By Tim Fausch, ER Communications Director
“We used to pray to God that he wouldn’t send the rain because we had a dirt floor. Rain was our biggest fear.”
It’s bad enough being dirt poor, but when even the dirt turns against you, you’ve reached the bottom. That was the situation that confronted one family in Quito, Ecuador.
Like nearly 300 other recyclers, German Patricio Fernandez gleans his living by picking through the trash at the Zambiza Transfer Station. The station also is known as the Quito Dump, a reference to its days as a full garbage dump. For 23 years, German has been a “miner”, a person who wades into steaming piles of garbage in search of recyclable plastics, metals, cardboard and glass.
While the Dump is safer today as a transfer station, conditions for recyclers remain unsanitary and dangerous. Even worse, their financial outlook is grim. Recyclers sell the materials for pennies per pound. The long hours required to collect and sort the materials help assure that dump workers will remain in extreme poverty.
Historical conditions compound the recyclers’ plight. Many are second- or third-generation miners with little education. They often inherit their parents’ lack of resources, education and hope.
Many of the families live in housing that compares with slums worldwide. Prior to the Dump becoming a Transfer Station, families often lived in makeshift housing in and around the Dump. Their tiny homes were constructed with materials found in the trash – scrap wood, cardboard and plastics. These homes were frequently bulldozed as new portions of the Dump were opened, leaving families homeless.
Praying For No Rain
German and his wife, Eva Morocho, had a particularly acute struggle. They have five daughters, a son and grandson. They used to live in a tiny home made of adobe bricks and cardboard. Rain was cause for concern because their house leaked terribly; a thunderstorm would create panic because their dirt floor would turn to mud.
“Before, our life was very sad because we are a nine-person family and we lived in a very small shack,” Eva said. “We all could not fit together and we had to sleep very close to each other. Everything was in the same room, including the kitchen and bedroom.
“Many times water would enter through the roof and from the walls and touch the earth. As parents, we felt horrible seeing our kids in this situation. We wanted to overcome the situation, but we couldn’t because we had to provide for so many kids and could not afford to build a real home.
“We were living in (adobe and) cardboard, in a space about two by two meters,” she added. “All the kids shared a single bunk. We use to have to put pots and pans to catch the water from dripping on our bed.
“At times my wife and I would see each other and begin to cry and say to each other, when will there be a miracle, so that we can have a house for our kids?” German added.
Extreme Conditions Require an Extreme Response
In 2007, the family’s situation began to change. They were invited to hear Jose Jimenez speak at the Dump. Jose and his wife, Teresa, oversee the Quito Family Resource Center and the Child Development Center at the Dump, operated by a humanitarian organization called Extreme Response International. Jose and Teresa strive to encourage the dump worker families by befriending them, helping them meet extreme needs and encouraging them.
Extreme Response (ER) has been working in the Dump since 1997. Back then ER was comprised of volunteers who saw hungry and dirty kids and simply wanted to provide some nutrition and programming. Fast forward to today. ER now offers childcare, after-school programs, meals, skills training, and medical and dental assistance to the Dump families.
Jose told German and Eva about a program that allows families to qualify to have a home built for them by Extreme Response volunteers. The program is limited to building one or two homes per year. The families must secure land and participate in the construction.
ER’s Paul Fernane, Short-Term Teams Manager – Americas Region, recalled the family’s situation.
“They were living in a very, very small one-room adobe brick house,” Fernane said. “They had a small outdoor cooking grill and an outhouse for their bathroom.”
German and Eva secured land and were selected for the home construction, which was completed in August 2013.
“The family was very excited and immediately indicated they were going to help any way they could to see their dream come true,” Fernane said. “We loved seeing their faces when they saw the first set of house plans.
“The whole family played a part in the pre-work and during the time the work team was in-country. The parents would work during the day with the team and then work in the Dump at night.
“All the kids pitched in, even little Sammy, who was eight at the time. She always wanted to help mix the mortar and carry the full buckets of mortar to the team members. Even when they looked heavier than her, she climbed up ladders, one rung at a time.
“The family members all poured their hearts into helping, and some of their own resources at times. Their smiles and hard work energized the team every day.”
Volunteers from Nebraska, affectionately called “Team Omaha”, came to Quito to build the home. A foundation provided the funds to build the home, while donors outfitted it with furniture, appliances, bedding and groceries.
“The team loved working with this family and was impacted by their commitment to helping,” Fernane said. “The team members were individually challenged to get out of their comfort zones, even if they had never laid a cinder block before or could not speak the language.
“We had women and men, young and old, who had never done this type of work, but they came together with a common goal of pouring into this family in any way they could. They worked hard every day to help make the family’s dream come true.”
While their modest block home was under construction, ER staff and the team realized the family would benefit greatly from extra space and a separate bathroom. So they modified the plans to include a second story and bathroom. The five girls ended up with their own bunk and bathroom suite.
“Having a house completely changed our lives,” German said. “We used to pray to God that he wouldn’t send the rain because we had a dirt floor. Rain was our biggest fear. Today our kids have their own bed and bathroom. There are no words to explain what we have now.
“Now we don’t live like we lived before. We were suffering. It has been a giant change because we can sleep peacefully. We do not live as we used to in a leaky shack. We are content and we give thanks. We live happy.”
“We are very thankful,” Eva said. “Our home is two stories. The five girls are living upstairs. We have our own bathroom and a kitchen. We only dreamed of this. We thought it would take our entire lives to build a home.”
“This is our room for my sisters and me,” Leslie (daughter) said. I want to give thanks to all of those who helped us build this house. Here in our room each of us has a bed. We like this room because it is big, we have our own privacy and we can play amongst ourselves or do whatever we wish.”
Fernane said the home-building process has changed the family and the work team.
“The family is coming to ER-led programs,” he said. “You can just see that they have a greater sense of hope and their self-esteem is definitely at a higher level. Their lives are being changed in many ways. We believe they have bigger dreams of what their future might look like.”
“The team was impacted by so much during the construction process, but the day the family moved into their dream home deeply touched the hearts of everyone. There were no dry eyes that day.”
Watch ER’s new video on building homes for dump families here.
ER and volunteers will build house number 13 this summer for another deserving family of recyclers from the Quito Dump. In addition to construction teams, we host teams that do medical and dental work, kids programs/crafts/sports, and more.