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These girls were abused and abandoned. In a dangerous city, they have found peace

Spencer Reece with some of the girls at Our Little Roses, the home for abused and abandoned girls in Honduras started by Miami’s Diana Frade.
Spencer Reece with some of the girls at Our Little Roses, the home for abused and abandoned girls in Honduras started by Miami’s Diana Frade. Special to the Miami Herald

Aylin is mad at her mother.

Not that this is an anomaly in mother-daughter relationships. Teenage girls often bristle at the women who brought them into the world.

But with Aylin, an 18-year-old Honduran girl who has lived most of her life in a home for girls in San Pedro Sula — regularly atop the world’s most dangerous cities list — the anger is raw, the shards of shrapnel piercing her heart.

“Every week, every day, every hour, every minute and every second that I pass without my family it feels like a knife trying to get inside a rock.

“I am the knife and the rock is my life.”

Aylin is reading from a poem she wrote, “Counting,’’ in a documentary premiering Sunday at the Miami Film Festival, “Voices Beyond The Wall: Twelve Love Poems From The Murder Capital of the World.”

The film, which was directed by Brad Coley and lists James Franco as executive producer, tells the story of Our Little Roses, a home and school for abused and abandoned girls in San Pedro, a city known for its apparel factories, gang violence and barrios where children play in fetid water or forage for food at the city dump.

Nuestras Pequeñas Rosas was founded nearly 30 years ago by Diana Frade, a Kansas woman doing business in Honduras who would see girls living in cardboard boxes on street corners and asked: “Who is doing anything for the girl child?”

These girls speak the messages of life, about what’s important in becoming a human being. They’ve been up against tremendous odds and yet they come through beautifully.

Brad Coley, director, ‘Voices Beyond The Wall: Twelve Love Poems From The Murder Capital Of The World’

Frade, now a Miamian who lives part time in Honduras with her husband, Leo Frade, the Cuban-born retired Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Southeast Florida, answered that question when she opened her doors in January 1988 to two sisters. The sisters had been directed to Frade by a Honduran judge who believed that a home built on love was a better place to raise children than the streets of San Pedro Sula.

Over 29 years, the girls have been loved, have been fed (literally and spiritually) and have been schooled. What began as one preschool class has morphed into a bilingual elementary, middle and high school, with the first high school class graduating in 2013. (Before the high school, the girls attended local schools.)

Many of the girls have gone on to college, with several continuing to grad school. One is a dentist who did post-graduate work in cosmetic dentistry, teaches at the university dental school and runs a clinic for the girls and townspeople. Another is an engineer getting her MBA in Wales, while a third recently graduated from law school.

“Our Little Roses’ successes are nothing less than miracles,” Frade says.

It is here where Spencer Reece finds himself at the start of the documentary. Reece, 53, is a former Brooks Brothers assistant manager — his last post was at the Gardens Mall in Palm Beach County — who would write poetry when he wasn’t selling Windsor knot ties and nailhead suits. One of his poems, “The Clerk’s Tale,” was published in the New Yorker.

Reece left retail to become an Episcopal priest. While training at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University, he worked as a hospital chaplain in the emergency room at Hartford Hospital. One night, a young man was rushed in with 25 stab wounds, a victim of a gang war. He died the next morning. His mother, from Puerto Rico, looked to Reece for comfort. But she spoke only Spanish; he spoke only English.

He called his mentor, Bishop Frade, who had been the bishop in Honduras before coming to Miami. Reece told him he needed to learn Spanish. Immediately.

“I have just the place for you,” Frade said, filling him in on the Spanish-language immersion program at Our Little Roses.

When Frade noted that the program was in Honduras, Reece asked: “Where’s that?”

Reece would soon find out. He spent the summer in the Spanish program. And while he had some interaction with the girls, he clearly was out of his comfort zone.

“I was the last person on Earth who would be called there,” Reece said. “I didn’t know anything about social justice. I hardly spoke Spanish. I was white, privileged and from the Midwest. Nothing screamed Honduras to me.”

That is, until his last night. As he went to his room to pack, one of the girls was standing outside his door.

“I asked her, ‘What are you doing here?’ 

“She said, ‘We heard you are leaving tomorrow.’ It took me by surprise, as I didn’t know they really knew I was there.”

“She turned to me and said, ‘No nos olvides.’ Don’t forget us.”

Said Reece: “Those three words changed the course of everything. I went into my room, closed the door and cried.”

Reece returned to Yale to finish his seminary studies, plotting how he could return. He applied for a Fulbright fellowship, proposing to write a book of poems about Honduras. He was a finalist but didn’t make the cut.

He re-applied the next year, after having spent the year in Spain, the result of winning the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, a grant that enabled him to take a full year of Spanish.

This time, Reece proposed that the girls would write the poems; he would be their teacher, with an assist from Richard Blanco, the Miami-raised poet who delivered his moving poem, “One Today,” at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Reece got the Fulbright.

The film documents his year of teaching poetry, and the impact the poems have had on the girls, as they excavate layers caked by the calluses of pain and abandonment. (An anthology of the poems, “Voices Beyond the Wall: Love Poems by the Rescued Girls of Our Little Roses, San Pedro Sula, Honduras,” will be published in December and can be ordered through Books & Books.)

The poems, interspersed throughout the film, aren’t easy to listen to.

In one, “Little Red Hot Lips,” the author, Ana Ruth, writes about a girl who leaves the safety of the home.

Little Red Hot Lips went away, la la!

Oft to her beloved grand mama.

She knew nothing about life at all,

nothing about anything outside the wall.

Trust me, it doesn’t end well.

In another, “I Will Be A Happy Girl,” Leily, a shy, bespectacled young woman, laments her life.

When I was six I saw my parents a few times between one and four in the afternoon.

I forgot their names.

When I look up at the sky I do not wonder about them.

I am going to play and I am going to dance … to make some fun in the dark shadows.

I will be a happy girl.

To Coley, the director, the poems speak of the girls’ resilience and their emotional IQ.

“These girls speak the messages of life, about what’s important in becoming a human being,” he says. “They’ve been up against tremendous odds and yet they come through beautifully.”

Blanco, the inaugural poet, says that’s the power of poetry.

“It’s attaching language to the feelings. You reach another plane, another level of understanding,” Blanco says. “In the case of the girls, it’s not just about the cathartic experience but about them realizing they are capable of love, capable of joy, capable of being proud of who they are.”

Even when the journey can be difficult.

Every night I start thinking and talking to God in my prayers: ‘Why, God, why did my family leave me alone?’ Aylin asks.

By the poem’s end, she is determined to find her mother — not for retribution, but for something more powerful: forgiveness.

When I graduate from college and when I am finally somebody in this world, God, I will go straight to Mexico where my mother lives and I will stare at her like I stare at the stars and with a voice that cracks like thunder I will say: I FORGIVE YOU!

Joan Chrissos volunteers every summer at Our Little Roses with a group from St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Coral Gables.

If You Go

What: Premiere of “Voices Beyond The Wall: Twelve Love Poems From the Murder Capital of the World”

When: 3 p.m. Sunday, March 5, at MDC’s Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami.

Tickets: $13, 2017.miamifilmfestival.com

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