Jesuit volunteers help garbage-dump familes

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Monday 18, July 2011 | Category:   Clergy

THE SECTION of Guatemala City known as Zone 3 is not a place many outsiders go. In it is a huge garbage dump where hundreds of people live and scavenge for plastic, glass, metal, and other materials they can sell to recyclers in order to get by. Animals also live and feed there, and fires spread smoke everywhere in the tropical heat.

In the summer of 1994 a group of students from St. John's Jesuit High School in Toledo, Ohio, led by the school's then-president Father Don Vettese, S.J., were on a service trip to an orphanage in Guatemala City. Because of an accident and the resulting traffic jam and detour, they got stuck in traffic for about 20 minutes near the dump in Zone 3. The sight left them speechless. Children banged on the van, begging for food, money, and help.

PART OF the massive garbage dump
in Guatemala City's "Zone 3."
Afterward the students talked with Fr. Vettese and wanted to know what they could do. Their first concern was to help the children, but they eventually looked for other ways to improve the lives of the dump workers and others living in Zone 3. With the approval of the Jesuits, a year later Fr. Vettese established a nonprofit organization in Toledo, originally calling it Central American Ministries but renaming it International Samaritan in 2009 to reflect its growing global outreach.

In the 16 years since then the ministry has started programs to alleviate severe poverty in seven countries—Guatemala, Egypt, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Haiti—and is studying the possibility of expanding to Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and the Philippines. It serves about 13,000 extremely poor people each year. Fr. Vettese would like to extend the program to every garbage dump in every developing country in the world, he told David Yonke of the Toledo Blade.

The plan in each community is to start with a nursery to get the children out of the dump. The next step is to provide education as a key to breaking the cycle of poverty. To that end International Samaritan first builds a grade school, then a middle school.

BRENDA LOPEZ and three of her children in their
International Samaritan-built home.
The organization also builds concrete-block houses to replace the plastic, cardboard, and tin shacks where dump workers live. The concrete-block houses have running water, a bathroom, and electricity and provide a sense of pride and safety.

Teams of high school and college students from the Toledo area and around the country have traveled to different International Samaritan sites to help in a variety of ways. Some trips focus on construction and renovation while others teach English to dump workers' children.

"We're not trying to convert people to Catholicism, but the fact of the matter is they know we are Catholic. They know we are Christians,” Vettese said. “We're evangelizing through example."

The Jesuits on VISION.

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