by Christina Rivera
I work as a volunteer in Guatemala City with the children of a community of families who live in the city dump. It sounds impressive, eh? People are always fascinated when they I tell them what I do and they often go into an extensive session of questioning regarding the who’s, what’s, where’s and when’s of my work.

I usually launch into my automated responses:

What: “Camino Seguro is a school on the premises of Guatemala’s city dump yard dedicated to educating and entertaining the children of families who work scavenging through trash during the day. The objective is to keep the kids off the streets and in a safe and providing environment.”

Who: “260 children in the project ages 3 through about 14.”

Where: “In the city dumpster in Guatemala City.”

When: “The project is about two years old. I’ve been there for three months and have at least three months left.”

Rather dry responses, eh? Add a beer or a sunrise and you’ll get the REAL story on my experiences. Of course the REAL story can’t be summed up in pretty paragraphs with topic and main sentence. The REAL story is more of a continuous realization expressed in random observations from my daily experiences…. So without further respect to my 16 years of English classes, I will try to find and read the pulse on the heart of some of my experiences working at this project.

At the end of each month we hold a meeting for the parents of all the children in the project. The parents meet with social workers and staff, and the children get their hair washed and combed for lice by the volunteers. Now I remember the occasional outbreak of lice back in my own grade-school-glory-days, but I had never know lice intimately as I know them now. Armed with a rubber glove and a comb that could split spider webs, I part the hair and watch them scurry. And oh yes; They DO scurry. I smile at my soapy client and brace myself for a good half hour battle in the ring with the lice *ding, ding*. After three months at the project, I know the majority of these kids by name and heart. I also know that in all the hair yanking, pulling and untangling of the day, not a single tear will be shed by one child. Why? These children work in the dump. They scavenge as part of daily life. They know how to put up a fight for something they need…. which happens to be everything. They won’t cry because no one has ever come running to coo and appease their pleas. They won’t cry because they have been conditioned to endure pain without a whimper. They won’t cry, because crying doesn’t get you anywhere in the dump. Being tough does.

Today we held a Christmas party for all 260 children. A project sponsor supplied the money for the volunteers to buy and wrap 260 gifts. We sang, we salsa-ed, we ate tamales (a special treat from the regular meals the project provides). A few presents were stolen and Santa got a bit beat up, but the madness was a complete success. Children lucky enough to have active sponsors (we have an ongoing 1-1 child sponsorship program) opened gifts and made thank-you cards. One child cried from pure joy when he received a gift of a flashlight and a pocket tool from his sponsor. Have you ever seen a child cry in joy from receiving a gift?

Right before the party began, a few blocks away, on the playground where we take the children daily, a woman was raped and set on fire. The fire trucks and ambulances were still there when we arrived at the school. I was told that many of the children witnessed the burning. It’s confusing sometimes. Inside the doors of the school, the children are safe, they are fed, and they are allowed to play. We paint volcanoes, sing about worms, make paper-mache pigs, play hand games, do homework and have bean-sack races. I’m often so busy having a good time that I forget what the other option is for these kids. But then I look down and see a child with shoes with no socks, and rubber heels worn though to the bare skin. I ask him where the shoes are that the project gave him last week and he tells me they’re at home. But a social worker nods her head at me with sad eyes and tells me that his mother sold them for money to buy alcohol. So what IS the other option to passing time in the project? The other option is usually a mixture of scavenging the dump for recyclables, caring for younger siblings, selling candies/trinkets in the street, or following big brother’s gang and glue sniffing example. The options are ugly.

On the way to the project each day, we pass a half dozen “fathers” slumped in doorways, covered in flies, passed-out, with a bottle of cheap liquor or glue rolled off in the corner, as guilty as a gun in the bushes at a scene of a crime. On the way to the project each day, I wonder which one of these beautiful children that is now painting a paper mache pig pink, under my supervision, will in a few years be slumped in this same doorway. It’s a terrible thought that puts a lump in my throat that I never seem to be able to swallow.

The founder of the project, Hanley Denning, is probably the most devoted and diligent person I’ve come across in my life. I want to use the word “crazy” to describe her day and night dedication to the project. I’ve never, in three months, heard her speak on any subject that isn’t project-related. The Antigua office of the project is actually located in her house, which perfectly symbolizes how her life is consumed with her “work.” But how could it NOT? How could you NOT go “crazy” working from 5am to 10pm, 7 days a week, when you knew that your work meant the difference between 260 happy, fed, shoed and safe children – and 260 garbage-scavenging and glue-sniffing children? Hanley scares me. She scares me because she shows me the power and potential of what one human being can do. She scares me because she shows me the potential of what each one of us could do. She scares me because she shows me what I could do, if I were brave and selfless enough.

So I have lice. Apparently, wrestling, holding and hugging children with lice has it’s consequences. Apparently, having lice is not the worst of everyone’s problems. And apparently, the project has given me that perspective. And for that revelation, my experience at the project has been one of the most valuable in my life.

Christina Rivera, also known as Solbeam, is a self-proclaimed “web-geek & travel-freak.” At 25 years of age, she has found herself completely in acceptance of her compulsive addiction for world travel. To date, she has volunteered, hiked, salsa-ed, bartended and scuba dived her way through 30+ countries whilst documenting those adventures live on her website Today, she is still on “the road” and stands by her claim that being abroad is a perfectly valid excuse for not being in the weddings of all her friends. Her mission? Simple. To make travel a way of life.

About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.