Walking among the aisles and shoppers late morning on Black Friday, I just could not shake the contrast between our world and the one I visited in Guatemala. Memories of my summer vacation keep coming to mind. My children had contributed for my husband, Mark, and I to make a trip to Guatemala for our 30th wedding anniversary. For the past three years, my second oldest son Luke has worked there as director of social services for the God’s Child Project (GCP), an international program to help break the cycle of poverty.
I don’t want to be a killjoy – and there will be Christmas presents at our house – but our goal will be to keep things in perspective. When I go shopping, I will remember the families who lived at the garbage dump and the mothers who stood in line for free vegetables. For the last couple years, my husband’s side of the family has contributed to the GCP in lieu of a gift exchange. Instead of buying gifts no one actually needed, we decided to make a bigger impact with our giving. The choices for charities are limitless. We have so much in this country. Do we really need more?
With these thoughts in mind, I would like to tell you about how I spent my summer vacation.
“Be respectful,” my son, Luke, warned our small group. “Realize that you are in their living room.” The “living room” was a garbage dump on the outskirts of Antigua, Guatemala, where people sort through waste, searching for plastic bottles to earn around $12 a month.
We were among the elite that day – those privileged to experience survival at the bottom. For it is there, at the dump, that the soul lays bare, stripped of any shred of status. Perhaps in this case it was our souls that were bared.
In our group were Australians, Geoff Thomas and Scott Duncan. Geoff is a businessman and consultant with the Parliament and Scott was being trained to replace Charlie Moore, of Bismarck, as director of operations for God’s Child’s Institute for Trafficked, Exploited & Missing Persons. And finally, there was Jose, a Guatemalan social worker. Ten years earlier, he was a 13-year-old street kid who had knocked on God’s Child founder Patrick Atkinson’s door looking for help. He was put in school, given a job and now works to raise others out of poverty.
Angels in “Hell”
As our truck pulled into the landfill, the air thickened with putrid fumes.
Luke, Charlie, and Jose called out warmly to people who returned the greeting. Several adults with young children smiled and made small talk. Smoke smoldered up from one garbage pile, ignited by decaying gases. Several stacks of tin, wood and plastic huddled together mere yards from the mounds of garbage. Luke pointed out a couple of dirty stuffed animals on the ground.
“They find their toys and clothes here,” he said.
A dozen adolescent boys in filthy clothing kicked a soccer ball until a garbage truck arrived. Then, everyone grabbed long sticks and sorted through the dirty cargo as it cascaded to the ground. A boy put down his stick to shake garbage off a shirt he came across. After holding it up, he shook his head and threw it down – it was too big.
Charlie introduced us to Don Pedro, the self-appointed “mayor” of the landfill.
“If he had not accepted us, there’s no way we could gain the trust of families here,” Charlie said. “He organizes things and gets a cut off what they make. It’s dancing with the devil but we need him on our side.” Gingerly walking on mud and sludge, I instinctively fretted for the bottom of my shoes. Then it hit me – the filth I loathed on my shoes permeates the lives of these people.
It was a harsh scene, but with some relief. Charlie told us that six families had been living there but now only one stubbornly remained. Some of the families working that day, no longer brought their school-aged kids. Instead, they were enrolled in school with God’s Child. The program helped the families move away from the dump with rent money or for some, aided volunteers in building sturdy houses with cement floors. Our group was struck by the friendliness at the dump. Amid extreme poverty, everyone smiled.
A sad aspect of our visit was the nearby brothel. “Families often force their daughters into prostitution,” Charlie said. “Prostitution is legal in Guatemala, but not for girls under the age of 18.” God’s Child encourages parents to put their young girls into school to avoid prostitution. “They are angels living in hell and we want to get them out,” Charlie said.
I met one such angel, 10-year-old Maria, a few days earlier at God’s Child’s Dreamer Center-school. The pretty girl with big brown eyes had lived at the dump two years earlier. She was shy at first but surprised me the next day by running over to give me a hug. It was beautiful to witness a young girl on the road to a better life.
Before our group left the dump, Charlie sent Jose to talk with a family. He was interested in a toddler-sized girl with thin, washed-out-colored hair. She looked malnourished and her mother agreed to have her daughter taken for an examination at God’s Child’s Casa Jackson Center for Malnourished Infants and Children. She was admitted.
Babies and students
The next morning, we went to Casa Jackson to help with eighteen malnourished babies and toddlers. A volunteer group from the U.S. was there and we all became sort of a team.
Mark and Geoff hesitated to grab a baby to bathe and dress; it became my job. Then, with our three baby-fresh bundles, we set off to an upstairs playroom. Mark delighted in 14-month-old Javier’s enthusiasm for pointing at things. Freddy, 3 months old and 8 pounds, often cries, but defied the pattern this time. And, Geoff, a bachelor who was initially nervous to care for Allison, age 1½, quickly fell in love – as well all did.
Our babies were so purely innocent and so completely dependent. Allison could not even sit up by herself. They had been malnourished by mothers who love them, but lacked understanding and means to provide proper nutrition.
Casa Jackson is not an orphanage. “Everyone has a family that wants them back,” Luke said. “After they go back home, social workers work with them so that this does not happen again.” Casa Jackson treated 95 children in 2010, and only five returned; in such cases, the social workers double their efforts and watch the babies closely.
On another morning, a couple of social workers allowed us to tag along on home visits to students’ families. These families lived in sturdy, one-room houses built by volunteer service teams. There is no running water and just one bare light bulb hung in these crowded, but clean, one-bedroom-sized houses.
A cement floor and a door that locked made their homes the nicest in the neighborhood. It was surprising to see a picture in one home of someone we knew, Rodger and Cindy Wetzel, from Bismarck. It was in a frame with a couple family pictures, hanging on an otherwise bare wall. The Wetzels sponsored their son, Edgar, so he could attend school.
These Guatemalan homes that had lifted people up from the bottom are not much bigger than our sheds. Yet, again, smiles and friendliness greeted us everywhere.
Richness through poverty
Through our visit to Guatemala, we experienced richness through poverty. Our vision is clearer; material wealth is suddenly of less value.
We keep in touch with Geoff who said, “This experience was life altering. It was both happy and sad. It was wonderful to be surrounded by people, like Luke, and all the wonderful volunteers and to know there are selfless loving people who genuinely care.
“But it was sad to see such beautiful children with such enormous disadvantages and obstacles. I anticipate I will be involved in this area of giving for the rest of my life. I will never forget those babies.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary for the God’s Child Project. A visit to Guatemala, or any third world country, might tempt one to feel overwhelmed at the depth of need; we can never help everyone. Yet, we can help some. Whatever we give to others will surely help them, but really, in the end, the giving helps us more. And giving makes for a better Christmas all the way around.
For more information on the God’s Child Project, visit: http://www.godschild.org/
Copyright 2011 Patti Maguire Armstrong
About the Author
Patti Maguire Armstrong is the mother of 10, and has a B.A. in social work and M.A. in public administration. Her newest book is Holy Hacks: Everyday Ways to Live Your Faith & Get to Heaven. Others include Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and the Amazing Grace Series. Follow her at @PattiArmstrong and read her blog at PattiMaguireArmstrong.com.