MEXICO - As night approached the Tultitlan dump, Dick Saulsbury met a man along the road. "My Spanish is poor but I managed to say something about the chilly air." A few seconds later, Saulsbury heard, 'Senor, senor,' behind him. The man had taken off his sweater and was offering it to him.
MEXICO - As night approached the Tultitlan dump, Dick Saulsbury, a long-time volunteer with Medical Teams International, met a man along the road.
“My Spanish is poor but I managed to say ‘hola’ and something about the chilly air,” says Saulsbury.
A few seconds later, Saulsbury heard, "Senor, senor!" behind him. Turning around, he found the man had taken off his sweater and was offering it to him. This kind gesture, much more than the memory of the cool air, “still gives me chills,” he says.
In Tultitlan, people have little besides the clothes on their back. Literally.
The Tultitlan garbage dump is home to hundreds of families who live in squalid conditions. Children grow up among massive piles of garbage.(Photo by Peter McHugh)
“Here I was just minutes away from a hot shower, a big dinner and my hotel,” says Saulsbury, “yet this man offered me one of his only possessions.”
Tultitlan is home to a massive urban garbage dump. People known as “squatters” eke out a living by gathering recyclable materials and selling them for a small profit. They earn only a dollar or two a day. Squatters are not only adult men. Entire families live here. Parents raise their children in makeshift houses made from materials they find in the dump.
“Home” in Tultitlan, just 20 miles from downtown Mexico City, means eating and sleeping on dirt floors. Those floors turn to mud during the rainy season, causing diarrhea and other chronic infections, especially in children.
Medical Teams International began a “piso” project [Spanish for floor] for impoverished families in 1997, aimed at improving health in these squatter communities. This is why Saulsbury was in the chilly air so far from his own home.
Service through the generations
Saulsbury and his fellow “piso” volunteers are retired educators and have been friends for more than three decades. They got involved with Medical Teams International in the late 90s and quickly encouraged their wives to join them. Now they take their children and grandchildren to Mexico to mix cement and lay the concrete floors, which are usually just 10 feet by 10 feet in size.
The group found such a great need at the Tultitlan dump that they’ve returned every year except one. That year, they used their travel money to purchase a new van for the Medical Teams International field office staff.
"We've formed wonderful relationships with the families at Tultitlan and with the Medical Teams International staff," says Roger Capps, the team's tireless leader since 1997. "We consider our group to be our best friends, both in Mexico and in Portland, Oregon. It's a relationship that keeps on growing stronger with the years."
It is the small success stories that keep these volunteers energized and returning year after year.
One year a letter arrived in volunteer Peter McHugh’s mailbox from Guadelupe, a woman they’d helped the previous summer. In it, she expressed her great appreciation for her new floor.
“When it rains there, the dirt floors turn to mud and the conditions cause constant ear-aches and infections in the children,” says McHugh. Guadelupe wrote to tell them what a difference her new floor made in her children’s health.
“We know we could hire people to do this work,” says McHugh. “But that just wouldn’t be the same.”
“The people we serve have become our friends,” adds Saulsbury. “And we’ve found that being there is as important as paying for the projects. Our presence as Americans in Mexico builds relationships between our two cultures.”
Watching the children grow up
In their years of service, these dedicated volunteers have watched many children from the dump reach adulthood. “Some have that gleam of hope in their eyes, and others don’t,” says Pete Hinds.
One boy that captured their hearts was Luis. Born with a clubfoot to alcoholic parents, Luis lived at the community center in Tultitlan.
“We got him up to a Shriner’s Hospital in Mexico City to fix his foot and always encouraged him to stay in school,” says Saulsbury.
Now 21, Luis is married, has a job and a home of his own, complete with a piso. “We didn’t even know that Luis was one of the piso recipients until we saw his new floor,” says Saulsbury.
Other stories aren’t quite as hopeful. The volunteers have known Lupe since she was just seven. Now 17, she has a daughter, and her chances of ever leaving the dump have been greatly reduced. For some, the cycle of poverty and the circumstances of their lives are too much to overcome.
“Being there can be discouraging,” says McHugh, who continues to grapple with the issues of poverty that plague our world.
“But it has also been life-enhancing in many ways,” says Saulsbury.
For all of these volunteers, serving others has been a theme of their retirement. Their overflowing albums paint a story of hope—despite the suffering they’ve seen—simply because they continue to go year after year. For them, strengthening communities in need through their words and their actions is a commitment they make lovingly and without hesitation.