Alan Turner is a treasured part of the Amigos de Jesús family. He first came to Amigos in 2008 as a long-term volunteer, and has since become a permanent staff member in Honduras. In total, Alan has been at Amigos longer than almost all of the current staff -- Honduran and North American alike. He serves as a constant, loving, and stable caregiver in the kids' lives, one who they know won't be leaving soon. Such figures are so important for our kids recovering from trauma. A proud Houstonian and Notre Dame graduate, Alan struts these loves through t-shirts, mugs, and talk of things like Notre Dame football and the Houston Astros. Alan's dedication to the kids is inspiring and we are so lucky to have him as part of our team.
Read more about Alan's unique journey at Amigos de Jesús in his interview below:
Hometown: Houston, TX
University: Notre Dame University
Major: Aerospace Engineering
Joined the Amigos de Jesús family in: 2008
1. How did you first hear about Amigos de Jesús?
I was going into my senior year at Notre Dame, and the summer before, I had gone to a children's home in Savannah, GA, and volunteered there for eight weeks in a program through Notre Dame, and so when I got back to campus they had a post-grad service fair, and I saw Amigos there. The reason I chose Amigos was because, I remember thinking, if I'm going to do some kind of volunteer work right after I graduate, it's going to be somewhere where I can work with kids. And I would like to go to another country because that sounds fun. The funny thing now is that one of the key factors to me was that it was only a one-year commitment. Most of the places I came across were two-year commitments and that just seemed like too long. And here I am almost 8 years later, still at Amigos. But that was how I heard and ended up here.
2. You have been at Amigos longer than almost all of the current staff. Can you talk about your journey at Amigos and how your role has changed over time?
Oh man. Well, I first came to Amigos in September 2008 as a member of the volunteer community. I ended up teaching 2nd grade math and English that first year and also helping the older boys in colegio (junior high) with their homework. Then I extended 8 more months after my first year until May 2010. In that second year I continued doing homework help, but my role in the school was a lot less. I did some tutoring with a couple of kids and some special education stuff, like speech therapy with one of our boys who is non-verbal. But that year then I also got added on being the "volunteer director," or coordinator, however you would like to describe it -- back then it was called director.
So those were my first couple of years. After my second year, I went home for a few months because they had stopped the volunteer program due to hiring new on-site directors (Amy and Wilson Escoto). I had already been thinking in my second year that I would like to come back a third year, and so even though they stopped the program, I asked Fr. Den if I could come back another year as a volunteer on my own, kind of as the director transition was happening. And he said yes. So I came back around August 2010. In that third year, my role was back to the school again. I taught English and P.E. for all grades and that year I think too, I don't think it was really part of my role, but just starting with Amy and Wilson, they would kind of ask me a lot of questions -- just trying to pick my brain, I guess. They have always known more about how this place runs than me, but I think at that time they were just trying to get an idea about how things were, who people were, how the kids were. And then yeah, that year especially, with all the change, I didn't really have an assigned role on the hogar (home) side. I would just kind of do whatever they needed. I drove a LOT, especially because Suyapa (our current lawyer who started around the same time as Amy and Wilson) was trying to get legal things together for the kids....birth certificates and other documents, and she doesn't drive. So I drove her on a lot of different legal errands.
So I stayed at Amigos for almost all of 2011, and then in December, I went back home to Houston, where I ended up staying for a year and a half, and getting a job in engineering. I'll talk about that more later, but eventually, they ended up offering me a paid position in Honduras, and I was more than happy to leave my engineering job. When I came back, my initial job was the "independent living coordinator," where I worked with our older kids on the kind of aging out and independent living process....you know, getting the university kids ready, helping them when they're in university, and helping the colegio (junior high/high school) kids.
And then about a year and a half in to the position, it changed to becoming a padrino coordinator, which is what I still am now. They never really wanted a North American in that position, but what happened is that they already had two coordinators who were women, and they wanted the third person to be a male, and none of the Honduran males were ready to take that position at that time. So it was just going to be a temporary thing of me taking it, but now two years later, I'm still doing it and it's been going well, so I don't think it might change for awhile.
3. Can you explain a little bit more about what your current job entails?
The job of the padrino coordinators is to make sure that the padrinos (the primary caretakers of the kids) have what they need to do their jobs and are doing their jobs. And then it also involves general oversite of the kids, not in one specific dorm only. There are three of us coordinators right now, and we also sort of have divided roles -- like who helps with health stuff, who is in charge of communication with the school, who is in charge of spirituality stuff, and then we each help with kind of random things that come up, as well.
Like a couple years ago before I was a padrino coordinator, one of our girls started attending middle school at a Christian school near Amigos, and because of the time of day, I ended up being the person who drove her to drop her off and pick her up everyday, and so I just kind of became the contact person with that whole school. And now we've got seven kids there, and I'm still kind of the point person.
Another side role I have is that since we started getting girls in 2012, I have sort of started working with them just as a healthy adult male in their lives. It's a talk we have always had with Amy and Wilson, that we would love for the girls to have more men in their lives, but you know, it's hard to find adult male figures you can trust with the girls. So it's great that Mr. Zack (2016-18 volunteer) is in Hogar 1 right now, too. But the world's not perfect. There should be more men who can be with them. They should have dads.
But yeah, the padrino coordinator job has grown a lot over time. Now we've got around 27-28 padrinos working directly under us, so it's a bigger responsibility with the padrinos and a bigger responsibility with the kids than ever before.
Alan and some of the girls from Amigos.
4. Alright, back to the story of how you were hired after your time as a volunteer. How did that go?
Okay, so like I said, after my third year as a volunteer, I went back to the U.S. and got a job in engineering -- oil and gas -- and it was just not nearly as much fun. It did pay a whole lot better, though. And that was the good thing -- I was able to save a lot of money. Also, they had these flexible hours, where I could work overtime Monday-Thursday and then I could get Fridays off every other week, plus I had 15 vacation days. And since Houston is so close, it was easy enough to fly down to Honduras for a three or four day weekend. So I visited a lot during that time -- like at least every two months. And I was also calling all the time to talk to the kids.
And then I remember one of the times when I was sending my travel dates to the U.S. office, I think for like my fourth visit or something, Emily Ford, who was the director in the U.S. at the time, said, "Why don't you just get it over with and move back?" So I guess other people maybe thought I was going back that way. So I remember asking, "What would that look like? What would the job be?" And then from there I think it ended up being a joint thing. The next time I came down for a trip, I sort of talked with Amy and Wilson about just like, what does Amigos need right now? And also, I wasn't going to be making demands because I did want to come back, but one of the things I said though, was that I didn't want to be assigned to just one small group of kids. I wanted to be with all of the kids. Even now, it would kill me to be like you're in Hogar 5 or 4 or 3,2,1,6,7, any of them. Even though I do spend more time in probably 3 than 4, for example, I just like having the option. I like being able to do something where I can bring any kids with me, not feel like I can only hang out with kids from one dorm.
So anyway, the big need for Amigos at that time was, and still is really, the independent living coordinator -- for our older kids living offsite. And that was something that still allowed me to work with all the kids and not just be confined to a small group. So as soon as they said that I could do that job, I was like, "Yea, sure! Let's figure out how it could look." It wasn't a very hard decision to make!
5. What drew you to want to come back to Amigos indefinitely?
It was the kids more than anything that brought me back. You know, when I left, it was all boys, and even though I guess today, I'm known to be closer with the girls, there were a few boys I was really close with that just made me want to be back. And then the whole decision was made easier by the fact that Amy and Wilson had been around at that point for awhile and I felt very comfortable working with them. And I was never one who had issues with culture shock or anything like that. Also, for me, the travel distance from here to Houston isn't much different than from Notre Dame to Houston when I was in college. So all of those factors combined, it wasn't a hard decision.
6. How long do you think you might stay at Amigos?
Well, thinking back on how close I felt to certain kids at the time I took the paid job a few years ago, now having been here even longer, I feel much closer to certain kids now, and so it would be even harder to leave now.
So this is a complicated question. I know this might sound strange, but I almost feel like I have an obligation to certain kids. There are one or two kids here that I just....worry about a lot. And I don't think I could go back to the U.S. and live and work there and just stop worrying about them all the time. Like people ask me, "Do you ever want to have your own kids?" And I'm like, sure, that would be nice, but then I think, gosh, the kids I'm closest with now would kill my kids. So I don't know, I care about these kids a lot. There is one girl who is kind of at the top of that list. She's one of a group of certain kids where they have really difficult personalities, and there are not a lot of people who really like them. And this girl is one of those kids. There's a lot of people who are not fond of her. But that's....that's my girl. And if I wasn't here, then who's going to stick up for her? I've like literally gotten in fights with people -- not fist fights, but actual like we need to leave this room, I don't want to talk to you, fights over stuff with her. Because I don't think she gets treated fairly a lot of times. And then she'll say, or I'll think, this is a kid who has nobody in the world. Could I adopt her? And then I'm like, if I adopted one kid, then I'm gonna have problems with wanting to adopt everybody else, too.
But people always ask me, "Are you going to be in Honduras forever?" And I'm like, no, because I'm not going to be in Honduras if I'm not at Amigos, and I'm not going to be at Amigos when I'm an old man because you can't be an old man and work with kids. I just won't have enough energy. The issue is, when do I become an old man? I don't know. At this point, though, at least one thing I know, on the worst day I can have here -- the worst interactions with kids and with co-workers -- it never crosses my mind to be like, "I gotta go, I can't be here anymore." You know, like in your first year, and everything is hard and it's Christmas-time and your like, "Oh, I miss home," or the kids are insulting you and you're in fights with your roommates, and you're like, "I can't wait to leave." But I'm just way beyond that point now. That just never goes through my mind. So, I don't know, leaving is something I don't think much about.
7. When you were here as a volunteer, did you ever picture you would one day work here full time?
No. Not at all. A big part of that was that there was no one else to see in that role. Or like, if I were a new volunteer now and there was someone like me here, and I could say, "Oh, there's someone who was a former volunteer who now works at Amigos de Jesús," then maybe that would have crossed my mind. But there was no one in any position like that then. So I just didn't even see an opportunity for something like this. So no, I didn't think of working forever here until they asked me. It doesn't feel like work though :)
8. How much Spanish did you know when you first came to Amigos, and how much did you learn during your time as a volunteer?
I knew basically nothing when I came. I had taken a class at Notre Dame, but it was just one semester and I didn't practice much at all. So when I first came, I went to language school, and so then it was "Hello," "How are you?" "My name is Alan." "Good morning." Those kinds of things. I was basically at that level when I got to Amigos.
Then the first couple of years as a volunteer I learned some, but when I really learned a lot was when there were no other volunteers. It really helped too with especially Wilson and Suyapa, but even Amy. Because you can tell the padrinos all you want to correct you if you're wrong, but they never do -- which I get, it's uncomfortable to correct someone. But Wilson and Suyapa did. So they definitely get a lot of credit for my Spanish being good now.
9. How has Amigos as an organization changed during your time here?
I figured this would be a question! But I didn't think of an answer....
Well, the most obvious answer would be that it used to be just boys....fewer than 50 boys....the smallest was 6,7,8 years old. Then only maybe half of the physical structures that are here now existed. Then another answer would be the school, as well as just general organizational structure. Over time, the way the organization runs has improved a lot.
But the school for sure. The partnership with BECA has been great for our kids. Since we partnered with BECA in 2013, you are able to tell, just objectively, by looking at the types of families who are sending their kids to our school, that we have a good school. People who have money, who understand that a good education for their kids is something that they need to fight for, send their kids to our school. I think that says a lot.
Another big change is the way we train people who come to Amigos to work with our kids. Our padrinos especially are now a lot better prepared when they come for working with this population of children who have experienced trauma. A big thing that has happened is we now have the padrinos working at a much higher level with the kids than they ever did before.
And then we have a priest now! That's a nice change.
Finally, I think you can see a lot of how the hogar has changed just by looking at how some of the kids have changed. Thinking of the boys who are getting ready to start university in a couple of months, and just thinking of how little and, like, trouble-makers they used to be, and the issues that they used to go through. They've gotten over that now and are ready to go to university. So that's a big change, just seeing how the kids change.
10. What do you like most about your current job?
One of the things, like I've said a couple of times, is that I have the freedom where I can work with all of the dorms. You know, like sometimes I'll take kids with me on my weekend off, and since I don't work with just one dorm, I've taken kids from all of the different dorms before and I don't have to feel confined to just one group of kids. But yea, even in general, the thing I like the most is just getting to spend time with all the kids in a wide variety of activities.
Another smaller thing that I do enjoy is being able to do things for the kids right away. I know a lot of times the padrinos feel kind of frustrated because, for example, if a kid needs new shoes, the only route the padrinos have is to come to us (the coordinators) and then we will look for shoes in the bodega (storage basement of donations). So I don't know, it's sort of nice where if I find out a kid needs something, I can just kind of get it done, I'm the one who's in charge of finding a way to do that. I don't need to go through someone else and someone else....
But mainly it's the first thing, being able to be with all different kids.
11. Have you ever faced any challenges as being the only "gringo" in your position as coordinator?
I've never had any real issues because I'm a "gringo," but I mean, obviously, I'm different than the other coordinators I work with or anyone who has ever had this position before me. I've asked the other coordinators before, like, "Is there any way, at any point in time, that the padrinos will stop seeing me as like, this is the 'gringo'?" And the answer is no, I mean they're never going to stop seeing that. And so there is always going to be that issue there, whether I want it or not. And I think some of the padrinos who have been here five or six years have gotten used to it now, but for example, we just did orientation with a group of new padrinos, and they are all in that phase still of, oh my goodness, one of my bosses is a "gringo." And so we start again...
But I mean, overall I don't think about it too much anymore. For example, when I was in orientation with the new padrinos just now, I wasn't even thinking about the fact I was the only "gringo" there. I'm secure enough in my Spanish now that I'm not thinking all the time like, "Don't screw up Spanish! Don't say something that's wrong! Don't say 'la' when it should be 'el'!" or whatever. I just talk.
I have a friend who is 6'8 and when we were in high school, we would walk through the halls and he would shriek like a little girl because he knew it embarrassed me. And his reasoning was, everybody's already looking at me anyways, everyone already thinks I'm a weirdo, I don't care anymore, I'm just going to do this, it doesn't bother me. So I mean, I don't do things now like on purpose to bother other people, but I've kind of gotten to the point where I don't care anymore about sticking out. I get it -- I'm 8 inches taller than most people here, I'm white, blue eyes. So as much as part of me feels like, "Oh, I'm Honduran now -- I can speak Spanish and eat baleadas and drink Pepsi all day," I can't blend in. It's just impossible. So I've gotten used to being different.
12. What are some memories that stand out to you from your time at Amigos?
I'm thinking of two:
One was one of the hardest times I've laughed in my whole life. It was when I was riding bikes with one of our boys who is 18 now, but who was 12 at the time. And we were on the dirt road on the way to the town nearest Amigos, and a herd of cows started coming toward us in the opposite direction. And you know how like when two people are going to walk into each other and you both stutter step one way and then stutter step the other way, and just that uncomfortable moment? Well, this boy did this with the cow on his bike. So the cow kind of ducked one way and he sort of steered his bike that way, and then he steered his bike the other way and the cow steered the other way with him. And they both just met in the middle and his chest went right into the cow's head. Luckily, he had been hitting the breaks too, so it was slow enough speed that he just kind of bounced back and didn't actually fall off the bike. But it was one of the funniest things that I've seen in my life. I just died laughing.
The other one that I like is when Adoni (who, in November 2015, became the first Amigos kid to graduate university) was in his first year of university, it was my year that I was the only volunteer at Amigos. And he studied psychology. As you know, there's not a lot of math in psychology and he doesn't like math, nor is he particularly good at math. So he asked for a lot of help that year when he actually had to take some general math classes. Anyway, it was some kind of calculus class he was taking, and we had a pretty good relationship where he felt comfortable enough to call me....at 3 O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING and say, "Hey, I have a test today." And I had known already because we had studied that weekend when he was here. But so he woke me up at 3 in the morning, and I remember just kind of reaching over and flipping the light on. I got a notebook and a pen, and I was lying in bed like with the phone under my ear and just like writing on the side of my bed these problems. And it ended up being like a two hour phone call, studying for his math test. I remember hearing the cooks walk in at 4:30, so I knew it was getting later in the morning. But then he called me back at like 8 that night saying that he got 100 on his exam. And it was just like the happiest thing. I was so happy, but at the same time I was just like, "You better have gotten 100!" Because otherwise I'm going to San Pedro and I'm going to get you...
13. What do you hope for Amigos de Jesús in the future?
That's a tough question. I would hope that Amigos de Jesús can continue giving kids a chance to study and grow up in what's basically a family, and prepare them to be successful adults. BUT I would also hope that that need doesn't exist and that Amigos de Jesús doesn't even have to exist anymore, as it is now, as a home with kids living here because they don't have families. I mean that would be the ideal situation. So I guess I would hope that as long as Amigos has to do what it's doing, that Amigos can do that.
For the kids, I hope that....I'm trying to avoid using the world "normal"....but I would hope that when they are adults, they are able to be successful and not be drawn back or hindered by their pasts. Obviously they are going to have negative effects for the rest of their lives. There's no way to get around that. But you know, if they are able to overcome the things that they've gone through, and be able to be just like any other adult. Or if someone finds out that they grew up in a children's home, that they would be surprised to find out this kid grew up in a home.