Locals Volunteer To Build A Better Life In Guatemala
By Cheryl Conway
Beyond the conditions many can relate to, outside the walls of what’s the norm, exists a world so difficult to imagine unless one visits and reaches out to help.
In Guatemala City, 11,000 people- in which 7,000 are kids- live and work inside a garbage dump.
“Most survive by picking through the trash to earn less than five dollars a day. Many find their daily food in the dump.”
Just when all hopelessness is lost for these human beings living in one of the most impoverished areas , more and more volunteers are stepping up to assist and steer them to a better life. Some local people have become very involved and formed an organization known as Beyond The Walls. This month, 75 individuals are volunteering to visit the Guatemala City Garbage Dump to build houses, donate clothing and shoes and organize sport clinics.
The non-profit organization started in 2007 at the Mendham Hills Community Church, although mission teams were sent out before.
“We had been going to Guatemala for a couple of years,” explains Betsy Ahl of Morris Township, executive director of Beyond The Walls. “The church was sending mission teams. We asked volunteers to help raise money to help pay for trips, build houses. They’d raise more money and that would go toward projects.”
In order to influence others outside the church to get involved, and to receive matching grants from volunteers’ employers, organizers decided to expand the church group to a secular, non-profit organization, explains Ahl.
The idea to help the people of Guatemala dates back to 2005, when Mendham was named one of the top wealthiest places to live in America.
“The elders of Mendham Hills Chapel thought this wasn’t how others lived,” explains Ahl, “so they asked the chairman of the missions’ team to find an area that needed help.”
One of the poorest places in the world, the Guatemala City Garbage Dump, was identified by a church member and the idea to team up with the Potter’s House organization, with a mission to eradicate poverty, build houses, help others get business loans and establish community programs.
“It’s a ravine right in the center of the Capitol City,” describes Ahl. “They’ve been filling it up with garbage for 50 years.”
In their first mission, Ahl joined 26 others for four days. The group, after that, “could have gone to Africa one year, China one year,” but the group decided it was more important to “come back and form long term relationships,” says Ahl who has sponsored three kids in Guatemala in the Kids In Potter House Education Program, in which 50 kids are sponsored to receive an education. Ahl has been sponsoring these kids since they were in the first grade, are now graduating high school and will be supported through college.
Church member and organization volunteer, Mike Rubright, 50, of Long Valley, is currently on one of three missions to Guatemala this month through Beyond The Walls. His ninth trip out there during the past seven years, Rubright and his daughter, Erin, are working in the garbage dump from July 18-25.
Another one of his daughters, Emily, has gone on the trip seven times but had to miss this one. Youth volunteers must be starting atleast seventh grade to participate, so for Erin this is her third trip. Volunteers must contribute $1,600 each in order to participate, with funds going toward flight and lodging; and additional funds to supplies and building houses. Every year, Rubright sends letters and emails to friends requesting donations to help support his volunteer work.
About 75 people have signed up through Beyond The Walls to volunteer during the three missions this month, with 10 people from the Mendham, Long Valley and Chester areas. The others are from areas throughout the country such as Florida, New York and Texas, who formed their own groups with Beyond The Walls.
Rubright and his wife, Katie, have a niece who was adopted from Guatemala so their connection is even greater.
“I do construction all day long,” says Rubright. “I had no idea what I was doing; I had no construction experience. Now I’m the person in charge of construction projects my week.
“Everybody builds, everybody works; it doesn’t matter how old you are,” says Rubright, principal at the Woodglen Middle School in Lebanon Twp.
“We build a concrete block house with a concrete floor,” he explains. “We mix concrete by hand; it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The girls and women work harder than I’ve ever seen; they don’t stop.” A family that is getting a house built works beside the volunteers.
“It’s not very big,” he says, with the homes about 15 feet by 15 feet,” the size of a bedroom. Homes are for four to five person families, and sometimes six to eight people.
It’s like “nine people living in the size of your kitchen,” describes Ahl. Homes are built side by side and cost $5,600 to build.
A completed house consists of one big room with one eight-foot partition wall that separates the bedrooms from “everything else,” says Rubright. “They have a toilet and a shower stall” in an area about the size of a closet, and they get “a big concrete sink” that can weigh up to 600 pounds, which is used for all washing needs such as dishes and clothes.
Rubright also works under Guatemala masons who are very particular with how they want things to be completed, he says.
“They tell us what to do,” says Rubright. “There are a lot of times we do things that don’t make sense; you can’t tell them they are wrong. That’s frustrating. If they tell you to put a hole in a concrete pipe with a hammer and nails, instead of a drill, you do it.”
The homes that are being built for the people in the Guatemala City Garbage Dump is luxury compared to the “cardboard sheet metal,” dirt, chemicals, methane gas that surround them and sicken them while living in the dump and “breathing the trash.”
These houses also provide shelter and protection for these people, says Rubright, as gun shots are commonly fired in the garbage dump.
His goal during this one week visit is to build three to five houses with his group of volunteers.
Potter’s House has built 110 homes to date, with 75 contributed by the volunteers of Beyond The Walls, says Ahl, who visits four times, about six weeks a year.
In addition to building homes, the volunteers lead soccer clinics and donate uniforms, soccer balls and cleats as well as baseball clinics and donations of t-shirts; help at a medical clinic, vacation Bible school, and deliver groceries and visit families.
Through their efforts, much progress has been made such as concrete roads, a community center built last year, education programs which is much needed as the average kid does not go past fifth grade in Guatemala, says Rubright.
“A lot of families look at education as not important,” says Rubright. “A lot end up working in the garbage dump” as scavengers. “They make money picking out recyclables. People sift through trash looking through recyclables to see what they can sell” or “they are looking for food to eat it.” Parents stop sending their kids to school because they need their school age kids to watch younger siblings so parents can work.
If they are not scavengers, they rely on the garbage dump to sell their own goods, like tortillas to the scavengers so they can eat, and even jewelry, says Ahl.
“It’s just this culture of poverty,” says Ahl, with high unemployment. “Education is not a value, that’s the bottom line. Potter’s House tries to teach the value of education especially to the parents.” It also tries to teach the vendors who do sell inside the garbage dump to sell on the outside, says Ahl.
“But without education, it’s really, really hard to move their way out of the dump,” says Ahl.
Scavengers are even making less these days. As the economy declined, so did the value of recyclables, explains Rubright. For those working 10 to 12 hour days, they are making two to three dollars.
While “there are guns everywhere, “Rubright admits that he feels safe when there.
“The organization we are with is well respected,” he says, and they stay in a retreat center with accommodations like that of a motel or college dorm. “We are safe; every store has an armed guard,” and no one walks alone. “We have relationships with people. We go to the same neighborhoods. There’s more of a comfort level now. It’s a safe place- I bring my kids there I’m not in fear of our lives.”
It is the desire to help others and the appreciation that brings Rubright back to the dump.
He says, “If there’s really a God, why does he let that happen? We let it happen by not choosing to use our resources that way. I don’t think I could not go back. They have so little but they appreciate everything they have. We have so much and we want so much more.”
They say, “This morning I lived in a garbage dump; now I live in a mansion.”
Rubright admits, “I’ve learned more from them than they get from me. I’m a better person in Guatemala than I am here.”
Also nice is the community bond shared by the volunteers.
For the last five or six years, the same group of people have been volunteering. “Everyone enjoys each other’s company,” say Rubright. “We work hard all day, you come back eat dinner. There’s community; there’s no television, little internet, no cell services. It’s a lot what life should be like.”
Like Ahl, the Rubrights have sponsored a girl there since she was eight; now she is 17. Through their support they have helped Jennifer Lopez Munoz continue to go to school and get an education.
Rubright tells people, “I have three daughters in America and one in Guatemala.”
“All the kids down there, they know when we come back,” says Rubright. “It’s humbling; it’s like family.” Volunteers bring with them bags of clothing and shoes for more than 200 kids.
Beyond the Walls has helped other communities outside of Guatemala, such as Native Americans, homeless people in Dover and in Newark.
Rubright plans to volunteer at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota next, which is known as the poorest place in the U.S., next to Haiti, from alcoholism and unemployment faced by Native Americans. “This was their country and they are at the bottom of the ladder.”
Beyond the Walls is always seeking more volunteers, contributions for clothing and shoes, and financial support.
Its next mission to the garbage dump is Oct. 24-31, with already 20 people signed up.
Go to Beyondthewalls.org for more information. To volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I encourage people to go, go somewhere,” says Rubright, Long Valley softball coach for the past 14 years and former school board member. “Find something to do where you can do something for someone else. There are people everywhere who need something. You do not need to be religious. Some people think it’s a church thing – it’s people helping other people.”