Lakeridge team's experience in Nicaragua was heartwarming ... and heartbreaking
So this is what hell looks like. La Chureca: A smoldering, foul-smelling, six-acre garbage dump in the middle of Nicaragua's capital city, Managua.
It is home to approximately 3,000 people and hundreds of them are children. And this is where 13 Lakeridge students, most of them recent graduates, and 11 adults chose to spend the first week of their summer.
Spearheaded by 18-year-old Lucy Martin, the team went with Forward Edge International, a worldwide service organization out of Vancouver, Wash. Team members called themselves 'Out of the Bubble,' and they were … way out of the bubble.
'Nearly everything I did in Nicaragua is something I've never done before,' said Kevin DeAngelo. 'I haven't worked that hard in a long time … no, actually, I've never worked that hard.'
La Chureca is a difficult place to comprehend. It is a microcosm of all of the evils that plague the world: Hunger, poverty, drugs and prostitution. Yet families continue to live here. Generation after generation scraping out their living collecting and selling plastics, metal or whatever they can find.
Prostitution is one of the main sources of income for these families, and girls as young as 9 years old are sold to the dump truck drivers for the equivalent of less than a dollar. The Lake Oswego team delivered clothes and supplies to a 14-year-old girl who was five months pregnant; her mother was 28 - and the cycle continues.
Drugs and disease are commonplace. Huffing is a cheap high, and baby food jars of glue sold at the gates of the dump are found folded into the shirts and pockets of many of the glassy-eyed residents.
A small group of the 'Out of the Bubble' team went to the home (a one-room structure of scrap metal) of a couple dying of AIDS. They bathed them both, and administered water and painkillers. The wife had chicken pox and was covered with itching scabs.
'When I washed the man's body and feet I had my gloves on - he was emaciated, just bones and skin, and in so much pain. Then I took off my gloves to hold his hand for a while, just to touch him. To let him know someone was there,' said Kaylie Kooning.
'It was incredibly humbling to be there at the end of this man's life,' said Lisa Engstrom.
In the middle of the dump, amid the piles of smoking garbage and beneath the swirling vultures, sits a small cinderblock building. This is the school. This is a place the children of La Chureca no longer have to be gleaners and gatherers of garbage; they can be children. Built eight years ago with the help of a variety of mission groups, the school has classrooms, swing sets, soccer balls, recess and art, and the children all receive two meals a day, and often bring food home to their families.
'The kids have dirty faces and hands … they have scabs and scars and head lice. But the secret is to love what is in front of you,' said Sam Martin, who has done several trips to Third World countries as a video producer for Forward Edge. 'The kids just want to be picked up and held.'
That is exactly what the Lake Oswego contingent did. They held the kids and played with them, hauled them around on their shoulders, drew pictures, sang songs, blew bubbles, de-liced their hair and took photographs - lots and lots of photographs. The children were thrilled by seeing themselves in the Polaroids or even in the screen of the digital cameras.
'It was great to see the kids so happy, but it made me sad to know that it was just temporary,' said Melissa Dussin.
This is often the hardest part of service work. Wondering if your small part is making a difference. Hoping that somehow, someday things will change at La Chureca.
In a bold move to instigate change, Forward Edge is building a compound where eventually 64 girls from the dump will live in eight group homes with foster parents in each home. The project, appropriately named Villa Esperanza (House of Hope), was designed pro-bono by Portland architect Gary Eckelman and has been made possible by donations and volunteers. It is a beautiful, peaceful place nestled in a grove of grapefruit and palm trees.
'The first group of girls (was) expected to arrive on July 1,' said John Little, Forward Edge team leader and former Portland police officer. 'We have watched this dream turn into a reality over the last 18 months, and it has been thanks to the hard work and sweat of so many people.'
Gloria Sequiera, a saintly Nicaraguan woman who has dedicated her life to helping the children of La Chureca, selects the girls from the dump chosen to live in Villa Esperanza.
'We choose the girls after interviewing their mothers and determining their risk for physical, mental and sexual abuse. Two of the first group will be the daughters of the couple dying of AIDS. There is already a waiting list of 50 girls hoping to move into the villa.'
To help get Villa Esperanza ready for its new residents, the 'Out of the Bubble' team pitched in by digging ditches, hauling dirt, carrying beds, pouring cement and even digging a 10-by-12 foot hole for the septic tank.
'I was side by side with the guys, picking at rock, shoveling from the hole and hauling cement,' said Flannery Spinhirne. 'Everyone worked harder than they ever knew they could.'
For the 'Out of the Bubble' team, their experience in Managua was heartbreaking, heartwarming, and, for many… life changing.
'This was the most amazing experience of my life,' said John Barinaga. 'I will never forget it.'
The team went to Managua with $1,000 from a fundraising concert held at Lakeridge. 'With the money we bought a bed for a family in the dump, and lights for the school so they can hold night classes for the adults. The rest we turned over to Gloria - she knows best who needs what at La Chureca,' said Conor Liguore.
Since their return to Lake Oswego, the team is already making plans for a return trip next year. To continue fundraising efforts they have opened an account at US Bank and welcome any and all donations to the Nicaragua Benefit Fund for families in La Chureca (donations accepted at any US Bank branch).
'I've seen a lot of things,' said Todd Engstrom, Lake Oswego doctor who has done medical work in remote Pakistan, Africa and Honduras. 'But what I saw in Nicaragua was just about as bad as anything I've ever seen. This team from LO was amazing. The kids really dug deep, both physically and emotionally - they blew me away.'