Children suffer in part of town most tourists never see
Stephen Champion, a gay resident of Stockton, Calif., spends one month of the fall every year lazing on the beach in Puerto Vallarta during the day and dining and partying in the trendy Pacific Ocean village during the night.
He’s been doing that for several years now, but it wasn’t until recently that Champion heard about another side of the Mexican resort city one that the tourists never see.
His pastor, the Rev. Terry Miller of Valley Ministries MCC in Stockton, returned from a vacation in her time-share condo in Puerto Vallarta with a tale about children living near the city dump and surviving by foraging through it.
“I think they live next to the dump,” Champion said. “They go into the dump daily to look for food and things they can sell. I think they only have mothers. I don’t think they have fathers.”
The dump is about 15 miles northeast of the city.
Champion said he started researching the children’s plight after hearing from his pastor. He learned about a St. Paul, Minn., man, Mark Ristow, who lives in Puerto Vallarta year-round now. Ristow volunteers his time through the Perdon y Amistad Church to help provide the children with clothing, school supplies, food and other necessities.
Champion contacted Ristow, who is retired, through a message board on allvallarta.com and learned that the dump is about a half-mile away from the small village of Mojenares. The people who live around the dump walk to the village to receive the gifts from church volunteers.
Ristow said in a telephone interview this week that families who travel from all over Mexico looking for work often wind up living inside and on the outskirts of the dump in makeshift shelters. There may be up to a thousand children living in the area surrounding the dump, he said.
“Around the dump, they live in pieces of cardboard and tin anything they can prop up,” Ristow said. “To some extent, it’s a refugee camp.”
Although he is “not particularly religious,” Ristow said he volunteers for the church because they do such good work. The church provides thousands of free meals every week, he said.
Champion said he was shocked by what he learned from Ristow. Puerto Vallarta is known as one of the cleaner and better developed cities in Mexico. Many gay and lesbian Dallas residents vacation or live part of the year in Puerto Vallarta.
“I go to their country and enjoy myself on vacation,” Champion said. “I’m just so moved that on the other side of town, there are children who have to live this way. I love Puerto Vallarta. I love Mexico. When I heard about it, I just knew I had to do something.”
Champion said he believes Puerto Vallarta’s tourism officials try to shield tourists from seeing the city’s poorer areas.
“When you catch a taxi at the airport it takes you down the Malecon to get into town,” Champion said. “They have specific routes they take people so we don’t see the poverty that’s there. They’re very careful about that.”
As he was planning for his upcoming trip in October, Champion said he decided to ask the half-dozen friends he meets in Mexico every year to join with him on a project to help the children.
“I got such hems and haws they really didn’t want to make a commitment so I just said I would do it myself,” Champion said. “I e-mailed letters to all of my family and friends. I’ve gotten a good response.”
Champion said he set a goal of raising $1,000 to take to Puerto Vallarta to purchase necessities for the children. Ristow and other volunteers have promised to help him make the purchases and deliver them to the children, he said.
“I’ve been saving money myself,” said Champion, who is disabled and lives with his parents. “I think I’ll be able to meet the goal I set.”
Champion said he wants to make his project helping the children an annual event, and that he plans to ask his church to sponsor a project there. The Californian said he also hopes other people who visit the city regularly will take an interest in helping.
“Kind of what I’m doing is trying to get the ball rolling,” Champion said.
To learn more about the children living in the Puerto Vallarta dump visit: http://p073. ezboard.com/Children-of-the-Dump/
ftodopuertovallartafrm1.showMessage?topicID=10874.topic Champion can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ristow can be contacted at email@example.com
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, June 8, 2007.