This week, we spent a few hours at the La Union garbage dump, living “a day in their shoes”. On this day, pairs of WestJetters are partnered with someone who works in the dump, and we assist them as they collect what we would consider trash – what some back home may not even take a minute to recycle.
Imagine the worst day you have ever had in your life, professional or personal. Now imagine living that day, sifting through bags of trash. Not just trash – feces, diapers, rotting and wasted food, maggots, discarded needles and medical supplies – items we in Canada would consider unfathomable to expose ourselves or our children to. Pregnant women, children as young as six, men and women as old as 70 all work, often with bare feet and hands, to collect enough items to fill a giant bag, earning sometimes just a few dollars for each one – what we might spend on a Starbucks coffee.
One 18 year old boy was asked what his biggest dream in life is and his only response was that he could not afford to dream. Another said he dreams of returning to school – having dropped out to support three sisters and his mother after his father’s passing. His favourite subject is Math, and his favourite thing to do is to sing and write music when he has paper to do so. Read that last part one more time, when he has paper… another item that without a second thought we might not recycle or even appreciate.
These people are not just faces; they have a favourite colour, a family, and when they have been given the opportunity, a dream. We may have “won the birth lottery”, as Cole, the LiveDifferent leader in the Dominican put it, and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have nice things or enjoy a morning coffee, it just means we should think and LiveDifferently when we can. We need to do our part to help others in the world – one bottle, bag, house and person at a time.
As painful, dirty and heartbreaking as this experience may sound, we also found joy in La Union today. We observed “water cooler” gossip between workers that reminded us of home, watched as a young boy chased a full garbage truck as though it was Santa with a sack of gifts for him, and marveled at how a dog popping up from the rubble looked just as happy as my two dogs do when I get home. There was a real connection as we embraced the beautiful sky above us, learned about one another, sang side-by-side, and laughed together when a “gringo” (as they fondly refer to us) needed help choosing the right bottle or bag to save for their pile. There is happiness and beauty here at the garbage dump, as much as there is despair.
At the end of the day, the hardest part was knowing we had to leave, and that this was not what we would return to tomorrow. We continued on to have lunch, and went on a waterfall hike as a group – some of us, instinctively and excitedly reaching for a discarded plastic bottle on the way – and then tearfully realizing we could not add it to someone’s bag. I know that none of us will ever look at a plastic bottle the same way. I will see the look in their eyes, the smile on their faces, and the situation that we have the opportunity to change.
So I ask you to consider something that Cole said to us: “Who would you be if that was your reality?” Further to that, do you dream of the world being a better place? We are WestJetters, and we care enough to make a difference, so why not start today? Pay attention to that plastic bottle, or the papers in your wallet. Be grateful and generous in whatever way you can as small or large as the gesture may be. Say kind words to a stranger, volunteer in your community, connect with someone on the street – do what you can to LiveDifferently. Don’t wait for Hero Holiday to make a change!
The last four days in the Dominican Republic have brought some of the most emotional experiences of my life, as I connected not only with the 49 other WestJetters I’ve been working with, but also with the communities that WestJet is proud to serve. . For anyone who has thought about applying for Hero Holiday in the past, but talked themself out of it (like I did in April), don’t let yourself make excuses. It will turn you upside down, and in just five days. I have already received so much more than I will ever have the opportunity to give back.
I am equally as amazed at the spirit of WestJetters here with me. We have bandaged wounds in the jungle, given up a dry towel in a torrential downpour, sifted sand for eight straight hours, worked through shovel puncture wounds and held each other’s hands through the good and the bad every day. WestJetters are amazing people, we come from an amazing culture of caring, and we are so fortunate to be here together. I hope to return to Augas Negras and La Union, if not with my WestJet family, then with my blood family.
If you’d like to read a different perspective on the garbage dump day, check out the blog post from the April 2012 trip.