By: Isi Salazar   |   Posted: May 10, 2018

Children who live near a landfill in Guatemala City can now go to a safe school thanks to an alliance between a church in Guatemala, a U.S. church and Compassion.

Miracles in a Garbage Dump

Children who live near a landfill in Guatemala City can now go to a safe school thanks to an alliance between a church in Guatemala, a U.S. church and Compassion.

Written by Isi Salazar
Photography by Isi Salazar
Nayeli pays special attention in science class because she wants to be a scientist when she grows up.

Nayeli pays special attention in science class because she wants to be a scientist when she grows up.

Compassion is helping keep children in Guatemala City, Guatemala, safe from the dangers of the streets while providing them with spiritual and physical nourishment. And thanks to this safe environment, kids like Nayeli Pixtun find encouragement to dream of and achieve a brighter future.

Nayeli is 10 years old and lives next to the biggest landfill in Guatemala City. Her home is made of old tin sheets and scraps from construction materials. Nayeli lives with her mom, Mirian, her father, Calixto, her older sister Melani, and her younger brother Samuel.

Calixto works driving a truck that collects garbage, and earns just enough to cover the family’s basic needs. Mirian works washing neighbors’ clothes to buy food for the family, but some days there is not enough work.

Piles of rotting garbage

Many children who attend Compassion student center Centro Estudiantil La Verdad in Guatemala City live next to massive piles of rotting garbage like this one.


Nayeli’s parents don’t always have enough money for food. In fact, nearly half of the children in Guatemala under age 5 are chronically malnourished, one of the highest rates in the world. But Nayeli has a safeguard. As a sponsored child, she can bring empty plastic containers to her Compassion-assisted student center and have them filled with food.

When Nayeli was 3, Mirian enrolled her at the Compassion center, Centro Estudiantil La Verdad (The Truth Student Center). “I knew she was going to receive benefits there, and it was a safe place where she could learn good things,” says Mirian.

After enrolling her, Mirian found out her Compassion center also partners with a private school for children who live near the landfill. The school was built through an alliance with a U.S. church. Mirian wanted the best education for her daughter, and so she enrolled her in the private school, Rayos de Esperanza (Rays of Hope).

“What I liked the most about it was the fact that they care about the children and they teach them about God, too,” Mirian says of the school. “The community where we live has drugs, prostitution, alcoholism and gangs. The streets are very dangerous, but the school and student center are the safest places for her.”

In Guatemala, 59 percent of the people live below the poverty line, and it is a major transit country for cocaine and heroin. The drug trade has led to a high crime rate, creating a perilous environment for children who have no safe havens such as Compassion centers.

Nayeli, now in fifth grade, is thriving at Rayos de Esperanza. “I really love going to school,” she says. “My favorite part is when my teacher practices reading with us using Bible verses.”

Nayeli wearing her backpack

All set with her uniform and backpack, Nayeli sets off for school.

Friends in school

Because they are sponsored through Compassion, Nayeli and her friend Cristel are able to attend the Rayos de Esperanza private school.

Nayeli hanging up laundry

At home, Nayeli hangs up laundry she just washed. The family collects water for cleaning clothes and dishes in a concrete basin called a pila.

Nayeli hugging her mom

Nayeli hugs her mom, Mirian, who feels grateful that her daughter goes to a quality private school.


Lorna de Martinez is the Compassion director at the student center and is also on the school’s board. “We want to be able to educate children in the right path from a young age until they graduate in all the areas of their lives,” she says.

The school’s curriculum covers subjects that focus on a child’s cognitive, physical, spiritual and socio-emotional development, and the student center focuses on reinforcing that development through its after-school program.

“I come to the Compassion student center twice a week for four hours,” Nayeli says. “My tutor helps me do my homework. She talks about God, and when I know that there will not be food at home, they let me eat a bigger lunch or they let me save some food to bring back home as dinner for my family.”

Nearly all the children attending Rayos de Esperanza are also sponsored through Compassion. The fact that they spend most of their time in a Christian environment has helped them set principles for their life, which are especially helpful in light of the environment they face daily.

“We live in a tough place, so the children who attend public schools are aggressive, they swear, and the level of education is lower,” Mirian says. “I would not be able to be at peace if I knew Nayeli had to attend a public school and stay on the streets after school. I know that when my daughter is at the school and at the center she is safe.”

At the center, Nayeli is especially thankful for her sponsors, the Pucketts. “Last year my sponsors sent me a gift, and Sister Lorna asked me what I needed the most,” Nayeli says. “My school shoes were too old and had holes, so I asked her if I could get a new pair of school shoes and she said yes! I was so excited to wear my new shoes to school, and I try to take good care of them because they were a gift from my sponsors!”

Nayeli also loves to receive letters from the Pucketts. They write several times a year to encourage Nayeli and let her know they care about her.

“Once they asked me about my favorite color, and in their next letter they told me that it was their favorite color, too,” Nayeli says. “It means they are real people. My mom and I are happy, and we pray for them because they have been a great blessing for me and my family. When I grow up I want to become a scientist to find cures for diseases and help others like my sponsors helped me.”

The words from her sponsors and the staff both from the Christian school and the student center keep Nayeli out of the streets and in the hands of people who care about her. Through that safe environment, Nayeli has found support and encouragement to dream and work hard to achieve those dreams.


The Vision That Started It All

How Nayeli’s sponsors and other church members in the U.S. were moved to partner with a church in Guatemala to build the Rays of Hope School.

By Phil Hudgins | Photos courtesy of Robert Puckett

The Rays of Hope private school

Guatemalan children receive a quality education at the Rays of Hope private school.

Jimmy Martin gets emotional when he talks about one particular little girl growing up in a garbage dump in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Not all impoverished communities are as hard to reach as Songwut’s, but the lack of quality education can isolate them just as much. For many families, costs associated with school — tuition, uniforms, supplies — make education inaccessible. But graduating with job skills is crucial to helping children break the poverty cycle.

“I gave her a plate,” Martin recalls, his voice cracking, about a girl he met in the same garbage dump Nayeli lives near. “But she didn’t have a glass. She looked over — and there’s garbage everywhere down there — and she saw a glass. She went and picked it up out of the garbage and brought it to me to fill up. I took my handkerchief and tried to wipe it off.” He poured her drink into that glass.

Martin was one of several volunteers from Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, Georgia, helping a church in Guatemala City minister to families whose tiny, rickety houses are located inside the city’s huge garbage dump. The local church, Cristo es el Camino, and its pastor, Saul Perez, were serving meals out of the back of a van, just as they have done at least once a week for years, when Martin poured that drink for the girl.

Since that time several years ago, many good things have happened in that impoverished neighborhood, thanks mainly to the cooperation of two Christian churches separated by more than 2,500 miles but joined in a common vision. Together, they bought property and built a new school just outside the gate of the dump, improved conditions of many of the homes, planted other churches in the area (one of them inside the landfill), and held Bible studies. Most important, they have demonstrated that God’s love is everywhere, even in a garbage dump.

So how did two churches with different languages and so far apart get connected?

About 15 years ago, Robbie Christmas, then a youth leader at Lakewood, learned about the needs of Guatemala and chaperoned a group of young people on mission trips to the Central American country, according to Dennis Jackson, leader of the missions team at Lakewood. They led Bible studies for children in an elementary school set up in a rented building just outside the dump.

On one of his trips, Christmas heard that the school’s sponsor was pulling its funding and that the school would have to shut down. He came home and asked if the Lakewood church would support the school.

“That would’ve been a major portion of the missions budget at that time,” Jackson says. “But we prayed about it and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It was a stretch. It was pretty much a miracle.”

The Puckett Family

Pastor Robert Puckett and his wife, Sherry, with their daughter, Regan, and son, Joshua.

Nayeli and Pastor Puckett

Nayeli and Pastor Puckett.

Saul Perez and his wife, Layla, stand with Terri Smiley and her husband, Dr. Tom Smiley, the senior pastor of Lakewood Baptist Church

Saul Perez and his wife, Layla, stand with Terri Smiley and her husband, Dr. Tom Smiley, the senior pastor of Lakewood Baptist Church.


Miracles did not stop there. Church officials found out that some property next to the rented school was for sale, and Lakewood members decided to help purchase the land. Much of Lakewood’s money came from a love offering called Rays of Hope, held to honor Dr. Tom Smiley on his 20th anniversary as pastor. Some money was left over to start building a new Christian school.

That new school, Rayos de Esperanza, started with just preschool. But with financial assistance from John Brown University of Arkansas, Cristo es el Camino and other sources, including a small church called Ivy Creek Baptist of Buford, Georgia, which contributes regularly, Lakewood has sponsored an ongoing building program, adding a grade nearly every year. The school now has three preschool classes and first- through sixth-grade classes. Lakewood sends monthly checks for the school’s operation, and Perez’s church manages the funds.

Compassion International supports a twice-weekly program called Centro Estudiantil La Verdad (The Truth Student Center) at the school and helps students in many other ways. Compassion provides integral development in four areas: social/emotional, spiritual, health and cognitive.

Another Compassion program is available at Cristo es el Camino located near the landfill.

A playground at Rays of Hope School

A playground at Rays of Hope School provides a safe place for children to have fun and get exercise.


Thanks to Compassion, the children receive a nutritious lunch plus a supplement for those who are underweight as well as medical attention, including physical exams, vitamins and glasses for children with vision problems. The program also helps provide surgery for students when needed.

“The families have to give a small percentage of the total amount [of surgery costs],” says Lorna de Martinez, principal and director of the two student centers. “If they don’t have it, the church (Cristo es el Camino) gives it.”

Compassion operates a training center at the church, where children from 12 to 18 years of age are taught music, the English language, baking and computer operation. “This training is very expensive here,” de Martinez says, “so this is a big opportunity for the youth to learn and have in the future their own business.”

With the two programs — at the school and at the church — Compassion is able to assist and train about 450 children, de Martinez says.

All of the students come from the landfill area. “If they didn’t have school,” says Robert Puckett, missions pastor at Lakewood, “they’d do what their parents do throughout the day: collecting garbage and sorting it — metal, glass, wood — to sell to a trash broker.”

Miracles of the dump actually began 22 years ago in the hearts of Pastor Perez and his fellow members at Cristo es el Camino. “God put in our hearts to work with kids of all ages and their families by having a Bible school on Saturdays, helping them with homework, art class and giving their parents technical training like (hair) stylist, sewing and literacy,” he says.

Lakewood volunteers continue to help. They and the local church have replaced some dirt floors with concrete and installed wood-burning stoves to replace metal drums that emitted toxic fumes. An estimated 6,000 people live inside the dump, where they scavenge building material, food and clothing from the garbage heaps.

“Through the gospel and meeting practical needs, the churches will bring people to Jesus, and they will reach others.”


So the vision of one humble man, Pastor Saul Perez — a vision shared by a church and its pastor in Gainesville, Georgia — continues to evolve, one miracle at a time, in a garbage dump in Guatemala City.