Jeff Goins shares how a teenage dad living in the Guatemala City dump taught him how to be a better man.
His name was Marlon, and he had been raising his brothers and sisters since he was six years old. But now, he was a new father and husband, and dreamed of a better future for his family, a future that didn’t involve daily scavenging through garbage in the city dump.
He was short and rarely smiled. There was a softness to his eyes, but even in the most tender of moments, he didn’t show emotion. Life has made him this way, made him hard. Not cruel, just hard.
Listening to him share his story, I could relate to certain aspects: his rebellious streak as an adolescent; the encouragement that came through people pouring into him at tough times; his little baby (mine was about to turn one at the time we met).
But that is where our similarities end.
If the circumstances were different — perhaps if Marlon had been born in my native Chicago instead of Guatemala City — we might have had similar fates. He’s just now entering his twenties, and nearly 10 years his elder, I am only beginning to grasp the lessons he’s dealt with for over 14 years.
Marlon’s dad was murdered when the children were still very young. He was a man prone to violence, even towards those whom he loved. Yet, despite the fact that for years he abused and neglected his family, the father’s departure left a gap. The family needed a breadwinner.
Marlon became that breadwinner.
Three days after his dad’s death, the six-year-old boy had a dream in which his father told him to take care of the family. Marlon said he would. And he did. At an age when he should have been learning to ride a bike or read a book, this little boy went to work.
It started with taking over the family business, which meant searching through the city dump each morning to scavenge for scrap metal, used electronics, and clothes.
One of 11,000 people who live and work near the dump, Marlon had to learn how to navigate through trash heaps quickly and efficiently. Getting to the dump before sunrise is essential to finding good scraps, he told me. Otherwise, if you wait, they’ll be gone by noon.
Among those who are first, scavenging is particularly competitive and dangerous. It’s not uncommon for two men — or children — to fight over a potentially valuable piece of trash. It’s dangerous work, but that’s the cost of providing for your family in this community.
On a good day, Marlon can make up to 90 Quetzales ($12 USD), which he uses to feed his entire family. On a bad day, it’s much less.
When he entered his teenage years, Marlon assumed other aspects of his father’s role, particularly the abusive side.
Becoming despondent, he turned to drugs and sex and even made a pact with the Devil. His outlook on life grew dark, and he became irritable and angry. Terrified of their older brother, his siblings kept their distance, swearing they could see evil in his eyes.
Were it not for the intervention of a local NGO called The Potter’s House, Marlon may have never escaped this downward spiral. The Potter’s House runs a program that tries to reach the 6500+ children working in the dump: feeding them, educating them, and helping these young ones see themselves differently.
Locals call children who work in the dump “scavengers.” But The Potter’s House has another name for them. They call them tesoros. Treasures. Due to the investment of a few people from the Potters’ House, Marlon started seeing himself differently. He found a purpose beyond scavenging and subsistence.
Hearing this young man speak, I see a strength that comes only through the hardships of a tough life. But I also see a tenderness and humility that flows from faith. Marlon believes God was watching over him and his family the day his dad died. He believes his life was spared many times, that there is a reason for everything that’s happened to him.
Such beliefs give him hope, something he’s been searching for ever since he was sent scavenging in the dump that first time at six years of age.
When asked about the dream he has for his life, Marlon doesn’t hesitate; he’s ready for the question. He wants to some day share his story in a stadium full of people, encouraging others to believe in a bigger story.
Listening to this young man finish his tale, I wipe away a few grateful tears. What a life, I think. And he’s only just beginning. Quietly, I make a few promises to myself and my family that I’m honestly not sure I can keep, but I need to make them, nonetheless.
Standing, my friends and I applaud Marlon, but not nearly as much as he deserves. One person says this is the best sermon they’ve ever heard, and I have to agree. Thanks for the inspiration, Marlon. I don’t know that I’m able to live up to the standard you’ve set, but I intend to try.