Manna Falls on La Chureca

The largest open dump in Latin America, La Chureca was named one of the “20 Horrors of the Modern World” in a contest sponsored by the Spanish magazine Interviu.
The largest open dump in Latin America, La Chureca was named one of the “20 Horrors of the Modern World” in a contest sponsored by the Spanish magazine Interviu.

lachureca-2 For outright squalor and heartbreak, the city dump of Managua, Nicaragua, where 1,500 people live daily on rotting scraps, could serve as a global image of hopelessness.

When Lori Scharffenberg first encountered the dump in all its stink and chaos, she saw unspeakable human struggle. But not hopelessness.

“Unless you are there to smell the smells and see the dust and all the devastating conditions, it’s hard to describe,” she says.

“But no, it’s not hopeless, because people are there, and people can change. People change when they know other people want to serve them and love them.”

Hope is an organizing principle for Scharffenberg, BS’04, and for the humanitarian organization she runs, Manna Project International. It was started five years ago by a group of young idealistic Vanderbilt graduates who felt anguished by the poverty they saw in their Latin American travels but who also summoned determination to find solutions to the suffering. Today, Manna Project is deepening its roots in Latin America, spreading its vision across U.S. campuses, and expanding its dream for the future. lachureca-3

Most stories about Manna Project begin with Managua’s city dump, called La Chureca, where much of Manna Project’s daily work is done. La Chureca is a hellish place that could have sprung from the pages of Dante—a zone of toxic air, burning debris, fetid drinking water, lead poisoning, drug addiction and chronic malnutrition, where people jostle for each new haul of garbage, and where youngsters prostitute themselves with trash workers in order to get a better pick of the latest haul.

Into such conditions step Vanderbilt volunteers who help monitor needs at a health clinic on the grounds, tutor at a school, give health talks to families, and carry out a nutrition program for kids who scavenge and grow up among the trash heaps. lachureca-4

“The volunteers walk the community and make friends with people. The relationships add so much,” Scharffenberg says. “It lets the mothers know that other people care for them and want to know how to help them. It instills accountability and purpose. When you show someone you care, they care more about those around them.”

The Managua municipal dump does not exhaust Manna Project’s reach or identity. The cadre of Vanderbilt grads and others who have joined Manna Project—living on small stipends, taking cold showers, exploring a dramatically different culture from the United States—enhances neighborhood health and education elsewhere in Managua (through classes in literacy, English, math, exercise) and now in Ecuador, too, giving voiceless people a reason to dream. lachureca-5

“There are lots of theories about how societies develop,” says Scharffenberg, whose office is in Managua, “but what people need as human beings, no matter what the culture, is encouragement, support, hope, having someone believe in them. If they see no future for themselves, then it doesn’t matter if we teach them to read. They’ll see no point in it.

“So often the American assumption about people in poverty is, ‘Oh, they have dreams; they just need money.’ But in actuality, they’ve never been asked about their dreams for a better life. They’ve never been encouraged. They need to know that dreams are a possibility.” lachureca-6

Some 200 people annually do the work of Manna Project, signing on for various time commitments and bringing an array of vocational goals. The core group is the volunteers who work a 13-month stint, sometimes stretching it to two years. These program directors (PDs) raise their own money back home—$7,500 a year is needed—in order to dive into the program work and local partnerships forged by Manna Project in Nicaragua and Ecuador. There are currently 10 PDs in Managua and eight in Quito, Ecuador.

“Until Manna Project, everything I’d done in my life had been for myself; I wanted to see if I could do things for others,” says Chris Taylor, who worked for Manna Project in Nicaragua for a year and now oversees Manna Project’s U.S. campus chapters, based in Nashville.

“I was looking at other programs abroad, but I liked that Manna Project was started and run by young people. Most of my focus in Nicaragua was on teaching English. It turned out to be a teacher’s dream—an open-air setting, where students showed up because they purely wanted to learn.”

“I want students to be shaken by what they see. For some, the transformation is quick: They change their major to Latin American studies or consider social justice work for the first time. They are confronting issues in ways that will have impact on the choices they make later.”

~ Marshall Eakin, professor of history

Some volunteers sign up to work through Alternative Spring Break, arriving in groups of college students who work for a week under Manna Project’s direction. Others are part of student groups that come for a month or so during the summer for a deeper immersion experience.

Or they find the Manna Project through the Vanderbilt Initiative for Scholarship and Global Engagement (VISAGE) program, which combines international study with hands-on experience abroad. VISAGE sends students to Nicaragua for a few weeks to aid Manna Project.

Professor of History Marshall Eakin and a group of nine students operated in three Managua neighborhoods last summer, working with disabled children and health clinics and organizing youth sports.

“Though the students are incredibly well-prepared academically, there is culture shock nevertheless, even for those who know Spanish,” Eakin says. “They are moving into some of the poorest areas in the Americas.

“I want them to be shaken by what they see. Their experience might be brief there, but the idea is to get them thinking about the world in new ways. For some students the transformation is quick: They change their major to Latin American studies, or they consider social justice work for the first time. They are confronting the issues of Latin America in ways that will have impact on the kinds of choices they make later. They are changing the way they look at the world.”

A shanty in La Chureca before a nearby lagoon flooded during last fall’s rainy season, destroying some of the meager homes.
A shanty in La Chureca before a nearby lagoon flooded during last fall’s rainy season, destroying some of the meager homes.

Eakin’s remarks hint at one of the dramas of the Manna Project story: the theme of transformation. Several Vanderbilt students and graduates testify to making shifts in career goals after their experiences abroad with struggling families and children.

“Because of this experience I want my life’s work to be wrapped up in where the U.S. meets the rest of the world,” says Mark Hand, BA’06, who is Manna Project’s site director for Ecuador and based in Quito, the capital city. lachureca-8

After his Ecuador work he’ll consider law or business school, with an eye toward social entrepreneurship.

“I love the creativity and challenge of starting things,” he says. “I have real internal drive to affect the way America relates to the rest of the world, whether it’s trade policy, immigration policy, foreign policy or development. I want to help other young Americans get out of the country and see how the rest of the world functions and operates. I want to help break down the category of ‘the other.’”

Manna Project’s beginnings arose out of one such fateful, jarring encounter of Vanderbilt students with the larger world. In 2003 a dozen Vanderbilt undergraduate men, including Hand, took part in an Alternative Spring Break in Lima, Peru. They were there to interact with orphaned street kids—kick the soccer ball with them, tutor and befriend them. The Vanderbilt men arrived with little idea how hard the youngsters’ lives were, or that such dire conditions could exist in the world outside the prosperous, complacent United States. They quickly learned otherwise.

“It was a typical gringo-goes-abroad-and-experiences-poverty-for-the-first-time kind of trip,” Hand recalls. “I was a freshman who got invited to Peru. I had no expectations. I took a pocket translator on the plane. When I say I was clueless, that’s the perfect word.”

“They had sexually transmitted diseases by age 6. They sell their bodies until they are old enough to steal. But when we played soccer with them, they were kids again.”

~ Mark Hand, BA’06

The experience turned out to be a deeply emotional journey in getting to know the kids, he says. Peru made the Vanderbilt students see how fragile is the human condition and how urgent it is that people put their passion and expertise into the search for solutions.

“These kids, abandoned by their parents, had sexually transmitted diseases by age 6. Many would be dead by 19. They sell their bodies until they are old enough to steal. But when we played soccer with them, they were kids again. They loved that. It was incredible.”

The trip fired the imaginations of several who journeyed to Peru, including undergraduate Luke Putnam. After they returned, some of the students sought ways to enhance campus connections with Nashville immigrants. Manna Project was incorporated by 2004, after Putnam and others established contacts in Managua, where new initiatives in children’s education and health care were under way.

In talks with Manna Project veterans, certain themes emerge. Some students keenly embraced their global adventure because they had positive exposure to foreign travel in high school or college; the simplicity of life, the food, the sense of community were revelatory.

“In the United States we’re surrounded by so much materialism and safety,” says Putnam, BS’04, now a medical student at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico, “so we’re amazed by how little they have in Nicaragua and yet what joy they experience in being together and depending on each other.”

Another theme expressed by volunteers is the humbling feeling of confronting the social problems encountered in the work undertaken for Manna Project. Workers discover there is no simple fix-it answer to poverty. Strengthening partnerships is slow work. The Managua city dump, for instance, ought to be closed, but that’s not realistic or plausible. lachureca-9

Nevertheless, another theme resounds among Manna Project alums: an unexpected self-discovery concerning their sense of vocation once they immersed themselves in the work at hand.

“My time abroad took me completely by surprise,” says Abigail Foust, BS’06. “I knew I loved learning about different cultures, and I loved speaking Spanish, but I had no idea how touched I’d be working with people and discovering what I could contribute.

“I also learned that a short-term experience doesn’t make for much of a lasting difference. To make a real difference, you must make a long-term commitment.”

Foust, now in medical school at the University of Colorado-Denver, worked for Manna Project for a year in Nicaragua, then for a year in Ecuador. In Quito she helped create, among other projects, a community-assets survey of neighborhood attitudes and needs. Manna Project trained seventh graders to help in interviews with hundreds of households.

“They started out as giggly seventh graders but soon became poised interviewers,” she says.

The Manna Project experience appears to reinforce the observations of commentators who see this generation as markedly different from their elders’. Pollster John Zogby calls today’s demographic of 19- to 29-year-olds “First Globals”—the first generation truly to feel at home with global perspectives. Whatever the reason—an era of great prosperity and cheap travel, or the media revolution of instant global e-mail networks and YouTube immediacy, or a post-9/11 consciousness—many young adults embrace an outward-looking orientation, with a zest for practical solutions to intractable problems.

“I think this generation of young adults views international work as an investment in their futures,” Scharffenberg says. And recruiters for corporations and professional schools have come to view a year abroad as a plus, she says.

“It’s not postponing your life or taking a year off. It’s an incredible experience to have. We hope an old attitude is changing—the compartmentalization of service work and work in the ‘real world.’ They don’t need to be separated. The world of a Nicaraguan farmer is as much the real world as the corporate ladder. We’re all human. Our experience shows us how much bigger the world is, yet at the same time how connected we all must be.”