honduras, Gerber says, and church members supported her in that.

"The Gospel needs to be spread, but more so by humanitarian Christlike actions, instead of cramming it down the throats of people," Gerber says. "We are commanded by Christ to love people, and she is fulfilling that command."

Gilderson says it herself: She doesn't sit under a tree in a fluffy hat preaching. "I hope they will see Christ in what I do."

Sixty-six years old now, she set out on a great adventure 12 years ago armed with only ten weeks of missionary training. She's spent those years giving out milk, food and hugs, in and out of rainy seasons and hurricanes. She could have been comfortable. She chose instead to be comforting, rendering something holy out of her humanity.

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