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March 15, 2013

Guatemala: The Treasure Inside

A ministry called Potter's House helps people who live near the largest garbage dump in Central America. As trash scavengers look for valuable items to recycle for money, the hardest thing to change is their mentality – they need to realize they are the true treasures.

  • Daily Work

    Entering the garbage dump and scavenging for recyclables requires purchasing an annual permit.

  • Treasures

    "You are valuable" is the message that Potter's House wants to tell everyone living near and working in the Guatemala City dump.

  • Providing Hope

    Education programs are just one of the many services provided by the Potter's House, located just five minutes from the dump entrance.

  • Helping Families

    Before attending the Potter's House, the children of the Ardon family would wander the streets alone or even end up working in the dump.

Gustavo looked up with a simple smile when he was asked what all he had found. Standing up to his knees in trash, he quickly began to dig in his pockets and pulled out about ten plastic lanyards that were used for a conference and then discarded.

His smile grew as he held the items in his hand. “I’m still looking for a toy,” Gustavo said as he stuffed the lanyards back in his pockets, the neck straps dangling loosely beside his leg.

Gustavo, a 14-year-old boy, was spending his time away from school at the dump. Within a couple minutes he found what he was looking for – Sid the sloth, from the movie Ice Age – a typical McDonald’s Happy Meal toy. Gustavo gently rubbed the trash residue off of the toy and, with a look of accomplishment, stuffed Sid into his already overflowing pockets. He looked as if he had found a treasure. Quietly he started humming and went back to digging in the trash with his broken broom handle.

The numbers are staggering – more than 11,000 people live around and work in the Guatemala City dump. Recycling and scavenging for re-sellable items is a regular occupation for these people who see this as the life that they were chosen to live, their destiny.

Gustavo is one example of approximately 6,500 kids who have grown up knowing nothing but the garbage dump. Their parents scavenged, and their parents’ parents scavenged, so these kids cannot see any other future.

Twenty-seven years ago Gladys Guitz, after agreeing to deliver some blankets to those digging in the garbage, came face to face with the needs of the people living in the dump area and vowed to never go back. “I consciously blocked the suffering I saw from my mind,” she said. But Lisbeth Piedrasanta, Glady’s friend who also went with her, took the experience and began to ask God how she could continue to help these people. After a series of events orchestrated by God – including the donation of a piece of land 150 feet from the entrance to the dump – Gladys and Lisbeth quit their jobs as Christian counselors and co-founded Potter’s House.

It’s a Culture

The Guatemala City dump has been around for 80 years despite continued promises to move it to a location away from the populace. The 16 neighborhoods located around the rim of the deep ravine are filled with tiny shacks built with corrugated tin on property that the residents do not own. Evelyn Hernandez, Communications Coordinator for Potter’s House, referred to the dump as a monster that has developed over the years that feeds lies into the minds of the people around the dump.

These residents’ livelihood is dependent on the nearly 500 tons of fresh trash dumped every day – and it has been that way in their family for as long as they can remember. They think the only way they can survive is by staying close to the dump. “There are generations of people who know nothing about anything except the garbage dump,” Hernandez said. “The dump is their source of income; until they have a change in the mentality of their ability to acquire resources, they can’t change.” The mentality is so ingrained that people risk their lives every day to scavenge through the trash. Most recently there was a deadly landslide during a rainstorm that claimed the lives of six workers. Their bodies were never found because they were covered in trash.

Facing Poverty

Potter’s House realizes that the challenges are great when working with the poor living around the garbage dump. It is not as simple as explaining the health risks of digging through toxic garbage and watching people choose to turn from a life of scavenging.

Hernandez shared about the eight forms of poverty that Potter’s House has identified during their 27 years of ministry that directly affect those digging in the dump: Spiritual Poverty; Intellectual Poverty; Poverty of Affection; Poverty of the Will; Physical Poverty; Poverty of Support Network; Poverty of Civic Involvement; and Economic Poverty. 

Potter’s House believes that this holistic approach is the most effective way to break the cycle of poverty in scavengers’ lives. Addressing each of these helps those connected with Potter’s House realize that there are personal issues that they need to address in regards to poverty, and there are community issues as well.

Strategic Programs

Gustavo paused from his digging again when he was asked if he had heard of Potter’s House. “Yes, I went to a Vacation Bible School there,” he said. And as if right in line with his soft humming, he said, “My favorite part was the singing.”

Much of what Potter’s House does centers on helping kids at the youngest age possible. “It takes about 10 years to build a solid relationship and see the cycle broken,” said Hernandez. Right now there are around 200 kids enrolled in the afterschool education program that brings kids who would otherwise be at home alone to a safe environment to reinforce what they are learning at school and be nurtured. They also receive a balanced and nutritious meal – quite possibly the only meal that some of them will eat during the day.

Potter’s House developed five strategic areas to focus their programs on: Personal Development; Education; Health; Micro-Enterprise; and Community Support. While the focus might be on getting kids as young as possible connected into Potter’s House, Personal Development and Micro-Enterprise are a great way to connect with and minister to the parents of the children coming for other services. 


While the scavengers are digging through the trash looking for items to resell – their treasures – Potter’s House is determined to spread the message that every person is valuable, each of them is a (living) treasure! The employees of Potter’s House will not use the word “scavenger” while talking about those working at the dump – instead they refer to these people as “Treasures,” a reminder that this is the way that God sees them as well.

 “There are many success stories,” said Rogelio Rivas, Fundraising and Networking Manager. The Lord has changed many lives through the ministry of Potter’s House. After completing their studies in Guatemalan schools, a number of students have received scholarships to study at universities in the United States – largely in thanks to the encouragement they received from the education programs at Potter’s House. Many families have shifted their thinking and found that with hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit they could make a living away from the garbage dump –a tangible success for the micro-enterprise programs.

Potter’s House has also provided a number of houses for families in the neighborhoods around the dump, helping families out of dangerous living conditions. Much of the work they have done, whether building new structures or just reinforcing or repairing other structures, is identifiable by the blue and cream paint signature of Potter’s House.

“But,” Rivas said, “we have more non-success stories – it’s hard to work people through the process of change.” Rivas seems to be echoing the sentiment that while they can provide quality programs for these Treasures, they acknowledge they cannot do the work alone. The message of having intrinsic value that Potter’s House continually shares is only going to penetrate the hearts and the minds of these people with the help of the Lord.

Partnering for the future

“We don’t want to reinvent sugar cane,” said Héctor Rivas, the Director of Potter’s House Association Guatemala. “We want to work with others.” This vision has already brought about positive partnerships for Potter’s House, and they are actively looking for and open to connecting with other organizations that share similar Christian values. TEAM is excited about a developing partnership with Potter’s House.

The vision isn’t just about partnering with outside organizations though. Rivas believes that Potter’s House is entering a time when they can delegate some of the services they provide to local communities. A large part of this will be developing community centers in each of the 16 neighborhoods around the dump. These partnerships are built on a solid foundation – 27 years of seeing Potter’s House serve and support the families that rely on the garbage dump for their survival. Two specific neighborhoods have already been identified, and the planning process is underway.

“We believe the Treasures can do it by themselves,” said Rivas. This statement causes excitement in the staff of Potter’s House.  It is time to stand by the Treasures and say “You do it – I’ll support!”

-Written by Robert Johnson
-Photographed by Robert Johnson

[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, March 2013]

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