“It was hell. In Guatemala City, like most big Central American cities, there are thousands of people living in the garbage dump. They scavenge for things they can sell, things they can eat, things they can live in. When we looked out the windows of the van, we saw rats and pigs eating and vultures circling in huge flocks. We saw people digging in the garbage and kids crying and fires everywhere, because city trash burns. It was hot and humid, and the smell was overwhelming, even in our air-conditioned van, and one kid got sick and vomited. And there was silence. It was a moment of despair.
“We talked about it that night,” continues Vettese after a pause. “They asked questions—‘How can this happen?’ and ‘What can we do?’—and I didn’t know the answers. But I knew that if you can do something, you should do something. I talked to the mayor of Guatemala City, later the president of Guatemala, and asked what we can do to save lives. Can we build homes for the people and schools for the children? He sent us rough designs of housing. He said if we’d provide the labor and the money, the city would provide the infrastructure: the water, sewer, electricity, and security.”