Impact Journalism Day 2016

Recycling to Peddle Something New: Turning Social Exclusion Into Sustainability in Latin America

A group of young people with learning difficulties are overcoming social exclusion by making recycled goods in the Honduran capital. It’s all thanks to the Ark of Hope nonprofit, established by dedicated parents.

Young people from Ark of Hope amid a mountain of paper, cardboard and other items ready for recycling.
Johny Magallanes

It is 8.30 A.M. on Monday, and a group of young students are returning to the classroom after a weekend with their families. The instructor asks them what they did, who they were with and how they feel. Like any group, they respond with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

It is then time to practice their literacy skills. The vowel they have to identify today is “A.” Some have difficulty doing this; others are attentive and eagerly want to show that they can identify the vowel – a letter that many of them have in their name.

However, this is not a class of 7-year-old first-graders. Instead, it’s the first lesson of the week at the Honduran nonprofit Arca de Esperanzas (Ark of Hope), where a group of young people with learning difficulties make a huge effort each day to be included and autonomous within a society that often excludes people like them.

They do this in a workshop called “Life Skills and Productivity,” where, among other things, they have learnt a very important task: recycling.

The goal, and how to achieve it

Arca de Esperanzas was founded 16 years ago in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa by the parents of children with learning difficulties. The parents wanted to help their offspring become independent and productive members of society.

These parents created the “Life Skills and Productivity” program where, in addition to learning how to take care of their personal appearance and feeding themselves, the children learn how to make handmade paper. This paper can then be used to make notebooks, diaries, journals, business cards and invitations.

There are 10 students in the program and they each get to keep some of the money they earn. The rest goes toward covering the nonprofit’s costs (the parents and government contribute the other two-fifths of the costs).

The actual recycling process isn’t that simple, but thanks to a lot of dedication and determination, the youngsters have gradually acquired the requisite skills to make the final product.

The process requires that the youngsters socialize, in order for them to feel comfortable and safe when going to the companies from where they collect the wastepaper each day. They then have to follow instructions so they can weigh the paper, grind it, blend it and shape the paste so that it dries into sheets of good quality, handmade paper.

This probably doesn’t require too much effort for the average person, but for these children and youngsters, it involves overcoming many obstacles.

Productive and important

“They have learned how to do this job – which might seem easy, but it’s a complex task for them,” says instructor Orfa Ortiz, with great satisfaction. While not everyone is able to perform all of the steps, Ortiz finds it rewarding to see their enthusiasm when they feel useful and capable of doing a productive and important job.

The paper-recycling workshop is not the nonprofit’s first workshop. The first involved making organic fertilizer, which was profitable as the fertilizer was sold in supermarkets and hardware stores in the capital. However, the limited physical space at Arca de Esperanzas soon forced them to stop, and this in turn led to the recycling workshop – which also includes plastic, aluminum and office furniture recycling.

“We teach them how to recycle products because it’s an activity in which they can make incredible progress; they feel productive and they are productive,” explains Arca de Esperanzas director Lorena Castillo.

The director envisions the recycling workshop providing the group’s main source of income in the future, enough to help it keep running.

Even though the situation is not always promising, the group refuses to lose hope that it will one day have a bigger building with better conditions, and a recycling center with increased productivity that can meet the demands of future clients.

“We believe we can achieve this, as tons of waste is produced every day. It would be amazing if more government institutions donated material and if more private enterprises got involved in the initiative,” says Castillo.

However, it’s the young people with learning difficulties who’ll ensure that this project keeps going – because it’s Arca de Esperanzas’ goal to enable them to enter the labor market, ensure that companies consider them to be skilled labor or even, at the end of the process, offer them the opportunity to start working at the nonprofit itself.

The main aim is that they’re not excluded from society, and recycling is simply a way of achieving this goal.

This article first appeared in Honduran daily El Heraldo.