"How could people exist in this situation?" was what one student at St. John's Jesuit High School in Toledo asked after visiting a Guatemala City garbage dump, home to hundreds of scavengers. A housing construction project was born that day.
by Christine Alexander
Ten-year-old Alvaro wakes to the buzzing of black flies. The Guatemalan morning is getting warm; stench from the garbage all around him increases with the sun's intensity. He pulls himself up.
His stomach's rumbling reminds him that it's Monday, a good day, the day the garbage truck from the main tourist hotel comes. It will bring the remains of Sunday brunch through which Alvaro can comb for his daily bread. With any luck he can find enough to take to his parents and his five brothers and sisters on the coffee plantation when he next visits them.
Lucia's lined face and lifeless expression speak of many years of deprivation. But she's only 21, hardly a senior citizen. An infant wrapped in rags and a blanket is strapped to her back, and a thin little girl stands in her shadow. Armed with two sacks, Lucia is ready for the day. In one sack will go recyclables -- plastic, tin, whatever she can sell; in the other, scraps of food for her family's meal later.
Brendan pauses in mute horror as the lives of these Guatemalan garbage dump dwellers unfold before him. The comforts of his home in Ohio, the plenty that he has seen wasted, and the wealth he is accustomed to all seem accusatory burdens as he witnesses utter destitution on this morning in the garbage dump.
Chris, standing nearby, feels anger well up inside. This two-week volunteer experience is extracting too much from him. Could he return to his comfortable existence in the States and forget the stench, the sight of people scrambling for half-eaten chic ken bones, the abomination of children who are protectively covered in garbage to keep vultures from pecking at them?
A decade earlier Fr. Don Vettese, SJ, had stepped into a garbage dump in Juarez, Mexico. "It was the way I would envision hell," he recalls. Toddlers playing in raw sewage, children fighting vultures for scraps of meat, people with open sores and missing limbs looking through piles of garbage for plastic they could sell to recyclers for a few pesos.
"The living conditions were so appalling that I became physically ill," Fr. Vettese says. "It was unforgettable heat, stench, birds larger than children, and adults with nothing but hopelessness in their eyes."
The emotional impact of the experience never left him. "It redefined injustice for me." When a Jesuit from La Merced community in Guatemala City called and told him of beggar children being killed by the Guatemalan military for stealing food, his experience in Juarez came back to him. "If there was something I could do to help, I had to do it."
That began his connection with the poor in Guatemala City. With funding from the Hilton Foundation of Los Angeles, he opened a Boys Hope home in Guatemala City. When he became president of St. John's Jesuit High School in Toledo, the chance to connect student volunteers with the realities of Third World poverty made sense.
"I'd been out of secondary schools for over twenty years." he says. "I didn't want to just raise students' consciousness about the poor. Educators often analyze and discuss and end up just standing in place. If you wait for all the questions to be answered before you proceed, you never proceed."
In 1994 he took four student volunteers to Guatemala City. It was, Fr. Vettese admits, a plan with loose ends. "I wasn't sure where it was going, but I believe anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. If you're too busy worrying about doing things perfectly, nothing will ever get done."
The trip astounded the four young men. They painted walls at the Boys Hope home, a type of hands-on community service they were familiar with. But then came the journey to the garbage dump, where they saw people living in cardboard houses and eking out a living from refuse.
"I'll never get over the horror I felt," Brendan Sullivan explains. "How could people exist in this situation? How could I see their suffering and not do something about it?"
Classmate Chris Linsay agrees. "It wasn't enough to know that we were well off and just needed to learn to appreciate it. It was not enough to feel sorry for these people or just try to help them out for a few days. We needed to make a difference. "
After returning from the garbage dump, each of the boys went off alone.
"I was so depressed. It was difficult just to get back into any routine," Chris says. Once the initial horror passed, the young men began to wonder what they could do to help. "Guatemala City's mayor, Oscar Berger, had invited us to come to his office. When we visited him, that's what the boys asked him," Fr. Vettese says.
More than happy to oblige, the mayor brought out plans for simple block houses that the government hoped to have built for these people. The city was willing to provide sewer and electrical hookups and assign a manager to help residents who would provide the labor, but it lacked money for materials, about $5,000 per house.
"As soon as the students heard about the plans, they agreed to raise money to build one house," Fr. Vettese explains.
"What a great thing it was to know that there was something we could do," Brian Vineyard says. "We were sure that when we got back to Toledo we could convince people to give to this project."
Armed with enthusiasm, the students began to dream bigger dreams. The school's mission collection was one source of funds, and the volunteers also decided to address the faculty during their first meeting of the school year.
"They pledged more than we expected," Chris says. "We started to ask parents and wrote to people who we thought might give to such a cause."
They designed a presentation with slides of the dump and its residents and gave it to a local Rotary group, which responded with a donation. Other presentations followed; each success propelled them a little further, and they decided to make a presenta tion to a pet food company's charitable foundation. The students won the respect of those at the foundation, who offered them $2 for each $1 they would raise.
Such a broadening of the scope of the housing project acted as a fuel for the team of young fund-raisers. "To think we could make a lasting impact on so many people's lives was incredible," Brendan remarks. "Each house would be home to a t least five or six people. The whole thing was so exciting."
By the end of their senior year the boys had raised $20,000; the terms of the grant turned that into $60,000, "an unheard-of sum for high school boys," Fr. Vettese says.
Reflecting on the trip and the fund-raising, Chris Leyland writes, "I learned a lot in my four years at St. John's, but not all in the classroom. The Guatemala experience and the results of our efforts taught me much about the power one person hol ds. I'd never been much of a leader before. I was always the shy guy whom people could never get two words out of. No one ever asked me for help; I was always the one looking to other people. This was a life-changing experience."
Eighteen-year-old Tom Zaciewski was among the second wave of St. John's students who went to Guatemala last summer. He knows life's pain. During his high school years he lost both parents. He wrote about his visit: " The experience provoked me to reassess my life. I've witnessed suffering far greater than I'd experienced before, and it will place these people forever in my heart and prayers. Most of all, I gained a greater respect for life as I beheld the most horrible place on earth, the central city garbage dump in Guatemala City. I feel obliged to help these people as a way of giving thanks for my own good fortune."
When Fr. Vettese visited the housing site last January, he saw a band of women guarding the building materials, day and night. "They're fiercely protective of the development. It was heartwarming to see the impact already being made." In addition to indoor plumbing and shelter from the pestilence of the dump, each family will have a small plot behind their house for vegetables.
Today the roots of a housing community take hold where only despair once grew. Thousands of miles away, some affluent Americans grasp a bond they share with their world brothers and sisters. Colonia de San Juan is a tiny enclave of block houses, but it stands as a proof that young people can make a difference -- that viewing human tragedy can compel one to action.
By this June (1996), twelve homes should be completed; twelve families will discover a dignity so far unknown to them. And a new group of St. John's volunteers travels to Guatemala City this summer to work at a day care center and handle some maintenance work at the Boys Hope home.
They will also see Colonia de San Juan, the fruit of a seed that four classmates helped plant.
Christine Alexander is director of public relations for St. John's High School in Toledo.