How We Started
“In the Easter of 1997, I was on holiday in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The weather was gorgeous and I had spent a couple of weeks surfing, swimming, camping and exploring the myriad of little villages up and down the coast. The holiday was drawing to an end and as the sun set over the ocean I began to chat with a lively group of local people about the fishing, the tourists, politics and the forthcoming fiesta.
I soon learned that just two or three miles from the delightful restaurants and trendy bars of Puerto Vallarta there was a massive rubbish dump. A community of over 500 families lived around it. They made ends meet by collecting rubbish and selling it the local recycling centre.
Juan Carlos, my new friend from the bar, explained that he was a local businessman and had set up a project to support the community. Every day he would collect fresh food from the local shops and restaurants and deliver it, along with barrels of drinking water to the rubbish dump community. Given the comfort of my immediate surroundings and infectious laughter of my companions it was difficult to imagine that just down the road were people living in such difficult conditions.
Juan Carlos offered to take me to the project the following day. This would be a rather sobering end to the holiday.
Early the following morning we set off in the back of the project pick up. After just ten minutes the road began to deteriorate and soon was more potholes, dust and bumps than anything else.
Houses with freshly whitewashed walls and watered lawns gave way to crumbling concrete and dust, which in turn were replaced by cobbled together terraces made of rusty corrugated metal sheets, cardboard and plastic packaging. We were still less than two miles from the comforts of Puerto Vallarta.
We rounded the corner and there it was. A massive sprawling dump, stretching into the distance.
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….. and the rest is history of sorts.
We’re still working with the Rubbish Dump community in Puerto Vallarta to improve their lives, now teaching in a school that has been established to support education among the next generation and conditions are slowly improving. We even had one of the children thank Outreach International for the role we have played in her now securing a University place – something we could not have dreamed of back in 1997.
Since then we’ve added numerous projects in eight countries. There really is something for everyone, but whichever Outreach International project you choose, believe me, you will make a difference. To others, and to yourself”.