Then and Now: Juanita

Juanita Gaspar Tzalam is the manager of the bodega which processes and stores supplies here at Safe Passage. The project simply would not function so well without her! She organizes all the materials for the classrooms, the offices and all of the programs at Safe Passage; from pens and pencils, to planners and envelopes, spray paint for Urban Art Club  and soccer balls for sports. She also organizes the in-kind gifts that arrive and directs them to the right department. What many may not know is that she worked in the Guatemala City garbage dump.

Juanita started as a Safe Passage student in Primero Basico (7th Grade) in 2005, graduating with her high school degree in 2010. Conditions were extremely difficult growing up. Juanita is the eldest of seven children and had to help her mother in almost everything: cooking, cleaning, looking after her brothers and sisters, and going down to the dump to find recyclables to sell.

“I feel bad when I see young children sneaking into the dump to work, but I understand. When there is need at home and you can do something about it, then it feels good to help.” 

One day when she and her mother were working in the dump, a social worker from Safe Passage approached them and asked about their situation. Juanita was given the opportunity to begin studying the following year. Unlike most Safe Passage students, Juanita wasn’t able to take advantage of the opportunity to take classes in art or dance, music or sports. She attended the project solely to do homework and for help with her classes in public school. Her family's situation was so challenging that she continued working in the dump to help her mother while studying.

“People say it’s impossible to work in the dump and study at the same time. It’s not. You just have to really want to, and it takes a lot of effort.”

Safe Passage provided the books, materials, uniforms and bus fares for her to attend public school. After the 4 hour school day in her  Guatemalan public school, she came to Safe Passage for after-school enrichment, tutoring and classes. Juanita's educational achievement, while simultaneously helping support a family of 8 by working in the garbage dump, is nothing short of heroic. However, she doesn’t see it this way.

“I don’t think there’s anything special in me that meant I could do this. I just didn’t want to have to continue the same life. I wanted to be able give my children more. I wanted something better for my future.”

Upon graduation, Juanita studied for and passed the exams necessary to enroll in university. She started working for Safe Passage in 2011 and attends Universidad San Carlos in the evenings and on weekends where she's majoring in economics. Her mother no longer works in the dump as Juanita is able to provide enough for the family now. Her sister Josselin is in Safe Passage's graduating class this year and hopes to follow in Juanita’s footsteps to university studies and a life away from the dump.

-Mathew Meehan

Visitors Coordinator