April Highlight: The Cuenca Recyclers
Like clockwork every week, an older woman comes to sort through the garbage bags at our home, placing certain items on her large hand-pushed cart. We exchange greetings if I encounter her. Occasionally, over the years I’ve given her five or ten dollars. She smiles holding the bill in her two hands and says “may God bless you for me” (a Quichua/Spanish phrase) and then continues to quietly go through the garbage bags in front of each house in the neighborhood. This pattern is repeated throughout our city of 600,000, but they are rarely given a second glance.
There are between 500 and 700 recyclers in Cuenca who pick plastic, tin, and glass out of neighborhood garbages before the city service picks up the trash. Though doing the city and the environment a service, they are not actually employed by the city. Their income is based on the amount they recycle each month. The monthly average for a worker is one ton of recycled product, which earns about $100. For reference, even the monthly minimum wage of $380 is quite difficult to support a family on. These recyclers live significantly below the poverty line and have been doing so for generations. The majority are also uneducated, and illiterate. It is typical to see the recyclers’ children accompanying and even helping them during their work.
We feel so blessed here at Iglesia Arco Cuenca to have recently partnered with the Alliance in Development Foundation (Alianza en el Desarrollo), a municipal program that supports the children of the recyclers. The aim is to keep these children off the streets where there are increased health and safety risks, and in school until graduation.
After school, children receive care, help with homework, and a warm meal while their parents are working. Regular home and school visits, and scholarships are also provided. Volunteers from the church regularly go to the foundation’s facilities to assist in these areas. And every Saturday, Arco Cuenca hosts the children and their families for breakfast, an adult connect group, and a Royal Ranger program for the children. Around 100 children regularly participate. That number grows to 400 children for special events like Christmas or International Children’s Day.
Many have accepted Jesus as their Lord, and now have new dreams and goals for their future. “They are on track to break the cycle of poverty” says Deanna Capaldi, director of Arco’s involvement in the program. “The parents have now seen the need and are doing their best to maintain their children in school. Several of these families now attend the church on a regular basis and consider Arco their church family. This is huge because it can be very intimidating to walk into a big church and not know anyone and feel accepted. But because of the Saturday program they feel welcomed and have integrated well.”
Ismael Vallejo is the children’s pastor at Arco Cuenca and runs the Saturday Royal Rangers program where recycler children, Venezuelan refugee children, and children of our local church all attend together. He describes just one of the instances of change in a child’s life through the program. At a special overnight camp-out, most of the recycler program children were overjoyed to sleep in a sleeping bag, or even eat french fries for the first time. It was something they had always dreamed of trying.
But Ismael relates how one boy at the camp-out had a very different attitude. “He was harsh toward the other children, and even toward me and the other leaders. He wanted to dominate and embarrass the others. He lived only with his mother, as his father had left, and he seemed very closed-off. But actually seeing how the other kids at the camp-out loved each other was so impactful for this boy. It was shocking to see how he completely changed from one day to the next, and began to listen to others and be encouraging. I know that giving material gifts is meaningful, but it isn’t the most important thing we can do for these kids. It’s how we treat them that has such a great impact. We love them and treat them like people, like God’s children. They’ve never felt that before.”
Thank you to all of our volunteers and staff that love and care for these precious families! As our partners, we ask that you continue to pray for them and for the families of the Cuenca recyclers. Thank you for your continuing support.
Interview with Deanna Capaldi in Cuenca, Ecuador. Conducted 31 January 2019.
Interview with Ismael Vallejo in Cuenca, Ecuador. Conducted 28 March 2019.