This morning we witnessed some amazing sights in Guatemala City. More importantly, we learned about possibilities and potentials that wouldn’t exist in Guatemala without foreign volunteer help.

In 1999 a woman from the USA was visiting Guatemala to learn Spanish. Hanley Denning was talked into visiting the Guatemala City garbage dump, a place to see poverty in its purest primal form. She was struck by what she saw, decided something needed to be done. She didn’t go home. Hanley saw people, whole families, making their living (surviving) in the city landfill. Children rummaging through garbage with their parents, brothers and sisters for find living materials—clothing, food supplies to build a shelter and whatever was possible to clean for sale or trade.

In 15 years Hanley’s goal to help to these people, especially the children, has flourished into a project called Safe Passage (Camino Seguro). At Safe Passage the children of the parents who “work” in the dump now can receive schooling and child care from age 2 through high school. Their parents can receive literacy education and job training to sew and make jewelry. Everyone in the community has access to health care and nutritious meals.

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To access the viewing site to see the dump we were driven through the city cemetery. This was another cultural experience. The Guatemala City cemetery is as large as many western rural towns, with streets and stop signs. All the graves are above ground and many are very ornate, making it look like a town, of sorts. Families can buy a plot and build a monument for their family or they can rent spaces, more like apartment “living.” “Apartment” interment means the family pays rent. As long as the rent is paid the space is theirs. Get behind on your rent and whoever is “living” there can be evicted and rented to someone else!

Guatemala City is cut by several steep and deep and wide ravines. The backside of the cemetery is at the top of one of those ravines. This ravine is where the city dump is located. Working in a direction of south to north the ravine is being filled with garbage. From our overlook, we could see, far below, a long line of garbage trucks waiting to unload their fragrant treasures. The 3500 people who work the dump have a system of claiming a truck for their family and have first choice of what comes out of that truck. All the workers have to be registered with the city and the process is very organized and cooperative. We could see scores of people milling through the debris looking for the “prize of the day” or at least something which might secure their survival for another day. They carry and drag large plastic bags home for cleaning, to sell or use. Recycling took on a new meaning for me.

There is poverty, which we have all seen, and then there is poverty in its primal form. Today I witnessed the latter. But, I also witnessed how foreign volunteers in Guatemala, like Hanley Denning, can accomplish what the government cannot or will not do for its people: bring health, education and dignity to a struggling citizenry.

Scott Pike