Chepe—leader of the shoe-shine boys in Central Park, Xela, Guatemala—was nicknamed “Crazy Chepe.” If he said, “Let’s smoke,” all the boys would smoke. If he said, “Let’s steal,” the boys would steal. When he said, “Let’s play soccer,” they’d play soccer. Everybody would follow him.
There were many shoe-shine boys in Central Park. Following Guatemala’s 30–year civil war, a lot of indigenous families were forced out of their land and didn’t have any way to find food or work. So the older boys in the families were sent to larger cities—like Xela—to make money and support the family. Shining shoes for a few cents a shine was one of those jobs. They found shared living spaces with other boys, and spent their days in the park, earning what they could. The boys were basically ignored by the rest of the world; people wouldn’t even look at them or acknowledge their presence.
Unlike most of the other boys, Chepe had grown up in Xela. He was basically an orphan, and had started shining shoes to support himself and his grandmother. It had been an uphill battle to win the respect of the other boys, but he’d done it.
When InnerCHANGE leaders went to Xela, asking God if they should start a team, they saw the shoe-shine boys. Actually, they saw Chepe, who was only about ten years old at the time.
During that scouting trip, one leader discovered the cramped youth dormitory where Chepe and many other boys were living. In that moment she heard God speak: “This is where the team should be working.”
So InnerCHANGE began a ministry focused on the shoe-shine boys of Central Park. And “Crazy Chepe” was one of the first boys they got to know.
German and Karla, the team leaders, spent a lot of time just hanging out with the boys, building relationship and trust, and witnessing what the boys experienced. A lot of the boys came from abusive homes where there wasn’t much affection and were very guarded. But over time, German and Karla’s consistency in being present and trustworthy gave them a level of influence with the shoe-shine boys that other people had never had. They especially gained a level of trust with Chepe.
At the end of that year, Chepe learned about a soccer tournament. He decided it would be cool to participate and asked German and Karla if they would form a soccer team for the shoe-shine boys. German and Karla had noticed Chepe’s leadership with the other boys. They asked him to form the team instead of them—with the requirement that the team would have to practice three times a week. Chepe led, and the soccer team was formed.
Never having played in a tournament before, the shoe-shine boys’ team lost every game. But two powerful things came out of that first tournament: German and Karla were able to start doing Bible studies with the kids, and Chepe decided he wanted to go back to school.
German and Karla had been talking with the kids for awhile about school...and none of them wanted to go. But when Chepe changed his mind, about eight other boys made the same decision. Chepe led the charge into a different kind of life.
German and Karla continued to consistently care for the shoe-shine boys and advocate for them to get off the streets. They became like parents to Chepe, and eventually invited him to live with them. They became Chepe’s family; their kids were like siblings to him. As Chepe watched the way they lived their lives, loved their kids, and loved God, his own relationship with God grew.
As time went on, Chepe was able to get a scholarship to one of the more prestigious high schools in Xela. All the other students came from rich families. With his history of growing up on the streets, and an indigenous last name, Chepe suffered a lot of bullying. But just like he’d worked hard to gain respect and influence with the shoe-shine boys, Chepe eventually earned the respect of his classmates, teachers, and even the director of the school. He graduated near the top of his class.
Now Chepe is finishing his law degree and helps families in the community with legal issues. He’s giving back as an assistant coach for the soccer team he formed years ago—motivating kids on the streets by sharing his story and inspiring them that they can have a different future. Chepe’s been constantly wanting to grow in his relationship with God as well, something he saw constantly modeled by German and Karla. Chepe’s still leading the way to a different kind of life in his community.
The long-term investment of the Xela InnerCHANGE team has brought about dramatic changes for the kids in Central Park. The shoe-shine population has declined and there are very few young boys walking around like there were when our team formed. Over the years, we’ve helped many get back to school or reintegrate with their families. Like Chepe, each boy has their own story. It’s an honor to know them and see God’s work in their lives on so many levels. We’re eager to see the doors that continue to open and the changes that continue to be made not only in them, but through them as well.
Chris Campbell lives in Xela, Guatemala with his wife Liz and their new baby. Chris has served with InnerCHANGE since 2012. Their team, still led by German and Karla Avila, continues to minister to kids who work on the streets, but is now blessed to be able to work with entire families, providing parenting support, tutoring for the kids after school, and opportunities to grow in relationship with God.