We were crammed in the back of the bus as we bumped through the busy streets. The air was hot and steamy and smelled like burning trash. My missions’ team was driving through Managua, the capitol of Nicaragua. We entered La Chureca through a broken iron gate. Dolls’ heads on stakes stared at us as we entered. Our interpreter with Forward Edge International told us to shut the windows because the odor and chemicals of spontaneous combustion of this waste would infiltrate our bus. Hundreds of workers were sifting and sorting through the millions of tons of garbage and stretched in mountains as far as the eye could see. Loads of garbage from over the years had literally sculpted the landscape.
Sadly, this is where about 1,500 people call home. Families work in this dump collecting recyclables to sell to the recycler. The average wage is two dollars a day. Kids wander around barefoot amidst the trash, while their parents are out working. Many children are responsible for caring for their younger siblings. The lack of health care, the sewage running through their roads, the barefoot little boy meandering through heaps of trash, the family of eleven who lives in a tiny room, the stray dog that lies dying outside were signs that struck me as being one of the saddest places on earth. Yet there was some hope.
On my day in La Chureca, I cleaned the only school in the community. A church is run by a church. This school is so packed with kids that the younger kids must go in the morning and older kids at night because there are not enough classrooms or desks for all the students. There was no glass in the windows, only iron bars. While I was wiping down some desks, I met Mario. Mario was probably about three. I said “hola” and he immediately lifted his arms in a gesture for me to scoop him up. As soon as I did, I noticed the dampness of his shorts against my arms. Who knows how this kid got wet? All I knew was he was one little boy who needed attention and to be loved. I asked him what colors his toy was and watched him play hop scotch with some other kids. Then these small sprouts, without anyone telling them to do so, started cleaning with us. They mopped the soapy water around the open air classrooms and swept the sidewalk. Though they were dirty, and neglected, they wanted to serve the school in their community. These boys and girls found purpose in doing these small tasks.
While I viewed sweeping as a way of showing love to the kids that would be going back to school the next day, Mario and his friends had a different motive for cleaning the school. They swept, and wiped, and mopped because they were fulfilled by it. It gave them a sense of purpose in life. It gave them direction. To serve others was necessary for them because they are not served. La Chureca is not a neighborhood where it is common to see people spending quality time with one another, nurturing one’s children, or teaching kids rules or even hygiene. Yet these youngsters found such enjoyment in being able to serve someone else, to make something clean, to beautify it. They were investing their time in something that made a difference perhaps for the first time. These kids’ volunteerism touched me tremendously because of what big hearts they had to serve others despite their poverty.
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