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GUATEMALA CITY -- A group of 20 incoming seniors at Toledo's St. John's Jesuit High School have just returned from an 11-day trip abroad.
They didn't go a Caribbean beach or a European resort but spent most of their time in one of Guatemala City's poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, Zone 3.
The students, who finished their trip with a few days in El Salvador, worked at schools built for children of dump workers and stayed at a bare-bones Catholic retreat house several miles away.
Most Guatemalans avoid Zone 3, an area notorious for poverty, crime, and noxious odors emanating from the dump.
Mangy dogs roam the streets. Muddy sidewalks are piled high with giant bags of trash salvaged from the landfill.
The gringos were escorted by police everywhere they went in Zone 3.
"We are so lucky to be here," Sean Burlingame, 17, said.
Lucky to be in the midst of such squalor?
"Yes, lucky, because not everyone gets the chance to experience this firsthand, to see the poverty. I think we can better serve people when we know personally what their needs are," Sean said.
Serving the poor was the purpose of the trip and the reason that International Samaritan, which organized the visit, was founded at St. John's High in 1995 as Central American Ministries. Led by the Rev. Don Vettese, St. John's president at the time, the agency has branched out, moving its headquarters to Ann Arbor and expanding its outreach to garbage-dump communities in seven countries on two continents.
Students and teachers from St. John's have been making the trek to Guatemala every year since 1994. Other local schools have participated, including St. Ursula Academy the last two years and the University of Toledo, and have traveled to International Samaritan sites in Central America.
The St. John's students worked at two International Samaritan facilities, renovating Centro Educativo Francisco Coll, a grade school founded in 1996, and Santa Clara nursery, which cares for 238 children.
At Coll School, which has 328 students in grades one through six, the St. John's team knocked out parts of crumbling cement-block walls and painted all the classrooms.
Mike Pool, 17, of Swanton painted a St. John's logo with Los Titanes, Spanish for the Titans, the school's team name -- on a wall in the school's central courtyard.
At the nursery, which cares for children from 3 months to 6 years, St. John's students helped the teachers, taught the children a few English words, and simply spent time with them, bonding and serving as positive role models.
Some even danced the Hokey Pokey with the children while others rocked infants to sleep.
"We have this opportunity to help. And if it's not us, then who?" asked Samir Jindal, 17. "You can always live comfortably and make excuses. But 3 billion people in this world live in poverty and 1 billion in extreme poverty. We want to help change that."
Many of the children have no fathers, or their fathers are alcoholics who physically or verbally abuse the children, nursery Principal Sonia Evelyn Palancia de Rodre said.
Making a mark
Meeting older males who are kind and loving can have a real impact on the children, she said.
Cameron Conrad, 17, of Holland, said his time in Guatemala City was "an amazing experience."
"We talked a lot in our evening reflections about how tied we are to things, how materialistic our culture is," Cameron said. "These kids have nothing but they are so happy and full of energy."
The memory that stands out most, he said, is "the smiling faces of the kids and their happiness."
Austin Wasielewski, 17, said he noticed that the children appear to feel happy, safe, and loved in the schools.
"It's an extraordinary atmosphere. They get a mental break from their family life. The biggest surprise of this trip is the lack of hopelessness," he said.
The toddlers and little ones at the nursery literally swarmed over the St. John's students the minute the Toledo-area residents walked into the classroom.
"That was the best moment," Sean Burlingame said. "The worst moment was saying good-bye."
"They're adorable and amazing," Kris Akiki, 17, said while escorting a group of nursery schoolers along an open-air hallway. "It kind of makes me want to have kids -- but not until after college."
He said he wasn't sure what he expected when he signed up but had no regrets about spending a week in Zone 3.
"I enjoyed the kids a lot. These kids need role models. They need a push to get their education started and get on the right track," he said. "I want to try to learn more Spanish so I can talk to them better the next time I come back."
Austin played guitar and sang a Neil Young song, "Heart of Gold," for 5-year-olds at the nursery.
"In my five years of playing guitar, they were the most attentive audience I've ever had," he said. "When I finished, the kids shouted, 'Otra! Otra!' I didn't know what that meant so I just said, 'Otra! Otra! It meant 'Another!' They were cheering me on. It was so cool."
At the end of the week, he handed Coll School officials a $700 guitar donated by St. John's.
For safety reasons, St. John's students were not allowed inside the city dump. But they got a clear view of the dump workers, watching the trucks and the scavengers from a cemetery on a cliff overlooking the landfill.
A devastating scene
Guatemala at a glance
Population: 13.8 million
-- 0-14, 38.1 percent
-- 15-64, 58 percent
-- 65 and older, 3.9 percent
Capital: Guatemala City, population 1.5 million
Infant mortality rate: 26.02 deaths per 1,000 live births
Life expectancy: 70.9 years
Major infectious diseases: bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, dengue fever, malaria
SOURCE: CIA FACTBOOK
"I was devastated," Ross Sattler, 17, said. "I can't imagine it. Every day, these people are doing this to support their families."
"That was shocking," said Andrew Miller, 17, of Perrysburg. "It's something you can't really imagine until you're there. It's sad. These people are born into that situation and it's hard to get out of it."
The students and teachers also visited two dump workers' homes.
Melissa Ingraham, one of three St. John's teachers on the trip, said stepping into the houses was like stepping into another world.
"There was one 25-year-old single mom -- the same age as me -- with three kids who earns $4 a day. She was worried about rats biting their kids in their sleep. It was so disturbing."
Tony Calamunci, 17, of Sylvania, thought he knew about poverty before going to Guatemala, but the trip changed his perspective.
"I always had a good idea about Third World poverty. I knew poverty existed," he said. "But to come here and see the people and see how they live, I feel a greater sense of responsibility to help others. I'm glad I got a chance to do this."
Bobby Adusumilli, 17, said it was difficult at times to witness such extreme poverty.
"I want to figure out what's the best way to change things," Bobby said. "I think International Samaritan has a good plan to combine housing and education to help people get out of poverty. If you just give money, then people will keep begging."
Samir said the students discussed how to serve the poor and underprivileged in Toledo. He said he and his family, for example, have been teaching and mentoring central-city children who are academically lagging behind their contemporaries.
"It's not the same kind of poverty but at the same time it's not a great life. When we get home we can all do something," he said.
Contact David Yonke at: email@example.com or 419-724-6154.