Hope Tour #1: Where Kids Can Just Be Kids

Workers wait to dig through trash dropped off
in the Guatemala City garbage dump
Photo Credit: Safe Passage
Visiting a garbage dump in Managua, Nicaragua in spring 2006 changed my life. (You can read about it here.) When I returned to school and life in Southern California, I vowed to do something to help the children and families who lived and worked and breathed the toxic life of digging through trash. 
I eventually found an organization in my own city that empowers rural farmers in developing countries to restore their land and improve their incomes beforethey’re forced to go looking for work in the city, often in the slums and garbage dumps.

Last Thursday, I had the privilege of visiting a non-profit in Guatemala City called Safe Passage, or Camino Seguro in Spanish. Safe Passage works with the children and families who have already emigrated from small, rural towns, to the Red Zones of Guatemala City. Red Zones are areas where the government has recognized a high incidence of gang violence and organized crime. Safe Passage joins with the mostly single-parent families who live near the Guatemala City garbage dump. These families supplement their income by working in the dump, digging through trash to collect metals, glass, aluminum, and other scraps that can be reworked and recycled for a small profit, including food that can be resold in the streets. 

Children under age 14 are no longer allowed to work in the dump, but parents often bring home their finds for children to sort through and separate to contribute to family income. Many families live in the makeshift houses of squatter cities that lack running water and siphon off electricity from neighboring streets with a tangle of live wires.
On the tour with Safe Passage, I learned that the violence rate in Guatemala today is higher than during the conflict. The physical violence, that is. I’ve been told there is nowhere near as much psychological violence or terror as there was during the war, but the injustice, extreme poverty, and social problems that existed before the war, that caused the guerrillas to pick up their arms and fight for a revolution, still exist today.
Vultures perch outside the Guatemala City garbage dump
Photo Credit: Safe Passage
Perched on the edge of a cemetery that overlooks the expansive dump, I could see how such living conditions could lead to violence, insecurity, and organized crime. Vultures circled above the sea of debris, and I had flashbacks of my visit to the dump in Managua. Only this time we weren’t cruelly rushed off to the mall to indulgently eat ice cream and feel awful about ourselves. Instead of focusing on the overwhelming horror of it all (and it was horrible), we were taken instead to see the good that is being done, the hope that has become manifest.
After viewing the dump, we drove just a few blocks to the new Safe Passage preschool, or escuelita, the part of the Safe Passage’s educational reinforcement program that targets the youngest, most vulnerable children, ages 2 to 6. The contrast was staggering. In the very same neighborhood as the garbage dump, the preschool is a haven of safety and fun.
The Escuelita looks like any other preschool. Kids were jumping and squealing and rattling off a million questions a minute. Tiny chairs surrounded knee high tables adorned with primary color construction paper. We even caught a bit of the day’s English lesson and break dancing session, and man did those five-year-olds have some dope hip hop moves. 
Part of the Safe Passage preschool playground.
 The blue wall separates the school
from the rough neighborhood.
Everyday from 9am to 3pm these kids who live in the roughest area of an already crime riddled city, get to just be kids. They’re given breakfast, snacks, and lunches. They get a head start on an education that will prepare them for better jobs and will open them up to a world of economic opportunity beyond work in the garbage dump. Instead of sorting through trash or begging on the streets, they are treated as kids: they get to run and squirm and pick their noses.
I understand it can be easy to be swayed by squealing preschoolers, but Safe Passage gets high marks for also addressing root causes and following best practices in development: their programs are run by local Guatemalans, they work closely with the entire family, not just children, collaborate with and reinforce the efforts of local public schools, and even offer adult literacy and social entrepreneurship programs to help the parents of these children work their way out of the dump.
I think you can see that I was clearly impressed. I’d encourage you to check out their blog and website and look for ways to get involved, I know I will.
In addition to learning about a really cool organization that I may be able to partner with this year, I am grateful for the compassion, care, and patience the staff extended to us visitors as we grappled to absorb such weighty issues. And I am excited to share more bright spots and encouraging stories from Guatemala in the coming weeks and months.
Thanks for reading. 

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3 thoughts on “Hope Tour #1: Where Kids Can Just Be Kids

  1. Audrie says:

    So cool! While I was in the Dominican Republic I was surprised to see kids going off to school at such a young age. I thought they should be staying at home with their parents and be allowed to keep their innocence, but then my host sister explained that school IS a way for the kids to keep their innocence. Especially in the poor communities where everyone lives on top of each other, the only escape from "adult topics" for those children is school. I'm now a huge proponent. Sounds like a great organization!

  2. Aly Lewis says:

    I know, I was shocked that they have kids as young as two at the preschool, but it sounds like a great alternative to the violence and hardships the experience at home. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Audrie!

  3. […] Hope Tour #1: Where Kids Can Just Be Kids […]

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