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Socioeconomic Conditions Lead to Health Challenges in Guatemala

It has been roughly 8 months now since the world was introduced to the novel coronavirus. The first outbreak occurred in Wuhan, China and then began to spread rapidly throughout the world changing life as we know it. Even now communities are struggling to combat this deadly virus. People have grown frustrated with the disruptions it has caused to their daily lives. Many of us long for the day when we can go back to doing the things that we love the way we love to do them.

However, for many communities in developing countries, environmental and socioeconomic conditions make life challenging even without the additional burdens imposed by Covid-19. Residents often live with increased exposure to toxic chemicals, germs, viruses, and overall poor air quality, resulting in a number of health challenges and a severe burden to already weakened health systems.format

This was never more apparent than when I traveled to Guatemala with several board members and other supporters of MedShare. Having taken a number of these trips to better understand the health and economic challenges of the communities we serve, I’ve found that there’s always something that surprises me or forces me to reevaluate my perspective. However, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw and experienced when we visited Basurero.

The Guatemala City basurero is a city dump that covers forty acres of land. There are mounds of trash for as far as one’s eyes can see. As yellow trucks line up each day to empty their loads onto the heap, residents of the slums surrounding the dump crowd around the trucks before they even come to a stop. Scavengers with the most seniority rush to touch the trucks’ sides — a flat palm against the cargo hold marks their scavenging space for when the trucks pull away after unleashing crumbling waves of garbage. This work is fraught with danger. There are even stories of people charging in too quickly and getting crushed under the trucks’ tires.

For decades, the marginalized people of Guatemala City have been drawn to the city’s gigantic dump as their souce of income. Some 7,000 people work from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year in the dump—entire families spend their lives collecting plastic, metal, and old magazines from out of the trash heap to sell to recyclers. Around 1,000 of these “guajeros,” as the trash-pickers are called, are children. A long but successful 11-hour day at the dump might yield $2 – 3 if they are lucky.

As you would imagine, living and working daily in these types of conditions not only inflicts a tragic toll on the individual’s health, but also on the health and education of their families. Many of these impoverished men, women and children suffer from chronic conditions, are illiterate, have no education and are often associated with gangs and drug use. They aren’t guaranteed health care, electricity, running water, an education or government assistance. Private charitable organizations, such as MedShare, step in to fill the gap by providing basic health care supplies and services in the neighborhood. Since 2000, MedShare has provided over $12 million in humanitarian aid to Guatemala and equipped 120 medical mission teams with critical medical supplies to provide health care services to this region.

On our trip, we visited with Safe Passage (“Camino Seguro” in Spanish), an NGO focused on providing quality education for many of the children whose parents work in the dump. In 1997, Hanley Denning, a woman from Maine, volunteered to teach children and adults in this area. Her purpose in Guatemala, and in life, changed when she came to understand their struggles and the issues the dump created. While the adults went to the dump, their children were left to the streets or forced to work in the dump with their parents.

Hanley sold her belongings to fund Safe Passage to take in and tutor these children. Many years later, the organization Hanley founded continues to evolve and thrive. We could see that Hanley’s spirit and vision live through the volunteers, staff and students with whom we spoke during our visit. Hanley would be extremely proud and overjoyed to see the organization today but also saddened by how much work remains to be done.

The basurero neighborhood is desperately poor, lacks basic social services, and offers residents little hope of escaping, but we’re committed to doing what we can to make a difference. Organizations like MedShare and Camino Seguro play a critical role in improving the quality of life of so many people who dream of a better tomorrow.

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