Joel the Shoeless

Posted Friday November 04, 2016 by Patrick Atkinson

Joel the Shoeless

Praying Boy

Joel The Shoeless

Nov 4, 2016
By Patrick Atkinson

His name was Joel. I’ll remember him for as long as I live.

Joel was a young beggar boy who carefully searched the garbage-strewn gutter outside my Central American home each day. When he found someone’s tied-off kitchen bag trash, he picked it up as if it might be filled with diamonds. He peeked under every discarded box.

Joel must be hungry, I thought, and since everyone, I believe, has enough to give to a child as hungry as he, each day I shouted at Joel to come get food, but he just ignored my offers to help.

For nearly a year I didn’t know where Joel slept or if he even had a family. One afternoon, though, we—plus the Guatemalan national police and a few people from the US embassy—entered a backstreet bar where we had been told children were sold.

The foreign tourists there tried to run, but we had taken that into account. The children who were rented out there to ‘sex tourists’ also tried to run, and we hadn’t considered that outcome. Joel was one of the runners who caught my eye as he pushed past me as he ran. He paused just before he escaped.

For 37 years now I have worked to fight human trafficking; first in the Fargo area during the 1970s while attending college, then with street gangs and child prostitutes in the grimy underbelly of New York.

Seven years of war-zone rescue work in Central America followed during the 1980s, and then a contract documenting human trafficking networks in Southeast Asia in the early 1990s.

Finally in 1991 I founded The GOD’S CHILD Project ( as a parental act to care for war refugee youth I had earlier raised. Ten years later, I founded the ‘Institute for Trafficked, Exploited & Missing Persons’ (; North Dakota’s first non-governmental anti-human trafficking group and, for the next several years, also one of the largest in the United States.

And while over these years I have worked with tens of thousands of abandoned child and adult prostitutes, human trafficking victims, and war-crime victims, I have never met anyone quite like Joel.

Two days after we assisted with that child prostitution sting and the sex tourist arrests in Central America, a surprise visitor knocked at my door. It was Joel. He was covered with lice and smelling foul.

When I spoke to him, he held up his hand and a strange guttural sound came from his throat. Then it hit me—Joel was deaf and had never learned to speak.

Abandoned by his father at birth, Joel was born to an alcoholic mother who also worked as a prostitute. She had syphilis when Joel was born and that spread to Joel’s ear canal which robbed him of his hearing.

Joel came to us with bad habits, lice, fleas, and rotted teeth. He also came with a sharp mind, survival instincts, and keen emotions. Violence on TV usually brought forth an anguished cry while watching a mother kiss her TV son good night brought tears to his eyes.

With time and patience, Joel pulled back from the brink, learned sign language, and graduated from school. He now works in a professional job, is married, and has a beautiful daughter.

In times of desperation and when life seems to be too much, we get tempted to throw in the towel and call it quits. It’s at times like this that we need to go to our safe harbor; the safe spot in our mind where we are always grateful for at least one special thing which reminds us of hope.

Remembering Joel is one of my safe harbors. Now he smiles often and works hard. He loves to laugh and tries to talk every chance he gets. He visits his mother who abandoned him so many years ago, and stops into random churches when he is weary.

Joel knows that I know that he used to eat garbage to survive and that I saw him run from a children’s brothel. He also knows that none of this makes any difference now. We are both just so glad that he made it.

For our daily successes we need to thank God each day.

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