Colombian teen finds home in St. Albans
ST. ALBANS, W.Va. -- After emerging from the water of a cistern where his father was trying to drown him, Yilmar Chaverra Moreno knew he had to escape.
At 8 years old, he jumped from the third-story window of the apartment he shared with his father and never looked back.
He hadn't really known his father, said Moreno, now 18 years old. He had come to live with him only after dodging guerilla gunfire in his hometown. That day, he witnessed his grandmother, his only caretaker, get kidnapped. His mother had disappeared shortly after she gave birth to him, when she was 19.
Moreno made his way to Quibdo, the capitol city of the Choco Department, one of the most dangerous and poorest areas in Colombia, where he expected to be welcomed by his estranged father. But his father sent him to work on the streets, Moreno said, and would beat him if he didn't return home with money.
"I knew he would kill me," Moreno said describing the night he fled.
After leaving his father, he lived on the streets with a group of other orphans for approximately four months. One boy mentioned Medellin, a city of about 4 million people where he believed there would be a homeless shelter for children.
To make the three-day journey to Medellin, he and several others clung to the back of a lumber truck. Moreno recalled the ride by lifting both arms above his head.
"When our arms got tired we jumped off and ran alongside the truck," he said.
He's been running his whole life. Running away from guerrilla gunfire, an abusive father, homelessness and life on the streets.
Now at age 18, he sprints up and down a soccer field for Teays Valley Christian School and is able to catch his breath in St. Albans, where he lives with Barbara and Jim Recknagel.
Relaxing in the Recknagel family's living room this week, Moreno gripped a map of Colombia he had printed off from his computer.
Barbara and Jim Recknagel and their two sons, J.B., 25, and Adam, 22, stared at the young man as he recalled stories from his past.
Jim Recknagel said the five were going to spend Thanksgiving at his mother's house and after would return to their St. Albans home to celebrate with traditional Colombian food.
Above the couch where Moreno sat close to Barbara Recknagel are rows of decorations. In the middle of the décor hangs a picture frame holding the word "family."
"He's a member of our family," Jim Recknagel said.
"It's an honor that he's here," Barbara Recknagel said, wiping tears from her eyes. "His journey is just starting."
A long journey
Moreno's journey to St. Albans began years after making it to the homeless shelter in Medellin. Officials at the shelter saw he wasn't using drugs like many of the other children and soon offered him a place at a boy's home at a dairy farm in the countryside.
The boys' farm, operated by the West Virginia-based Open Arms Foundation, is in San Pedro, about an hour's drive from Medellin.
Moreno arrived at the farm at age 9. Barbara Recknagel started visiting the farm annually about eight years ago on mission trips with her church.
"We'd go there and we'd do work of some kind and spend a lot of time getting to know all the boys there," she said.
She remembers Moreno during her first trip, but they didn't communicate much because of a language barrier.
"I didn't speak Spanish, and he didn't speak English," she said.
She continued to visit the farm year after year. Her sons and her husband also visited.
Moreno immersed himself in his studies, learning how to read and speak properly. This was the first time he had ever attended school.
Bill Perrow, of Cross Lanes, who founded the boys' farm and was like a father to Moreno, had promised him if he continued his education and learned English he would make sure he got to the United States.
During his studies, Moreno became a Christian, which he believes lead him to discover a strong desire to learn.
Although he was thriving on the farm, he yearned to be part of a family.
"I used to pray for my mom, that I could sometime know her. One day I ran out of the foundation, because I was so sad -- I just wanted to find my mom. I went on the streets looking for her," he said.
In what Moreno describes as a miracle, his aunt, who probably saw him last as a toddler, recognized him walking down a street in Medellin. She was in the city while her husband was having an operation on his knee, he recalled.
"I can take you to your mother," his aunt told him.
When he met his mother he was happy, but angry too. He wondered why she had left him so many years ago.
They spent several months together, but he says his maturity allowed him to realize she still wasn't able to care for him. He returned to the farm.
Coming to the U.S.
Moreno still wanted to come to the United States.
"Hey, it's the United States," he laughed.
He started asking the missionaries words and writing them down. While other kids were playing, he was learning the English language.
He started an intensive language course and in no time was ready to make Perrow keep his promise and send him to America.
"I thought, 'Hey, he can stay with us," Barbara Recknagel said during one of her trips to Colombia. She sent her husband an email to make sure it was all right. "Sure it's OK if he comes," he wrote back.
Before the process of getting Moreno's visa began, Barbara Recknagel asked him if he would want to come and live with her family.
"He said 'yes, yes I do'," she remembered. "I told him Jim and I are pretty good parents -- he had never had that -- and he looked at me and said, 'Barb, I know that'. I asked him how he knew, 'I've met your sons'," she said he told her. "And this is out of the mouth of a young man who just turned 18."
Barbara Recknagel remembered a special moment soon after he agreed to come live with her family. Moreno asked her if she'd like a photo of him as a young boy.
"Of course I would, I said." She teared up recalling placing the photo in her Bible.
Moreno was granted a student visa on June 8 and arrived in Charleston on July 23.
When he got to the Recknagels' home, Barbara and Jim said, he wanted to do all the household chores.
"He said, 'I will work for you,'" Jim Recknagel recalled. "I said, 'Yilmar, you're not here to work' -- and then he saw what little our boys could get away with doing," he said with a laugh.
"We really had to show him this is how a family operates, what we do for you, we gladly do that for you," Barbara Reckngael said.
Moreno had never had a room of his own. He told the couple that the room designated for him was "too much."
Moreno started attending Teays Valley Christian School in the fall and joined their soccer team. He had only played organized soccer for about three years, but for the first time in about 20 years the team won their homecoming game, defeating Ohio Valley.
He plans to graduate in the spring and hopes he'll be able to attend the West Virginia University Institute of Technology, possibly on a soccer scholarship, to study business. He wants to focus on nonprofit groups, so he can return to Colombia one day and help kids who are facing the same situation he once was.
Meanwhile, he has continued to build a relationship with his mother, and they frequently exchange emails.
"I don't regret what I've been through, it helps me make the most of things and enjoy," Moreno said. "America is so blessed and I am so thankful for God and my family. I am so blessed for the relationship I have with these guys," he said looking around at the Recknagels.
"Now, you may go to West Virginia Tech, but this will still be your home," Jim Recknagel told Moreno. "You always come back on holidays and we fix your favorite meals."
"And you bring your dirty laundry," Barbara Recknagel added.
Reach Kate White at email@example.com or 304-348-1723.