We rounded the corner and there it was. A massive sprawling dump, stretching into the distance. A tattered
tarpaulin had been used to create a roof slung over a few wooden planks. This was a shocking image but paled
into insignificance with what I would see around the next corner.
At first my eyes saw only rubbish moving gently in the warm sunshine. Dull yellows, ochres and reds faded
by the ferocious sun. I soon realised that the moving rubbish was hundreds of people. They swarmed over the dump,
rummaging through it to find plastic bottles, glass and scrap metal. People of every age walked barefoot over
broken glass and rotting food in an attempt to scrape together enough to sell. I was particularly struck by a
beautiful girl, aged just seven or eight. Her huge brown eyes stared at me, making an alarming contrast to the
filth and rubbish around her.
We asked one woman how much she had to collect to earn enough money to buy a meal. Her and her family would rarely
earn more than 50 pence a day. Barely enough to feed one person, let alone a family.
As we were talking, a new four-wheel drive vehicle passed slowly by. Tourists in the back leant out of the
darkened windows, took photographs and drove off without stopping.
Juan Carlos explained that he could no longer continue to run the project by himself. He needed volunteers to
help him. Enthusiastic people from the UK who could take food and water out to the community every day. They would
need to drive the pick up. They would need to distribute the food and potable water. Could I help him? Could I find
him volunteers when I returned to England?
This was 1997, before the idea of having a gap year had been established in most people's minds. It seemed rather
unlikely that anyone, out of choice, should wish to spend a period of their life on a Mexican rubbish dump. Soon
after my return to the UK, I mentioned the idea to my cousin, a lovely girl who planned to read Spanish at university.
She was very interested, although being privately educated and used to living in a smart London suburb, I couldn't
see how this would work. Her parents seemed supportive, however, and shortly after her A levels she was despatched
to Mexico with an equally well-heeled friend.
She spent six months in Mexico and loved it. She loved the community, the children, the grace and dignity of
those that she spent every day alongside. She told her friends who told their friends. Within a year of her return,
Outreach International was established.
So that's the story. And today, many gap year students as well as career break professionals from all walks of
life are finding that helping others through Outreach International is not just worthwhile, but intensely rewarding.
We're still working with the Rubbish Dump community in Puerto Vallarta to improve their lives. But we've added
numerous conservation, teaching, medical work, community work, wildlife and many other projects, along with half a
dozen different countries. There really is something for everyone.
And whichever Outreach project you choose, believe me, you will make a difference. To others, and to yourself.
Director, Outreach International