Amazing things do happen!
By Kyla Stewart, Dec 2010
There they sat, all the players in the drama, in the small Canadian Embassy in Guatemala. Luz Mila, her mother, and Dan, while Dan’s father, Gord, talked with the lady in the Visa booth. Waiting, praying, pacing back and forth. And from what Dan could hear from around the corner, it wasn’t sounding good. Luz Mila and her mother, Lorena, watched his every movement and he shot them a tentative smile and thumbs up before turning his concentration back to the little room in which Gord and the Canadian Ambassador were duking it out. This day represented the culmination of two years worth of effort; applying for passports, waiting on Visa’s, choosing the best route to use to bring a 16 year old girl from the back roads of La Ceiba, Honduras to study just outside of the modern day city of Toronto, Canada.
Luz Mila grew up in a place that has no name. She grew up in a place of beauty, on the top of a mountain that looks out over the tropical rainforest of Honduras, out to the ocean and beyond. A place that anyone who visits will be overwhelmed by the remoteness and beauty of it all. Not that there are many visitors. She grew up in a place where the closest neighbor’s house is over an hour walk away and the closest town over three. There are no cars, no bikes, and no transportation except for your own two legs. She used them often, every day, walking for hours on end to attend the school that she knew was her ticket out of the situation she was born into, but always returning home at the end of the day to her dirt floor, mud and stick walled house. Her home.
Those who meet Luz immediately see something special in her. They see it in the subtle way she cracks a joke. They see it in the determination in her eyes, and know that she will use all opportunities provided to her to make a better life for her and her family. She already has in so many ways. The oldest of 6 children, Luz was the one to always usher the kids to school every day, waking up at 3 in the morning to begin chores and then have enough time to make the 2 hour trek down a narrow jungle path to the newly opened Jungle School, keeping an eye out for Jaguars on the way. In school she dedicated herself to her studies, finding time for homework in between helping her mother prepare the often scarce (sometimes non-existent) meal for the family. She came out top of her class, even completing fifth and sixth grade in the same year. This potential in Luz Mila was exactly what caught the eye of Dan Collins on his first volunteer trip to Honduras in October of 2007.
Dan came down to Honduras working with an organization called Helping Honduras Kids (HHK). His plans were uncertain at best, but the general idea was to help out at a newly opened school for the winter months, in order to put on programs for the kids who went there to give them something to do daily and provide them with a basic meal (often the only one they would get). The school served the kids who would otherwise have no chance at education, no chance of a way out of poverty. Once there, he quickly discovered the Castro family, with Luz heading the brood. Though they lived perhaps the furthest away, they were always the family with the best attendance, only missing school if rain was particularly bad. Dan saw the spark in Luz, saw the potential she had, and then a little light bulb went off in his head one day when they were working on a project with the kids called “Dream Flags”. The project was meant to get the kids thinking about the future, things they would like to do or be one day. It was something the kids really struggled with, because so many of them had engrained in their minds that ‘no, I can’t do that’, ‘no, I’ll never be that’. Luz Mila was 13, and this is what she told Dan “I know that education is the way my family will have food. It is my key. After my education, I want to be a teacher, so that I can help educate other kids like me”.
What had started as a six month travel break turned out to a year before Dan returned to Canada. But he wasn’t finished with HHK or the amazing children he had met there. He talked with his girlfriend Lisa, and six months later the two of them were back in La Ceiba, this time with the sole intention of working with Luz Mila, to “work on her English”. The real reason, unknown to anyone but themselves and their family, was they wanted to see if Luz could possibly make the transition from life in the tropical rainforest to a western country. They had decided that if it appeared she could make the adjustment, they would offer her the opportunity to study and go to high school in Canada which giver her more opportunities than she could have ever dreamed of in her home city. They took her to the movies, brought her to restaurants, watched TV together, drilled her in English, and at the end of six months they had no doubt in their minds that she would “rock it”. Before leaving, Dan, Lisa, Luz Mila and Luz Mila’s parents sat down together. With a little trepidation, Dan and Lisa put their idea on the table, nervously waiting to see what Luz’s and her parent’s reaction would be. The answer was an immediate, joyful and unhesitant yes from all parties.
After that, everything was a matter of logistics. As easy as that sounds, it wasn’t. Honduras is a country with extremely strict control over areas such as adoption, mainly because of previous child trafficking problems that had permeated the country. How was it going to look, Dan and his father, trying to bring a pretty little 16 year old Honduran up to Canada? Months of research went into what path they were going to try to take. They consulted David Ashby, director for HHK, and together the group of them worked with a lawyer to figure things out. Finally it was settled that they would apply for a student visa with a little twist. The twist came because on a student visa, the student or student’s sponsor has to pay for all education and healthcare the student receives in Canada, which is free to Canadian citizens. If the family could find out a way to make Luz a dependent under Gord and his wife, who Luz would be living with, then she could go to school for free, and later college at a much reduced price. The problem was- how? So the Collins did something that has never been done before. It took months of going from judge to judge but eventually they found one that would oversee the transfer of guardianship from Luz Mila’s parents to Gord and his Wife, only in Canada. They then got her proper documentation, a passport (with the wrong birthday because of a late birth certificate), and gathered all the documents they would need to have the student visa approved. Which once again left them all in the waiting room in the Canadian embassy in Guatemala, waiting for Gord to emerge from the cubicle conference room.
Finally, after what Dan said seemed like an eternity, Gord came out with a smile on his face and looked right at Luz Mila and said “you my girl are going to Canada”. That moment was the epoch of everything, the moment when the trip that had been discussed for two years was finalized. Luz’s mom burst into tears, followed by Luz, and even Dan and Gord could not believe that there dream was actually going to occur. It had come so close to failing, moments before when the woman Gord was talking to claimed he couldn’t get his story straight. After some groveling, he asked to see someone else, had a short 10 minute conversation with her, she stamped a paper, and that was it. It was official.
Luz Mila Castro, 16-year-old Honduran superstar, 5 months later, is now in Canada living outside of Toronto with Gord and his wife Catherine. She lives in a beautiful house, with her own room and a closet full of clothes donated by those who want to see her succeed. She saw snow for the first time, and is adjusting to a country where the temperature drops far below the 80°F she is used to. Dan and Gord enrolled her in a brand new school, let everyone know she was coming, set her up in English classes to improve her already fabulous English, and are planning on turning her into a diehard hockey fan. She has the whole wide world in front of her and a community of people from all walks of life cheering for her to succeed. We are inviting you to become one of them. Sometimes amazing things do happen.
For more information about the organization that started Luz on her incredible journey and helped her get to where she is, please visit www.helpinghonduraskids.org. Also, check Luz Mila (Luz Mila Castro) out on Facebook to see how she is fairing in Canada.