Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Be careful what you toss

Along the  road from Cuernavaca to Xochicalco are two separate, interconnected stories of waste and hope. For years the children living at the garbage dump outside Alpuyeca were treated as disposable as the garbage and the land.  There was little hope for the lives of the children or for the environment.  It took an individual with a dream to change that reality.

The road from Cuernavaca to Xochicalco goes through Alpuyeca, a town whose story is much like that in the movie Erin Brockovich -- a disproportionate percentage of the population suffers from liver cancer and thyroid problems traced to the garbage dump just eight kilometers farther along the highway.  An intense and successful citizens' movement led to the dump closing in 2006.  Experts say toxic ooze will continue contaminating Alpuyeca's water supply for decades.  

The open-air dump was receiving 1200 tons of garbage daily from Cuernavaca and nearby municipalities.  At the dump each garbage truck was followed by dozens of scavengers -- pepenadores -- who would pick out whatever they considered recyclable -- paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum, tin, batteries.  They had to work quickly; another truck would be arriving in minutes.  Whole families worked together.  More hands meant more income.  Scavengers could earn the equivalent of minimum wage per person selling recyclable material to purchasers who came for it weekly. Not just anyone could walk in and start scavenging -- pepenadores were members of a union; a closed union with two ways to join:  to marry into it, or be born in.  Approximately two hundred families lived along the dirt road leading up to the dump.  Scavengers do a tremendous service to society by recycling our trash.  Unfortunately they must do it using a method both unhealthy and unhygienic.       

Just after passing the dump there is a fork in the road; to the right to the World Heritage archeological site of Xochicalco -- the way I usually go -- to the left to Miacatlan about twenty minutes ahead.  For the sake of today's story lets curve to the left.   That's where the main Casa Hogar of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos y Hermanas (NPH) is located -- a home for orphaned, abandoned, or children at risk due to extreme poverty, founded by William Wasson from Arizona.  

Wasson studied to be a priest.  When it came time to be ordained he was devastated to learn that the bishop of his diocese would not ordain him, nor would any other bishop in the USA.  He was suffering a serious thyroid problem.  No bishop wanted to take on his health care expense.  From seminary, in 1948, he went to San Luis Rey College in California where he received a masters degree in social sciences, from there, to Mexico on vacation financed by his father.  In Cuernavaca he spoke with recently appointed Bishop Sergio Méndez Arcéo who told him to not worry, "I will ordain you."  In addition to that Don Sergio went out on a limb and gave Wasson a tiny church on Tepetates street in downtown Cuernavaca -- at a time when foreign clergy were not allowed in Mexico.  Imagine the elation and fulfillment 29-year-old Father Wasson must have felt!  

A year later Wasson received a summons from a judge.   A 14 year-old had been caught stealing from the offering box in his church.  What a scolding that boy must have gotten, if not from the priest, certainly from the judge.  When it was his turn to talk the boy said that not only did he steal from the offering box in order to buy food, he also lived under the church.  There was no basement, just crawl space where he could make a bed of cardboard. Wasson asked for, and received, custody of the child.  Within a week the judge called again, and said, "I have eight more."  From there it grew.  Within five months there were 32 boys, by 1965, 400 boys and girls, in 1977 he passed the 1,000 mark.  NPH's policy is that it will not split up siblings; all siblings enter NPH together.  They become part of the NPH family and live there until entering adulthood or finishing their studies -- elementary through 12th grade in a fully accredited first rate private school right on NPH's campus.  Wasson's early policy was to encourage the pequeños to study to be teachers.  Until recently an elementary school teachers' certificate could be procured with the completion of a 12th grade education; the last three of which are in a Normal School.   Not all of the graduates would necessarily want to be teachers, but they would have a certificate, which would open doors for them in the labor market or allow them to continue on in university studies.  Now the pequeños can study any career or occupation; NPH covers all of the expenses involved. 

In addition NPH offers educational programs for some deserving students who live with their own families whom it refers to as "our extended family".  One such group is children born into the families of scavengers at the dump near Alpuyeca.  In 1997 an agreement was worked out with the heads of households at the dump.  NPH started sending two school busses every morning to pick up ninety children and drive them to NPH's Home in Miacatlan.  Upon arrival children shower, change into school uniforms, breakfast, attend school, have lunch, change back into their own clothes and are bussed back to the dump where they would help their parents for the remainder of the afternoon.  Outsiders are often aghast to learn that children would be returned to the dump at the end of the day, without realizing what a breakthrough it was to get their parents to give up 180 hands for three quarters of a day, in exchange for the hope of a better life for their children.  

Father Wasson died on August 16, 2006.  Five weeks later, in an unrelated decision, the garbage dump was closed by Morelos' state congress.  

Father Wasson left a strong foundation.  There are now NPH Homes in nine Latin American countries with support coming from donors, God-parents, volunteers, dedicated teachers and staff, and the pequeños themselves who, when of age to be able to do so, help in animal husbandry, vegetable gardening, and other chores which go along with being a member of a family and household. 

Many of the families who scavenged at the dump have moved away.  With no more garbage coming in there is no more income for them.  However there are still many families living along that dirt road whose heads of household prefer to commute to jobs elsewhere, distant as they may be, rather than leave.  NPH keeps its word and the busses keep transporting over a hundred children back and forth to school where they receive a quality education and full health care.  

Not only were lives reclaimed by the vision of Father Wasson -- but there is now a cleanup program of the land and water table.  In fact, the extended family from the dump now has its first Licenciada -- in sociology.  She graduated from a private university in Monterrey last year.  

Reclamation of the land and of lives -- a direct legacy of a man to whom the church had had not shown compassion but, given the opportunity, proved himself to be one of its greatest treasures. 

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