Born in Mexico and trained as a psychologist, Elena Durán moved to Argentina with her Argentine husband shortly after they were married. In September of 2002, Elena Durán was invited by her friend Sophia Bordenave to visit the Swiss styled town of San Carlos de Bariloche, nestled in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. Though Bariloche is a well known tourist destination for international ski and hiking enthusiasts, Sophia wanted Elena to bring her psychological training to observe the hidden side of Bariloche, the sprawling garbage dump on the outskirts of the picturesque town.
“I saw children collect green sausages, a bag of potato chip crumbs, a bag of noodles with cream, and recovered leftover yogurt next to a diaper.” – Elena Durán Miranda
Elena Durán’s life was forever changed as she witnessed over 200 children and their families scouring the dump for food, recyclables and items they could re-sell. Remembering her son, who was the same age as some of the youngest scavengers she was moved to make a difference.
For many weeks Elena observed the various issues faced by the families in the dump. She learned of the many ways they ended up there, and witnessed the horrors of working, eating and sleeping in the dump. Because of the heavy stigmatism the community usually faced from outsiders, the parents were initially unwilling to speak with Elena or let Elena interact with their children. Day after day for over six months Elena slowly earned the parent’s trust. She set up camp in the dump and learned the scavenging methods and began helping the families carry out their daily tasks.
There were many factors leading to the children being forced to scavenge. The primary one was the presence of complete poverty. In order for their families to survive, everyone had to work to find food. Living just days away from potential starvation, meant that the youth didn’t have the time or willingness to attend schools or pursue employment outside of the dump.
Elena’s goal was to meet with the parents one by one and develop individual strategies to help their children develop the skills necessary to move out of the dumps. Unfortunately, after living day-to-day for so long, many of the parents were unable to comprehend the importance of education and other long term goals.
“Education is how we start to break cycles, to give children a better future.” – Elena
To allow the children to attend school, Elena Durán began personally raising money to give to the family equal to what the child would have gathered during that day of scavenging. This small gesture changed everything and soon parents and the children were beginning to imagine life beyond scavenging.
Now that she had the community support, Elena gathered together a small group of professionals, Elena created PETISOS (Prevención y Erradicación del Trabajo Infantil SOS) a program to prevent child labor and provide educational, medical and psychological services to the families in the dump. They built a clubhouse where the children could hang-out; take classes in art, music, cooking and dance.
Within a few years, six of the youth had been able to achieve a high school degree and many others were able to find employment in the community after leaving the dump. PETISOS has continued to grow as more and more of the 200 youth in the community take advantage of the opportunity to achieve education and training.
“Child labor perpetuates poverty. It compromises the future of any country because it condemns its most vulnerable citizens.” – Elena
AS the youth program grew to include a nursery, primary and secondary school, Elena turned her efforts towards helping the community members organize a cooperative in the landfill. Their efforts have succeeded and the group (calling themselves “The Bariloche Recycler’s Association”) was awarded a grant and received donations which they used to build a warehouse, a conveyor belt and purchase other recycling equipment. With these, the community increased their recycling efforts and collectively improved living conditions in their community. They are currently educating themselves in Argentine law and creating legislation that would allow their recycling and scavenging efforts to become lawful activities.
Elena Durán Miranda is a hero because she gave up a comfortable professional lifestyle to invest her skills and abilities so a garbage dump community could use education to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty. Elena took the time to care about a community, to learn what it needed, and has spent over a decade helping them to dream big, and reach those dreams.