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  • A Courageous Smile That Changed The World

    In 2006, I received a phone call from my dear friend, Brad Corrigan, that turned my world upside down.

    He told me a story of a little girl with a lightning smile who he had just met named Ileana. She grew up with her family as outcasts from society living in a trash dump in Nicaragua called “La Chureca.” Brad recounted each heart-wrenching moment, each terrifying detail about this surreal landscape on the outskirts of the capital city of Managua: the noxious waste and choking smoke, the new piles of pungent spoiled food and decaying animal carcases that arrived by garbage truck every day, the dusty haze and ravenous vultures that encircle the dump, and the inexplicable hundreds of people who call this poisonous place home. “People and trash don’t go together,” Brad told me, with salty tears coming through over the phone.

    Our conversation accelerated into a rapid-fire fervor of the possibilities. What could we do to help these people? Where do you even start? It was both thrilling and sickening to consider the opportunity to help this overlooked community in one of the darkest and most dire situations I could have ever imagined. Little did either of us know what incredible stories, dangerous lessons, epic provision, life-altering friendships, and lavishly beautiful hope would grow out of this place over the next few years. And at the center of it all was this enigmatic, remarkable little girl and her courageous smile who would change everything.

    Two years later, I had taken multiple trips to Nicaragua and spent long hot days in the La Chureca trash dump to meet the families, grapple with the challenge and contradiction of this community, and find any way — big or small — to help bring a light into their lives, which in turn (as it often does) also transforms the perspective on your own life. I kept journal entries to capture the raw emotion of these experiences. During my first trip, I wrote feverishly in my journal each day, wanting to preserve the intimate details and emotional turmoil:

    “La Chureca comes up on the road before you really have time to comprehend where you are. One minute you are driving down another brightly-colored road lined with local shops and car dealerships.

    You turn the corner and are greeted with what seems like a backroad entrance to hell, or the extent of a volcano’s debris strewn across the path of what surely was once a proper street. Smoke is everywhere. Trash and plastic is in every direction. And, unthinkably, people are here. Searching. Collecting. Aimlessly wandering. Sitting and watching with only vague curiosity about our passing van.

    My friend KC calls back to me from the front seat, asking for my thoughts and impressions. I’m overwhelmed, I reply, like I’ve walked into one of the countless photographs I’ve poured over in the past two years. My heart is still not ready to accept what my eyes see. All whelms up inside me, reducing me to silent tears.”

    I reflected upon my return to New York City with utter enthusiasm and lingering questions: “I can’t wait to go back. But my body would beg to differ. A week of burning toxic fumes and I’ve been wrestled to my knees. My throat is raw, my head pounds, and my lungs scream for air. I’m surely on the mend (that’s what the world-class doctor, high-dose prescription, and 24-hour pharmacy tell me)… but what of the beautiful families who live there every day? What keeps them smiling?” It was a contradiction that I could not quite put my finger on. And yet, I wanted to return and look for opportunities to dive deeper and connect with some incredible individuals and families, see how they live, and share some laughs.

    And on each trip, there was an occasion to find this little girl with a lightning smile:

    “We rounded the last corner to leave and we all immediately saw the same thing. There in a cap and scarf, a colorful shirt and jacket, and a tired workbag slung over her shoulder… was Ileana. For the moment, she was alert, standing straight, and holding a sharp, piercing look in her eyes. It was amazing: she looked me directly in the eye and strongly shook my hand with a ‘mucho gusto.’ She has a spark. Her enthusiasm and light are both off-the-charts when she’s not huffing glue.”

    Ileana, like many of the children in La Chureca, was pressured to collect trash for a living, recycling the precious scraps, saving up to buy meager scraps of food and shelter for their families. She sniffed glue (literally the stuff that holds your shoes together) to escape the daily horrors of life in a trash dump. Tragically, she was also forced into child prostitution, contracted HIV, and passed away in 2011.

    It wasn’t until later that I realized that one answer to my lingering questions was right in front of me, in the example of this remarkable young lady. Ileana’s smile and the smiles of all the children who lived in this daily hell was something not dictated and directed by the heaps of garbage that surrounded them. Instead they had an inner joy, a generous spirit, and a sense of belonging in a community that would rival even the closest-knit circle of friends in any major city in the world.

    There was something special in Ileana, her siblings, and her friends that was teaching me to reconsider my life priorities, reexamine my heart’s desires, and reflect on the “trash” that had piled up in my inner self. All of us Americans visiting from the Love Light & Melody team started to see that while we didn’t live day-to-day in a physical garbage dump, like the people in La Chureca, we were missing out on life’s greatest, simplest joys because we were filled with a different type of garbage: pride, jealousy, anger, lust, worry, anxiety, depression. Here we were standing in another country trying to help others… when we ourselves desperately needed to make a change in our hearts before we could ever venture outside our front door!

    It was no wonder these beautiful people and bright smiles of La Chureca could welcome us into their homes with humility and grace. They had resolved and renewed their own hearts to be the best version of themselves, even when surrounded by the cycles of poverty, abuse, and addiction. A valuable lesson, indeed.

    The lingering questions are far from answered. There are countless young children around the world who suffer similar fates to our little Ileana, who grow up in families that never know hope and light, who are marginalized by governments that ignore basic human rights, and who deeply desire a hug instead of a handout and a song instead of a scrap pile. A lot has changed since my visits in Nicaragua. Wondrous organizations like Discovery the Journey, International Justice Mission, and my friends at Love Light & Melody are looking to show the next generation a life truly lived to its full potential, embraced by community and loved to their very core. I am honored to be a small part of a much bigger story that is ready to burst forth onto the greater stage.

    “Ileana was heading home from a day of work. Her voice rang out, clear as a bell. We went to greet her, three-year-old ragamuffins still attached to our sweaty legs and arms. She seemed tired but alert, her bright eyes catching the glow of a fire. Ileana smelled vaguely of glue and said she was on her way to sleep.

    I attempted to pay attention to her conversation with the others on our team, but was occupied with a little chatterbox who was tugging on my ear (always in an elementary school teacher’s mentality). Ileana glanced down at me and I flashed her a quick and simple smile in silent greeting. She returned a shy grin and looked at me squarely with those fierce but incredibly kind eyes before returning to her conversation (and I to mine).
    It was a good end to the night. And for the briefest of moments, you could hear the stars sing.”
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