Rescuing Children Living on the Trash Dump

Nancy McGirr, a professional war photo-journalist for Reuters News Service, while on assignment in 1991 in Guatemala found hundreds of children living and scavenging in Guatemala City’s huge garbage dump right in the middle of the city. When she loaned her camera to one of the children, she was so impressed by the pictures, that she solicited corporate donations of cameras and photo processing supplies.

Beginning with 6 children but rapidly expanding to 23 children aged 5-12, she taught them all photography skills and soon their work was exhibited all over the world. The children began earning money from sales of their photos and for the first time, their parents could afford to send them to school.

In 1993, another woman helped teach the children writing skills. From this combination of children’s photos and essays, a book, “Out of the Dump,” was published featuring many touching essays and poems illustrated in heart-rending black and white pictures.

Nancy McGirr first called the educational project Out of the Dump, and the project is still going strong under the name Fotokids (www.fotokids.org). Over the years, hundreds of impoverished children from all over the city have benefited from the program. Many of the students have gone on to college and entered successful careers, which was formerly impossible for children whose families survived only by every family member scavenging the dump. Now the school has expanded to Nicaragua, and includes workshops in design. (See www.design4kids.org .) Ms. McGirr continues to recruit instructors twice a year from North America to travel to Central America to teach professional workshops for the advanced students.

Nancy McGirr spent many years away from her professional career helping the “dump” children learn to take artistic pictures, start going to school, and begin career tracks. When asked “what’s in it for you,” she said “I love to see the children grow; I’m really happy for them. I want the best for them; that’s what keeps me going.”

Nancy McGirr has become a role model for innovative, compassionate and loving dedication to reducing the suffering of impoverished children. And she admitted that she felt happy from the sacrifices she had made.

In her December 2011 newsletter, she says “For me, the compassion I see in them (the children) and their desire to give back is how I measure success.” (More information can be found on Nancy McGirr’s blog .) A second photo book has been published entitled To Capture Dreams 20 Years.

Below is a poem-like story by photographer Marta Lopez, age 10, about her living quarters next to the Guatemala City Dump.

Our Alley

By Marta Lopez

Three little houses
guard our alley.
Three little houses
full of children;
five in my house,
three behind
four across the alley.
We share the alley;
it’s where we play,
where we walk
Where we listen
to people who fight.
We share the alley
but the clothesline?
No.
My sister climbs a pole
to hand the wet clothes.
Later
she stands guard
so no one steals
the clothes.
We share the alley,
but the clothesline
is ours.

The program has spread to several other countries, with life changing impacts on many students’ lives. Nancy McGirr could have used statistics to measure success but instead she views evidence of contagious compassion as her standard of accomplishment. Imagine, if everyone used this criterion of success, how much more kind and fun life would be.

Without compassion, the American McGirr never would have done anything for the children struggling day to day in the miserable dump. Once she got to know the Guatemala City children on an intimate basis, she acted out of love for them, not just compassion. Some of the children died in the dump. Others, McGirr followed through their schooling and helped them find jobs. Like many dedicated teachers, her students became an extended family. Without empathy and altruism and a sense of responsibility, Nancy McGirr would not have been able to sustain her commitment to expanding the learning community of child photographers that she began two decades ago. Role models for loving compassion often are women, but men also inspire us to follow their loving compassion pathways.

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