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Getting Closer

We’re back at work, and the building feels so lonely and empty without the students. They are the life and energy of this place. It’s eerie and echoey without them.

The Social Development Department does an acercamiento, or visit, with each one of the families at this time of the year. It’s an opportunity to get the kids and families excited about another school year, as well as ensure that they are signed up and squared away for the beginning of the year. I was lucky to be invited to go with because of my position as a program head.

We set out in teams of around five staff members, made of a mix of social workers, teachers and administrators. Each group had a list of particular families. We wound our way through different subsections of the neighborhood knocking on the doors of our assigned families.

We chatted with each family for 10-15 minutes. Because of the strong relationships the social workers have, the conversations very quickly went beyond the surface level. One visit concentrated on how a teenage student seriously injured his leg, requiring crutches. Another focused on a severe burn covering almost the entire forearm of one of the mothers. It seemed like everywhere I looked there was another serious issue that had to do with the seriousness of the living conditions here in the neighborhood and could have been avoided in another environment.

I have been working here long enough that I thought I knew what to expect, but nothing could really prepare someone from my socioeconomic status for what some of our families’ houses are like. The very first house I visited was a thin tin sheet for exterior walls, a laminate roof and a dirt floor. There were chickens and a new litter of puppies inside. The interior was dominated by rough-hewn furniture – beds and shelves – fashioned out of reclaimed materials. Sheets were hung from the furniture to lend some privacy.

Other homes had been provided by another NGO working in the area, painted a tell-tale cream and blue, and were constructed of cinder blocks. These had walls dividing rooms and concrete floors. The structures were sturdy enough to withstand Guatemala City’s barrage of natural disasters: hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes and landslides. I worry incessantly about the ability of some of our families’ homes to withstand this myriad of natural forces.

Many of our families still work in the dump at least to some extent. Garbage being cleaned and sorted distorts the line between the dump and the home. I was completely knocked off balance when I saw the home of one of our star students. All I could see was a wall made of wood slats with wide gaps between them and no roof, filled several feet high with one-gallon plastic jugs, which he waded through to come greet us. I just never imagined him in his home environment, and I have to admit that I had a hard time understanding. It didn’t look like there was a house there, just this open area for sorting garbage. Was this it? Was there more behind it? I couldn’t wrap my brain around the exact set up, or the fact that that this was where he lived.

Some of our students are so focused and engaged when at the project that it’s too easy to forget where they come from. It was a needed wake up call to realize where they’re at. Living in Antigua, I am far removed from the reality of the neighborhood. I’m too removed. I understand the importance of keeping volunteers safe, but it’s hard to be an advocate when you can retire away and shut your mind off. Twelve hours of the day, I don’t have to accept the realities of the dump community. Twelve hours of the day, I can forget where it is that my students are and what it is that they’re doing.

So, the question is how do you navigate the space between? It’s not impossible for Guatemalans and gringos to cross paths in a meaningful way, but it is pretty difficult. The standard of living for gringos is much higher than the average Guatemalan. In a lot of ways it feels like the average foreigner doesn’t come to Guatemala to live as a Guatemalan. I’ll be the first to admit that I still crave my coffee place, goat cheese, squishy pillows – you get the point – and I have access to pretty much anything I want here. I can even get fish sauce in the specialty grocery store.

If I’m living in fear and/or focusing on my discomfort, it doesn’t do anybody any good. How can I make a meaningful impact if I’m always distracted by my own needs? Ironically, I think that is precisely one of the reasons why we can connect. In realizing our own struggle, we can find empathy with the struggle that others are going through. In realizing that we are missing our creature comforts, we can find the perspective that we’re here to do what we can to try to equalize the playing field. The world wouldn’t be sustainable if everyone lived at an American standard, but we’re here to try to incite the necessary changes so that everyone has enough, even if that means we don’t get that triple shot skinny latte. With every day, I’m getting that much closer to understanding the issues and thinking critically about solutions.

I think that’s a big part of the power that our work has. I see every day that we’re instilling our youth with the self-conception that they don’t need to be limited by where they come from. It’s easy for me to forget because our students aren’t constantly acting hampered. Of course, they display the effects of poverty’s manifestations, which often present themselves as behavior issues. But, they are all incredible fighters. What keeps me inspired is that they’re not fighting for a future full of riches, they’re just fighting for the opportunities to do what they love and have just enough.

My students’ ability to envision a life beyond the dump was made very clear for me by the words of one student: “In order to be successful, all I have to do is stay focused and work hard.” That’s the attitude of someone who won’t let anything stand in the way. Of all of the effects that Safe Passage has on the community, I think that attitude shift may just be one of the most powerful. It’s a long road, and outcomes are not always visible in the short term, but I see that we’re getting closer.

This week I saw peace in bridging the disconnect.

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