From Scavengers to Students

Our armed guard went first, peering behind crumbling mausoleums and around trash- covered bushes; then, satisfied that no thugs were lying in wait, he waved us on. We left our bags and phones in the van, and picked our way down the dirt path to the edge of a steep hillside overlooking a massive ravine.

This was Tuesday. We were in Guatemala City’s General Cemetary, and this path led to the best view of the country’s infamous garbage dump.

Yes, we’re on a family vacation, mostly doing fun family touristy things. But for one day, we chose to bring our kids to this horribly smelly, dusty, dangerous place, to meet some of the people whose livelihood depends on it, and tour the school striving to lift them out of it.

We’ve been supporting Safe Passage for a few years now, and we wanted to see it for ourselves. If their mission impressed us before, we’re blown away now. The vision that founder Hanley Denning had in 1999 has become a reality, a lifeline for hundreds of students and their families.

The dump and the economy around it is well-documented. It fills a huge canyon, spilling over and down, down multiple levels to the toxic river at the bottom. Thousands of people pick through the garbage in search of materials to sell. It’s the same sad story all over the world.

[Photo of the Guatemala City garbage dump from an excellent blog about the world’s trash economy. We couldn’t bring our cameras to the overlook, so as not to attract thieves.]

[Photo from the Safe Passage website.] published a fantastic photo story about the many people who swim in toxic liquid waste at the bottom of the Guatemala dump ravine, searching for scrap metal and the occasional treasure of lost jewelry. They risk innumerable infectious complications, and worse. Landslides and smaller collapses are not uncommon; people literally drown in the trash piles.

Most live in the neighborhoods around the dump, in overpopulated “colonies”. These are walled-off slums, with narrow passageways between crowded apartment buildings and shacks, overrun by gangs. There are few opportunities for the residents, minimal education and no real jobs, so whole families will work as trash pickers in the dump, scavenging for materials which they sell to recyclers. The buildings around the dump are in turn polluted by piles of cardboard, bags of dirty glass or sharp metal shards, various materials like nylon… prices can fluctuate, so pickers sometimes hold onto their finds, in and around their own homes.

The Safe Passage school and programs are located right there, on three properties, in the midst of all of this.

What started as an unofficial early education and nutrition program is now an accredited school with programs for students ranging from toddler to adult. From preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school to teen enrichment and sports programs to adult literacy and entrepreneurship courses, what Safe Passage offers is real, practical, crucial, and not otherwise available to these families.

The preschool is literally an oasis of green grass and trees, with concrete and trash on the other side of the razor-wire topped walls:

The elementary school is large, housing six grades levels, a computer lab, a library, a cafeteria, and a garden:

The teen and adult center is directly adjacent to the dump, and features basketball/ soccer courts, classrooms and a library, and crafting/ sewing areas:

Adults can learn to make “recycled” beads out of magazine pages, and they as well as the program profit:

Through this and the sewing center, they can earn three times more than they would as trash pickers. Reading, writing, business skills are taught, and advisors also help craft resumes and practice job interviewing.

We were able to meet our student, Yahir, who we directly sponsor. It costs approximately $600 a year to fully fund a student, and that includes all books and equipment as well as two meals and two snacks a day. We had lunch with Yahir in the elementary school cafeteria (stir-fried veggies and beef over rice, and pretty tasty!), and as we knew he likes to draw, we gave him a gift of drawing pads, mechanical pencils and markers.

The day we spent in Zona 3 visiting the dump neighborhood and the school was a highlight of our trip. Volunteering for a week may be our next visit! Volunteers stay in beautiful, cultural (and safe) Antigua and bus in daily to work with the students.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for Safe Passage. We can say from firsthand experience what an amazing (and desperately needed) program it is.

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