When kids don't get to be kids

This is my friend Johnny. He is one of the Senterra kids -- the Senterras are one of the families I have committed to showing special care and attention to when I go to Haiti. I pray for this family and wonder about them when I am so far away.

The photo tells several parts of a story of a tender-hearted boy who cannot afford to be as tender-hearted as he wants to be. I would go on to say that he cannot be as tender-hearted as he is created to be. Johnny is a sweet kid, but he has to negotiate a frequently brutal world of survival and street fighting.

Looking at the boy on the right and you get a picture of the world that awaits a Haitian boy when he walks around on the street. Sure he has friends, but situations can turn ugly quickly. There is a never-ending game of dominate-or-be-dominated that runs 24 hours a day on Haitian streets. It is a situation shared by millions of boys around the world who grow up in areas gripped by poverty.

Johnny is one of those kids who has to play the game but doesn't like it. Look into his eyes and you see the deep sadness of a boy who is not as hard as he needs to be. He often looks to me like an actor playing a part for which he is poorly suited. Johnny is cursed with a kind heart and small stature. His nickname is "Tili," which means "little one."

One day a couple of us walked out of the MDL girls' house, and I saw Johnny leaning up against a telephone pole. As I walked closer, I could see something was wrong. He was scowling and trying to hold back tears. He had a rock in his hand. Smears and splotches of light gray dust stood out against the dark skin of his head, arms, and legs. He had just been beaten up.

We felt helpless. The other boy was nowhere around, and I wasn't sure what to say to Johnny. This is not an infrequent occurrence around the streets where we are. I put my arm around him and tried to console him a little, but I knew I couldn't fix the real situation. The next day I saw Johnny again, and I asked him about the fight. It turned out that another of my young friends, a bigger and stronger boy named SonSon, had delivered the beating. One of them had said something that had resulted in the fight. SonSon had hit Johnny in the knee with a rock. When Haitian kids square off to fight, they pick up rocks or sticks or anything else they can use as a weapon. It's part of the ritual.

I invite you to join me in praying for Johnny. I want him to have a shot at a future that allows him to be his best self. I want that look of sadness on his face to be replaced with one of joy.

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