Globally Engaged

Kelly Chang and her psychology students bring healing to the children of the Managua garbage dump

By Jeremy Lloyd | Photos by Dominique Berhó

“The biggest thing that hits you when you first go there is the smell – it just hits you like this wall. You see little fires everywhere ... And there are vultures flying constantly; they fill up the air.”

George Fox psychology professor Kelly Chang pauses for a moment, obviously affected by the scene she is describing. The locals in Managua, Nicaragua, call it “La Chureca,” slang for “city dump.” And while no waste disposal facility is a pretty sight, what makes this place so heart wrenching is the fact that hundreds upon hundreds of children live, play and scavenge on it every day.

It all started back in 1972, when the Managuan earthquake devastated close to 70 percent of the city. Left unemployed and homeless, many families moved to the site where the rubble was collected to scavenge for metals and other materials that they could sell or use to construct makeshift homes.

Locals estimate that today about 2,000 people make their home on or around the dump, close to half of whom are children. These children are often uneducated and malnourished, but according to Chang, the young girls that live on La Chureca are especially at risk. “Children are very sexualized there because that’s basically the one thing that they have that’s valuable – their bodies,” explains Chang, noting that underage girls are often expected to find an older man to take care of them when their family cannot, and are sometimes even used as human currency to pay garbage truck drivers in exchange for first pick of that day’s delivery.

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It’s an ugly, unimaginable setting. But God is at work in La Chureca, and there is hope. Via Esperanza, or “Village of Hope,” was constructed by Forward Edge International in 2007 to house and meet the needs – physical, emotional and spiritual – of 24 of these girls. They are taught basic life skills, shepherded to and from school, fed and, most importantly, loved
and protected.

Chang first got involved in 2007, when she felt God “tapping on my shoulder” in a series of events that led her to join a church group on a missions trip to the village, which at the time was still under construction. After spending time with many of the girls who were being considered for the village, Chang knew she couldn’t just go home and forget about them. “The hardest part of that whole week was taking them back to the dump and leaving,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I can’t leave these beautiful children here.’”

So Chang asked how she could help. “I was told that the money’s coming in and the construction is going well, but ‘we need to know what to do with these girls once we get them off the dump, because they all have so many different things they’ve been through.’”

Right then and there, her calling became clear. When she returned home, Chang applied and was approved for a missions-focused Juniors Abroad trip that would allow her to take George Fox psychology students to the village to work with the girls. In three different trips dating back to 2009, Chang and her students have worked with the girls on a variety of levels, from performing in-depth psychological assessments to simply “seeing how they’re doing in terms of their self-esteem and spiritual well-being.”

One moment that stands out for Chang came in the summer of 2010, when the graduate students in the group conducted an intelligence assessment on each of the girls to determine their educational needs.

“There was one girl in particular who was really, really precious, but the school couldn’t handle her,” recalls Chang. “All the other girls would go to school and she’d stay home and kind of mope and feel sorry for herself. But after her intelligence assessment they were able to accept her into a special education program, which is rare in Nicaragua. That was really neat to see; she was so happy to be going to school.”

Chang and her students have also interviewed girls who still live on the dump to compare their psychological well-being to those who live at the village, in addition to studying behavior and making suggestions to combat the negative habits that return after the girls go back to the dump to visit their families. All of this interaction is tracked and submitted to the directors of the village to help determine the mental health needs of each girl, and to monitor each individual’s level of depression, anxiety and hope.

“At the same time we’re not just aloof observers researching these people,” notes Chang. “We’re building relationships and having a lot of fun with them doing service projects.” Chang’s goal is for each girl to receive the mental and emotional tools that they need to live healthy, independent lives, and to be agents for change who can bring about healing in a community that so desperately needs it.

“That’s one of the most exciting things,” she says. “When I talk to these girls, one of them wants to start her own via and take care of girls like her, and another one wants to become a doctor . . . It’s a great thing that they’re dreaming.”

And for the students who accompany her, the experience goes far beyond a three-week missions trip to a distant country.

“They fall in love with these girls, and they see how much there is a need for people like them around the world,” she explains. “I think it expands their vision from just, ‘Well, I’m training to be good at this,’ to ‘I’m training so that I can take what I’m learning and make a difference in this world.’ And that’s my goal . . . for them to value their education for what it can offer to God’s calling on their lives.”

About the photographer: Dominique Berhó, who graduated from George Fox in 2011 with a degree in international studies, joined Chang during her summer 2011 trip to Nicaragua. To see more of his work, visit dominiqueberho.com.