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Living Off of Garbage

Garbage work Garbage is everywhere. Two children and their mothers used to trudge over the piles, holding a hook to dig in garbage. They were here at the dump at 5 or 6 in the morning every day.

Nearly 150 children used to work at this dump in León, Nicaragua, looking for food and other necessities, helping their families’ financial situations by collecting recyclable material like plastic, glass and metal that could be sold later.

Juan Carlos and Fatima are two children from two different families who were part of that number.

Almost every day Juan Carlos’ and Fatima’s mothers collected cans, copper and plastic bottles to sell at the end of each week. On a good week they’d get $5 to $10. The children went with them when there were no classes or activities at their child development center.

At the dump they were exposed to the hot Central American sun and an unsafe and unhealthy environment, punctuated with bad smells, flies, dirt and rotten food.

“I ask the Lord to take care of me because anything can happen at the dump. This year someone was killed in a fight for trash,” says Yolanda, Fatima’s mom.

“Trucks and vehicles that come in the dump move with no precaution, especially when it’s raining the ground gets slippery, and if someone is behind the truck, they can be killed,” says Maria, Juan Carlos’ mom.

Other dangers at the dump include exposure to violence, sexual abuse or getting burned with the trash.

A child burned her feet when she stood up on trash that was burning underneath. Also, if parents are not careful when trucks are unloading garbage, children can be buried in it.

Living by the river for some years so close to the dump and working at the dump led to health problems such as skin and respiratory illnesses, undernourishment, lice and allergies.

Through the medical checkups the children receive at their child development centers, the staff identified that these two children were undernourished. Both now receive complementary food three times a month, in addition to the food they regularly receive at the center.

They have also received treatment for their skin problems.

Maria explains that before going to the dump, she used to work doing domestic work. When asked why she wouldn’t look for a job like that instead of going to the dump, she says that she makes more money going to the dump for half of the day than doing domestic work for 12 hours.

This is a sad reality; however, the center has helped Juan and Fatima see life differently by motivating them to study.

“Children have a different vision. They have other dreams like to finish a professional or technical career. No one of them wishes to continue at the dump,” says Maria Elena, the center director.

Fatima would like to be a doctor and would like to clean the dirty water in the community.

Juan Carlos wants to be a lawyer and would like to clean the streets of the community so that no one will put garbage on the street or in the wells.

“Most of the people in this community did not go to school. Those who did go only went up to second or third grade because they were a big family and not all of them could go to school, had children at an early age, or parents put them to work instead of study,” says Maria Elena.

Now, this is starting to change.

Two months ago the old dump was closed and a new one was opened where children are not allowed to work.

Adults with an assigned identification are the only ones who can go in, so parents will have to find something else for their children to do, like sending them to school or the child development center.

Instead of holding a hook to dig in the trash, the children can hold a notebook and a pencil — tools that will help them grow to be someone better, someone different.