TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The mountain made of trash is reflected in the litter-covered neighborhoods on the hillsides below. Trash that had been dumped on top of the mountain sifts down through the makeshift houses, pieced together with tin and plastic.
The people living in these neighborhoods work long hours sorting the city’s garbage, collecting glass and plastic to earn meager incomes of less than $20 each week — depending on how many bottles they find and what the bosses allow them to earn.
In the midst of such desperation, more than 100 children who used to work with their parents in the dump now walk away from it to go to a Mennonite Central Committee-supported school, Amor, Fe y Esperanza (AFE: Love, Faith and Hope).
The children become part of a large school family that surrounds them with love and support. The family consists of teachers, a pastor and psychologists who provide holistic education and care for the 170 children and their families.
In addition to reading, writing, math and sciences, the students also learn self-esteem, how to be kind and live healthy lives.
They get a free breakfast and lunch, which sometimes comes from the school’s hydroponic garden, where fish and lettuce are grown together.
Each day, the teachers set aside time for children to pick up trash around the campus so that they learn to take ownership and pride in their school. In an environment heavily polluted by the entire city’s garbage, it is an exercise and a mindset they must practice each day.
Christian faith is included in the AFE curriculum and Bible classes because “academic formation goes hand in hand with spiritual growth,” said Jesy Romero, AFE director. “Faith has been one of the pillars of AFE for 18 years. We couldn’t do any of this without our God, who makes the impossible possible.”
Gang tax and rat bites
Wendy Carolina Hernández Enríquez’s family is one of many that make up the AFE family. She walks to the campus each day with the four youngest of her six children. The older two work in the dump and never had the opportunity to attend AFE.
Years ago, after Hernández Enríquez left her abusive husband and had nowhere else to go, she ended up on the hill below the dump, searching for plastic from the dumpsite at night to support her family.
She praises God there was a woman willing to help with her children so she could work. But life was hard, and she had no real home for her children.
Years later, she has not been able to make enough money to provide a permanent shelter because the pay is so little and the gang that controls the area takes a cut of each worker’s earnings. Gang leaders enforce this “tax” for everyone in their territory.
One day, Hernández Enríquez was told she had to bring her young children with her to the dump instead of leaving them with her neighbor. She carried them up the hill for a few days, but they quickly fell sick from being too long in the sun and near the garbage.
“Thanks be to God,” she said, “not two weeks passed by and someone [AFE director Jesy Romero] saw us there and told me that she could take my children at the school.”
The preschool staff also cares for her 8-month-old son. Since that day, their lives have not been the same.
“Amor, Fe y Esperanza takes care of my children,” Hernández Enríquez said. “They provide breakfast and lunch, help me with milk, diapers and food for the baby and provide medical care when necessary.”
The school’s medical staff treats her children’s rat bite wounds.
Hernández Enríquez’s oldest daughter, Cindy, 10, says her favorite subjects are math and Spanish. She enjoys recreation, eating lunch with her classmates and teacher, and her Bible class.
More than academics
Arturo Lopez, known in the community as “the pastor,” is a friend of all at AFE. He teaches seventh-graders and leads weekly devotionals and Bible classes. He accompanies staff on family visits and prays with students and their families. He knows the name of each student and believes each relationship is important and key to growing through God’s love.
“The difference of AFE is that we desire to serve their need whatever that may be, and that is different from other schools,” Lopez said.
Other teachers also see their roles at AFE as more than just providing an education. Mercy Morales, an eighth-grade teacher, feels that teaching is God’s call for her life.
“By sharing with these kids and young people I have become a more sensitive person,” Morales said. “I am able to be there for them and support them.”
In instances where Morales cannot provide the professional help her students need, she refers them to the on-site counseling office that supports the children’s mental and emotional health. The office — staffed through a partnership with Honduras’ primary public university, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras — offers the AFE community the support of upper-level psychology student interns.
The interns address students’ emotional needs related to self-esteem and family issues and work alongside children with learning disabilities. They also work with parents.
“Sometimes the children seem bothered about something but do not wish to speak about it,” said psychologist intern Yanise Gamez. “Gaining insight on what is going on in their home life can be helpful for both the student and me.”
Among the greatest obstacles the children face are the actions of their fathers, including physical and sexual abuse. A class has begun for the fathers, teaching them how to care for their children and correct their behavior.
Compassion above all
Elizabeth Miller, a participant in MCC’s Serving and Learning Together program from Pettisville, Ohio, was an English teacher at the school in 2018-19. She served alongside Diana Hurtado Gutierrez of Bolivia, a participant with the Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network, a joint program of MCC and Mennonite World Conference.
Miller’s favorite part of her assignment was going on weekly home visits to get to know their families and gain an understanding of their home lives.
“As a teacher, I can drill English into their heads, but if I don’t have compassion for them and for where they come from, it means nothing,” Miller said.
AFE learns to know who they are serving and through that relationship understand how to provide for their needs.
“We believe that we can achieve whatever we dream through God,” Romero said.
The first AFE class graduated in 2011, and now 13 students who used to work in the dump are studying at the university.
“My dream is that more and more students may continue to be blessed,” said graduate Dennis Cruz, who is studying social work. “If it had not been for AFE . . . they would still be working in the dump.”