Azaria Spencer

Rubbish Dump

rubbish dump 3

I had no choice but to put my foot down and allow the green mush to ooze inside the gaps of my sandal. A strange statement to make, but wholly true. We had just finished visiting a family whilst they were working on the rubbish dump and there was no other exit. Our only option was to walk through the rubbish and hope that there wasn’t anything too disturbing underfoot. I know it could have been worse, but freshly deposited avocados seemed pretty grim at the time. Of course, my poor footwear choice was my own fault. I had not gone into work that day thinking I would be going into ‘la terminal’ never mind onto the dump.
However, my footwear and avocado covered feet are insignificant in comparison to what I saw and learned that day.

I have walked close to the entrance of the dump many times; I have smelt the stench from a safe distance, and I have seen the filth. I have known that some of the families we work with earn a living from the dump, collecting and sorting through rubbish. Yet for some reason I had not yet ventured into or should that be onto the dump. I guess I was in it and on top of it.
I was not prepared, physically, mentally or emotionally. Not only were my shoes impractical rendering me physically unprepared, but my heart and soul were also not ready for what the dump had for me.
It is not an experience I can easily describe. The stench as strong as the sight. Piles of rubbish and filth. Huge plastic tote bags full of recycling, evidence of the hours of manual labour, done by men, women and children. This should not have shocked me, after all we were there to visit one of the families we support. One of our boys had not done very well in his school exams and we needed to meet with his mother, but she works long hours and so it was easier for us to go to her.
There he was, little Jesús sat on an old, rusting upended wheelbarrow, he looked upset and perhaps embarrassed, he had probably guessed the reason for our visit. His name alone a stark reminder to us of our saviour. We all know that this is exactly the kind of place where we would find Jesus. With the poor, the deprived, the needy, the outcast, the immoral, the lost and broken.
There are few places worse than a rubbish dump where people slave away to earn a living but try a rubbish dump located in the heart of one of the poorest and most deprived parts of Guatemala City.
Well I saw Jesus there, in more ways than one, and my heart broke.

I love all the children we work with and try my best not to have favourites. However, I have a special place in my heart for our youth, my boys. As we stood in the middle of the dump I looked around and there in the corner I saw Dan. He was sat among the rubbish taking a break from his work and my heart broke all over again. I knew that Dan had to help his mum on the dump, I knew that sometimes he had to work until 1am, but seeing it is different. It hit my heart with as much intensity as the stench had hit my nostrils. No one, man woman but especially child, should have to live and work in these conditions.

rubbish dump puppy

As we stood chatting with Jesús’ mum I observed my surroundings. Men carrying massive loads of cardboard, women sifting through rubbish in search of plastic. Children playing, puppies by our feet, and then in our arms. Not a wise decision but I couldn’t resist. How could there even be life in a place like this? Yet, there is always life, always beauty, always hope.
If I decided to try and forget this place I imagine it would take a lifetime. The intensity of the smell and sight is enough to make your eyes water and turn your stomach but the stark reality of people’s lives there makes your heart weep.

Now perhaps you can see why my impractical footwear was the least of my worries and squishing my foot into freshly deposited avocado scraps is insignificant, it pales in comparison in light of what my eyes saw and my heart felt that day.

Rubbish dump

Youth and Motorbikes

I can still vividly recall the first time I watched not one, but two of the boys from our youth group ride off on a motorbike. I was not ready for it then and I am not ready for it now. It depends how well you know me as to whether you and wanting to call me a hypocrite right now, because many people know that I am partial to a motorbike and have often jumped at opportunities to ride them.
However, context is everything. I have come to understand what a motorbike here can represent, what it can imply.

So, when a young man, known to us as having some gang related dealings, came to our centre to collect two of our young men alarm bells began to chime.
Let’s just say there is no way he has a job that pays well enough to buy a bike, and one of the ways he might have come to have it is through gang related favours or tasks.
I stood in the doorway of our centre as one of our boys got in the driver’s seat and the other took his place on the back, as the third person on the bike. Before I had time to decide whether to say anything or not, they were revving up and off they went. Mother instinct kicked in and I called down the street, ‘be careful, be safe.’
I am not their mother, and I cannot tell them what they can and cannot do. I realised in that moment I had no control, no real authority, no right, all I had was love and care. All I could do was offer words which reflected the love in my heart. These boys are growing, and they will make many decisions some good some not so great and I will be powerless to stop or protect them.
But I can love them and show them I care. I can hope and pray that they learn and grow and that they make more good choices than bad. That we can walk alongside them to guide them in their lives as they try and navigate their way through their teens and into adulthood in one of the most complex and challenging environments I have ever come across.

Life in ‘la terminal,’ isn’t easy for anyone, all demographics face challenges some more obvious than others. Of course, we all want to help the children, innocent and vulnerable. And the women, taken advantage of, desperate and turning to things like prostitution. But what about the men? They are harder to want to help, because unfortunately in this context they are often, not always, the root of the problems. They run the gangs, they create the demand for prostitutes, they are the abusive parties. The men are the ones holding the power and making the rules in this macho society and when you add in poverty and depravity, the results are heartbreakingly destructive.
So, of course we often don’t want to help them. They get forgotten, neglected, blamed.

However, there is something far more complex to consider, the cycle of poverty and immorality runs deep, generations upon generations deep. It takes generations of misguided mindsets and abusive behaviours to create the lifestyle so prevalent in ‘la terminal.’ And perhaps instead of viewing men as part of the problem we should be viewing them as part of the solution. And where better to begin than with the young men, the present young generations and the future leaders.

Many people look at the youth we work with here and see ‘naughty’ boys, young men causing problems, getting involved in bad things. And that might be partly true. But it doesn’t have to be. It can be different.
There is so much potential for change, it only takes one person to transform a generation. Old behaviours can be broken, attitudes changed. Value can be given, purpose found.
I don’t see young men with problems I see young men with potential.
With Christ all things are possible, generations can be redeemed, and a generation can be transformed.

Transformation and Friendships

Jose and Melvin 1

All of the children we work with have at least 5 ‘risk factors,’ that is why we work with them and their families. Therefore, all of the children we work with come from challenging and difficult family lives. Of course, there are some who have more challenging lives than others, or who have suffered under much more traumatic circumstances.

José is one of those children. His past and his current living situation is extremely difficult, and he has clearly suffered trauma in his shot life. There are things about his life that I won’t share here but trust me when I say his displays of challenging behaviour are understandable. Having come to know him over the past 2 years I have seen his vulnerable side as well as all his walls and barriers.

José does not always interact well with others, both adults and children, he finds it particularly hard to be in big groups and to concentrate. Yesterday I got to witness something truly remarkable and beautiful. José was having his last mentoring session with Joseph, a close friend and colleague. Joseph is about to go back to the UK for 6-8 weeks and so José was allowed a treat and to choose a friend to go with him. He chose a boy called Melvin, who he plays well with. I went with them as extra support. Let me tell you about our time together and you will see why yesterday was so special.

Joseph and I arrived at our mentoring centre to find two very excited boys, ready for their outing. We first had to get their permission forms from their guardians, so we went with them to their homes. When they had their forms signed, we walked back to the centre to set off on our trip. As we walked, they both hugged and thanked me and Melvin looked up at me and said, “te quiero mucho” – “I love you a lot.” My heart melted, it was clear how excited and how special this was for them. We piled into Joseph’s car and off we went up to a place called Cayala, which is basically a big open air commercial centre, complete with fun places to do activities and games.

Jose and Melvin with Joseph 1

Now for the laser quest, we arrived at the games centre and geared up for a few games of competitive laser quest. Only for these children do I engage in such activities. I am not a huge fan of running around in the dark in an intensive game of tag, but seeing their excitement and hearing them laugh certainly made it worth it. Dare I say I even enjoyed it. It was great to see them work together to beat Joseph and I. To see them letting off some steam in a fun and healthy way. The true joy was seeing José, a boy who can often act out in frustration and aggression, smiling nonstop and enjoy playing with his friend. After our laser quest adventure, the boys sat and played Mario-cart to calm down a bit. They sat close to each other, chatting away as they raced their virtual vehicles. Beautiful moments like these are difficult to capture in words of photos.

Jose and Melvin games

Before heading back to the centre, we went across to Mc Donald’s for a quick drink. This Mc happens to have a small indoor soft play, with slides and other fun things. After asking if he could go and play Melvin barely waited for our response before his shoes were off and he was in there.

Now, quite a lot of the children we work with feel very self-conscious about removing their shoes, due to poor hygiene. José frequently has low hygiene (we have often showered him in our centre and helped him with this) and was very hesitant to take his shoes off. A bit of encouragement from Melvin to come and play and an approving thump up from Joseph meant that he chose to be brave. He took his shoes off and in he went to play. I can’t express how this was to witness. The trust it displayed, José took courage and chose to trust that his friend would not mock him or mind the state of his feet. Watching some of his walls come down, seeing a softer side of him made my heart warm. It is hard to like some of his choices and actions sometimes, but never is it hard to love him. He is just a boy. A boy looking for approval, a boy looking to be cared for and about. Simply, he is just a boy looking to be loved, with a good kind of love. A love that is consistent, honest and unconditional.

Jose and Melvin with Ronald

I have had the privilege to see how mentoring really can change lives. Little by little José has let Joseph in and started to trust him. He has certainly pushed a lot of boundaries and acted out many times. He has rejected Joseph repeatedly, testing him, finding out if he really cared. If he would still be there. Joseph remained consistent, set up firm boundaries and standards in love and is seeing the benefit. It is slow progress, often with one step forward followed by serval back, but change is happening. And we are all learning and growing together.