The Holy Spirit Drives Jesuit to Serve Garbage Dump Communities

Fr. Don Vettese, SJ, with Calendar, a leader of the garbage dwellers in Panamá.

It is often said that the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways which we are unable to predict or sometimes to even understand. For Jesuit Father Don Vettese what should have been an impediment, a traffic accident, instead opened up the possibility of an even greater calling — to serve the poorest of the poor.

It was 1994 and Fr. Vettese was then president of St. John’s Jesuit High School in Toledo, Ohio.  One day, after his talk with the school’s senior class about the Christian calling to have a preferential option for service to the poor, the students approached Vettese with an idea.

“A few of the students came to my office to explain the difficulty of feeling compassion for the poor without experience,” says Vettese, “and they challenged me to help them educate their hearts.”

It was from that conversation Vettese planned a student service trip to an orphanage he’d founded a few years earlier in Guatemala City.

What Vettese did not know was that this trip would turn into something much greater. One morning, as Vettese and the students  were driving to the orphanage to work , there was a traffic jam resulting from a car accident. When their van was diverted from the main road  they suddenly found themselves in the Guatemala City garbage dump. Here they witnessed a sight that was almost unreal to them: a community of people living, quite literally, in garbage.

“The scene,” Vettese recalls, “was hell. There were acres of mounded garbage burning. There were hundreds of people milling around, looking for food and recyclables, while animals fed on the garbage. Vultures with eight-foot wing spans were swooping down for food and at the recyclers. We saw infants being stuffed into the trash and covered with cardboard to prevent the vultures from hurting them, and later discovered that their mothers felt the dangers from the vulture attacks were more serious than the rat bites that would occur from stuffing them into the garbage.”

Vettese’s talk about Christian leadership came back to the group full-force; that evening, he and the students reflected on the experience of the day, and the students wanted to know what could be done about the plight of the families they’d seen living in the dump. It was that fundamental question which led to the formation of International Samaritan.

Founded in 1995, International Samaritan works to develop livable communities for garbage dump dwellers.  The organization first partners with local governments and other non-profits to put basic infrastructure in place, and then begins addressing the vital needs of each community. The first priority in Guatemala was to build a nursery, so that babies and toddlers could be safe from the dangers of the dump. From there, the organization built schools, homes and community centers, and implemented a micro-loan program. In the years since 1995, International Samaritan has expanded its reach to communities in Egypt, Honduras, Haiti, El Salvador and Panama, and is currently conducting feasibility studies in Sierra-Leon and Ethiopia.

“Our business plan,” says Vettese, “is designed so that we plant the programmatic seeds with the goal of turning the projects over to qualified partners. The people we serve need everything, so we start any project that meets a basic need with partners who agree to sustain them. This frees us to tend to other projects in new locations.”

Many of the results of International Samaritan’s work, notes Vettese, can be difficult to quantify. “I cannot measure how much security a child feels when sleeping in a house with a bed as opposed to being covered by a cardboard box, and I cannot measure the peace of mind a parent feels when his or her child is able to spend the day in a safe and clean nursery as opposed to being stuck in the garbage, or attend school as opposed to working in the dump,” he says.

More concrete evidence of the value of International Samaritan’s work comes from a study administered by faculty at the University of Central America, which reported two key results from the organization’s projects in Guatemala City:

  • International Samaritan’s structures and programs have brought stability to a neighborhood once described by the municipality as “transient” and unworthy of financial investment.
  • The attitude toward education in the community is changing from little value for education (as reported by the government) prior to the development of International Samaritan institutions to a desire for more education.

Even more recently, the value of International Samaritan’s work has been recognized and lauded by the United Nations, which has granted the organization status as Special Consultants to the U.N. As a result of this new status, International Samaritan representatives will be granted passes to U.N. meetings and be able to participate at designated U.N. sessions. “In addition,” says Vettese, “this should grant us eligibility for certain United Nations Foundation and United States government grants, and greater opportunities for partnering on poverty relief programs.” Just as importantly, however, this new designation will, according to Vettese, “give voice to the people we serve living in the extreme poverty of garbage dump communities.”

Then, of course, there’s the other side of the coin: the value that International Samaritan volunteers get from participating in the organization’s service trips. “Again, these kinds of results can be difficult to measure,” says Vettese, “but we consider it our ‘other mission’—we are primarily servants of the poor, but we also serve the people who have their hearts touched by the communities they encounter on our immersion trips.”  It’s a mission the organization takes very seriously. “We seek to free them from as many logistics as possible so that they can focus on the experience.” To this end, the organization provides what Fr. Vettese calls “airport to airport” stewardship of trip participants. “All they have to do,” he says, “is get themselves to and from the airport. God has blessed us with resources and partnerships that allow us to take care of all of their other concerns so that they can get the most spiritual value possible out of the work they do with us.”

For Vettese, the work of International Samaritan is a daily reminder of God’s generosity. “The truth that came to me on that trip to Guatemala,” he recalls, “was that no one can do anything good without God. When the students initially asked me what we could do about what we saw that day, I said I did not know, and that we would have to wait and see if God would provide opportunities for service. I think He did.”

To find out more about International Samaritan and what you can do to help, visit, or call 734-222-0701.

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