Originally published in the AARP Bulletin.
ED MAHONEY GAPED AT THE SPECTACLE. On the edge of the Guatemala City dump, a fetid ravine swarming with vultures, dozens of human scavengers intercepted garbage trucks. They picked through the refuse for anything of value-bottles, cardboard, string-to sell to recyclers. Mothers carried their babies in boxes while older children played soccer, not far from their cardboard and corrugated metal houses. The stench of decayed food hung heavy.
“I never realized anything like that existed,” says Mahoney, 53. “When you see it for the first time, it takes your breath away.”
Mahoney was on his second trip to Guatemala after retiring from a career in hotel and restaurant management. During his first visit, in 2001, he expected nothing more than a six-week vacation with some Spanish lessons thrown in. But that excursion left him eager to learn more about the world outside his comfort zone. So he returned to Guatemala the following year, this time to volunteer at a day-care center for 12 months.
One day, Mahoney met Hanley Denning, the American founder of Safe Passage, an organization serving the children of the families that scavenge Guatemala City’s dump. Safe Passage pays the children’s school expenses and runs an after-school program that offers tutoring, medical care and hot meals. If the children maintain high attendance, their mothers receive rice, beans, chicken broth and soap.
Hanley’s commitment captivated Mahoney. Safe Passage needed somebody with business experience, Hanley told him, to set up a donors program and put the organization’s financial and accounting systems in order. Relishing the challenge, Mahoney, who studied accounting in college, agreed to help out for six months and soon had the finances running soundly.
He might have left then-if not for an urge to witness firsthand the children’s living conditions at the dump. And the same day as his revelatory visit there, he met the families served by Safe Passage and was moved by the parents, who were shy and grateful for the assistance.
After that, Mahoney found Safe Passage’s work too compelling-and the need too great-to walk away. He re-upped for six more months, then finally settled in for the long haul as a resident of Guatemala City and as Safe Passage’s finance manager. During his years with the group, the number of children it serves has increased from 185 to 550, some living in a home it opened for victims of abuse and abandonment.
Mahoney has grown, too. “Living in Florida, I wasn’t concerned about anybody but myself,” he says. Now poverty’s toll is never far from his thoughts, and he has cultivated a deeper empathy for children’s suffering. At the same time, he has found his own material needs diminishing.
“You don’t need too much to live on,” he says. “Living in Guatemala makes you understand what is important in life. Not big cars, huge houses, designer clothes and all those things that bombard us from the media everyday, but how we can all benefit from helping others.”