Ten years ago, when Esmeralda Diaz walked into “la Chureca” for the first time, she saw something that would stay with her through the years: an eight-year-old boy was fighting against a vulture for a piece of bread, the boy holding onto one end and the vulture to the other. She didn’t have a camera, but that image comes to mind every time she thinks about the place.
Things have improved drastically over the years, and Esmarelda has been there for most of it, working as a social worker and nurse, but La Chureca, Managua’s municipal dump, is still home to 257 families who live off the trash, sorting through it and selling whatever they can find. They live in extreme poverty and suffer from all its implications – malnutrition, disease, drug abuse, low literacy, teen pregnancy, and other problems, sustaining the cycle of poverty that has marked the area for generations.
Today, Britney and I walked through the community with volunteers from the Manna Project and I saw three things that I hope to always remember.
1) Loving volunteers.
The Manna Project, Austin Samaritans, and FUNJOFUDEES have partnered to provide primary medical care to the residents of La Chureca, among other services like counseling, sex ed, and English classes. The Manna Project also has a direct sponsorship program that currently has the budget to support 50 children at a time, providing beans, rice, oatmeal, and access to doctors, nutritionalists, and medications until the children are 5-years-old. Each child costs $20 a month to sponsor.
One key to their success within the community has been “program directors,” some of whom showed us around “la Chureca” – six full-time volunteers who spend 13 months in the area and divide up the 50 children amongst themselves so they can get to know the families well and develop lasting relationships of trust. They spend a lot of time just hanging out with the kids and parents, trying to learn as much from them as they teach.
The result is some of the happiest pictures I’ve ever taken – children beaming with joy to see their volunteer-friends and volunteers full of love and hope for the kids under their care.
2) Kids can be happy anywhere.
The homes of those who live in La Chureca are made from materials scavenged in the dump: wooden frames, if there is a frame at all; walls formed from sheets of plastic, old banners, advertisements, chicken-wire, sheet-metal, or wooden boards; and roofs formed from metal or plastic.
The homes are clumped together in seemingly random neighborhoods, separated and accessed by dirt paths crossed often by dirty streams and strewn with trash. Dogs, all stunted from quick successions of generations that ate very little, can be found curled up under shade at almost every turn.
Within this bleak and destitute setting are beautiful and happy children, smiling, laughing, and playing together. Programs like those I’ve mentioned help them avoid health problems and early pregnancy, become literate, and find healthier lifestyles.
The picture above is of Jeffrey, with Sarah peaking out of her door. I played soccer against Jeffrey and Francisco, with Sarah on my team. Jeffrey’s team won 😉
Later we visited the school, run by a group called Colegio Cristiana la Esperanza. I have some amazing pics of the kids, but they’re all on my camera, not my phone – I can’t post them until I get home.
3) Change is difficult for anyone.
There is a lot of change happening in La Chureca right now. The Spanish government has funded a complete reorganization of the dump. Starting in 2007, they began covering the dump area with dirt, building a recycling plant (with jobs available for qualifying residents of La Chureca), and building new homes as well.
The homes are ready, the plant operational, and the date for moving all families to their new homes has been set for November 15th . . . two days from now. Most likely they will have to push that date back – there are many problems with the changes and residents are worried.
There have been previous programs aimed at job-training to give residents of La Chureca other opportunities instead of working in the dump, but this lifestyle is what they know – it’s their life and they fear not being able to make a living if they left La Chureca or tried something else.
Families won’t be allowed to bring livestock or animals into the new homes with them (an important source of food), only the head of the household will work in the plant (for $100-130 a month) which will mean less income since children won’t be making money as well (those who work on La Chureca, even kids, make an average of $8-10 a week), and residents will have to start paying for water and electricity, currently supplied for free (it’s very difficult for someone who doesn’t know how to read to learn how to pay a bill).
The transition will be difficult, but seems very necessary for good social, physical, and mental health
Spain has funded the big bills for the rehaul of La Chureca, but it seems that the side-effects of those changes may be left to “Los Churequeros” or to the nonprofits who aid them.
Special thanks to Austin Samaritans, the volunteers at The Manna Project, and Esmeralda Diaz, the nurse at the clinic who I had the great opportunity of taking to dinner – they gave me the unique opportunity to not just pass through La Chureca as a tourist, snap a few pics, and check it off my list. Britney and I got to follow them around, meet the families, ask a hundred questions, and really get a feel for the place. I’ll be headed out to see some of their other projects tomorrow, and Thursday we have a donation project in mind . . . 🙂
Also . . . I may have found the first non-profit I want to start – stay tuned!