Nicaragua’s ‘Children of the Dump’

Published 3:37 pm Monday, July 7, 2008

By By JOHN EBY / Dowagiac Daily News
They walk naked through clouds of flies, their bodies covered with open sores.
They fend for themselves, competing with dogs, cattle and goats for the tastiest morsels of garbage.
They not only seek scraps of food to eat, but trash to sell.
Eight hundred children under the age of 5 scavenge a miserable existence in Chinandega, Nicaragua.
They are the "Children of the Dump."
Rotary International District 6360, which includes the Dowagiac club, is packing 300 gift boxes and baby layettes for the second-poorest Latin American country behind only Haiti.
In the 1970s, Nicaragua was a wealthy nation, with a per-capita income behind only oil-rich Venezuela, but the combined devastation from active volcano eruptions, hurricanes and civil war reversed its fortunes.
There are 19 volcanoes. The up side is that soil around Chinandega is rich. Crops grow quickly. The down side is the volcano nearest Chinandega is active. When it erupted several years ago, unleashing a massive mudslide down the mountain, thousands were buried.
More than 40,000 refugees went to Chinandega and nearby Leon.
The volcano eruption came on the heels of a 10-year civil war. Then Hurricane Mitch in 1998 ravaged Central America. Refugees who lost everything were reduced to living in hovels near the dump.
Three men have been instrumental in changing Chinandega: Father Marco Dessy, an Italian missionary who had lived in Nicaragua for 25 years;
Rotarian Frank Huezo of Houston, Texas; and Rotarian Steve Thorpe of Waterloo, Iowa.
Father Marco first encountered the dump in 1996. With the help of local businesses and individuals, he built a small school near the dump, only to find that the children would not come unless he bribed them with a meal each day.
Father Marco found immediate success, with 90 children showing up regularly. There had been 43,000 refugees initially, which he reduced to 2,000 after 90 days, but they were permanently displaced.
More than a year passed and still no dependable source of food or water for thousands who relied on the city dump for their existence.
Father Marco waded into this ocean of need.
Then the Rotary "wheel" started spinning.
The Humble, Texas, Intercontinental Rotary Club was searching for its first international project.
Humble Rotarian Frank Huezo, a native of Nicaragua, met Father Marco in 1997.
He enlisted the help of his Rotary club in building additional school facilities, as well as supplying learning materials, uniforms and food.
Since 1997, his club and the Rotary Foundation have committed more than $1 million to projects in Nicaragua.
Steve Thorpe became aware of Chinandega in 2001 while attending the Rotary International convention in San Antonio, Texas.
The "Children of the Dump" story RI President Herb Brown told touched Thorpe, who returned to his Waterloo, Iowa, Downtown Rotary Club determined to help in some way.
Several members of Thorpe's Waterloo Crossroads Rotary Club, meanwhile, were just returning from a Rotary Friendship Exchange with a club in Waterlooville, England.
While there, they learned of a project by that club to fill and ship boxes the size of a shoebox to needy children in eastern Europe.
Thorpe heard about the gift box project and saw in it a way to ease the squalor of no electricity, potable water, sanitation, food or housing except plastic or tin strung over poles, thus beginning the Rotary Children of the Dump gift box project and the effort to relocate them from the dump to a life of dignity.
The shoebox gift project is now in its seventh year. Rotarians try to send about 3,000 boxes each year.