Helping to dig school foundations for a school for kids who live in a garbage dump in Guatelmala City, Guatemala, doesn’t fit the sun and sand image that accompanies the words “Spring Break trip,” but for seven Saint Vincent College students, one seminary student, and two faculty members, that is the basis for a spring break to remember.
Christopher McMahon, an associate professor of theology, and Elaine Bennett, assistant professor of anthropology, led the students on the eight-day service-learning trip, working with an organization called International Samaritan. This trip marked McMahon’s third as a member of the Saint Vincent College faculty, although he had worked with International Samaritan previously.
According to McMahon, International Samaritan works to establish outreach ministries that are sustainable beyond the lifetime of the sponsoring organization by working with local stakeholders and government officials who will continue to support the programs. International Samaritan’s mission is focused on garbage dump communities, primarily in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, Haiti and Egypt.
“These squatter communities live off the garbage that ends up in the dump in the middle of Guatemala City,” McMahon said. “They also collect the recyclables and form co-ops that sell what is collected, in bulk, to recyclers. They earn $3 to $4 a day doing that.”
McMahon explained that the program, as set up by International Samaritan, is basically triage.
“They first set up a guarderia, or nursery school, at the entrance to the dump so the parents can leave their children instead of taking the whole family into the dump to work,” he said. The organization also sets up a nutrition program at the nursery, and then psychological services with the aid of local government.
The second phase of International Samaritan’s operations is to start a school. “School is compulsory in Guatemala up to sixth grade,” McMahon said. “But these are very poor people, so often they only go until second grade.”
The Guatemala City school is named for Francisco Coll, founder of the Dominican Order that runs it.
“A couple of the teachers actually grew up in the dump,” McMahon said. “They were able to continue going to school, and now they help to supply an avenue for kids and families to be in school, stay in school, and have a means to eventually bring their families out of the dump.”
As part of the service on this trip, Saint Vincent College students and Rev. Deacon Kevin Fazio, a fourth year seminarian from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, worked side by side with older students and employees of the Francisco Coll school to dig the foundations for two additional classrooms.
“Now hope is not an abstraction for these kids,” McMahon said. “Hope is something that’s concrete.”
On every trip McMahon leads, the schedule is similar. “We do school work with the kids in the morning, from about 7:30 to 12:15,” he said. “In the afternoon, we work on a building project.”
According to McMahon, there are no textbooks, audio-visual equipment, or computers in the school. They use white boards as the main teaching aid. “The classrooms are tiny, tiny spaces. There are 42 kids in a room approximately 12 feet by 20 feet,” he said. “There are two first-grade and two second-grade classrooms with 40 kids each, then a single classroom houses the third- through sixth-grade classes. The 80 that started in first grade has shrunk to 30 kids by sixth grade.”
Rev. Deacon Fazio made his second trip with McMahon this year. The Diocese of Pittsburgh parish where he is spending his deacon internship, Saint Maurice in Forest Hills, helped to fund his trip as did Saint Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh.
“We are received with a joy and a love that is beyond description,” Fazio said. “The children clamor with each other to grab your hand, and cling to you for attention. They enjoy giving ‘high-fives’ and they ask how their names translate into English. In the end, they just want to be loved, and to share love as only they know how.”
The group spends approximately two hours per day in prayer according to McMahon. They pray both morning and evening office, using a psalter and readings specifically chosen for the trip. They are also required to complete a reflective journaling exercise.
Following the trip, the students do a debrief, and complete small research projects related to their major.
“The demands of the Gospel require practical wisdom as well as spiritual gifts,” McMahon said. “Fellowship makes hope concrete.”