His name is Marlon, and he's been raising his brothers and sisters since he was six years old.
A new father and husband, he dreams of a better future, a future that doesn't involve daily scavenging through the city dump.
The young man is short and rarely smiles. There is a softness to his eyes, but even in the most tender moments of his story, he doesn't show emotion.
Listening to him share his struggles, I relate to aspects of his story: his rebellious streak as a teenager; the encouragement that came through people pouring into him at tough times; his little baby.
But that is where our similarities end.
If the circumstances were different — perhaps if Marlon had been born in my native Chicago instead of Guatemala City — we might have had similar fates. But he's only 20 years old; and nearly 10 years his elder, I am just beginning to grasp the lessons he's dealt with for 14 years.
The six year-old breadwinner
A man prone to violence, Marlon's dad was murdered when his children were very young. Despite the fact that for years he abused and neglected his family, the father's departure still left a gap. The family needed a breadwinner.
Three days after his dad's death, six-year-old Marlon had a dream in which his father told him to take care of the family. Marlon said he would. At an age when he should have been learning to ride a bike or read a book, this boy went to work.
It started with taking over the family business, which meant visiting the city dump early each morning to scavenge for scrap metal, used electronics, and clothes.
Life in the trash heap
One of 11,000 people who live and work near the dump, Marlon has had to learn how to navigate through trash heaps quickly and efficiently.
Getting to the dump before sunrise is essential to finding good scraps, he says; otherwise, if you wait, they'll be gone by noon.
Among those who are first, scavenging is particularly competitive and dangerous. It's not uncommon for two men — or children — to fight over a potentially valuable piece of trash.
On a good day, Marlon can make up to 90 Quetzales ($12 USD), which he uses to feed his entire family. On a bad day, it's much less.
Following in his father's footsteps
When he entered his teenage years, Marlon assumed other aspects of his father's role, particularly the abusive side.
Becoming despondent, he turned to drugs and sex and even made a pact with the Devil. His outlook on life grew dark, and he became irritable and angry. Terrified of their older brother, his siblings kept their distance, swearing they could see evil in his eyes.
Were it not for the intervention of a local NGO called The Potter's House, Marlon may have never escaped this downward spiral.
The Potter's House runs a program that tries to reach the 6500+ children working in the dump: feeding them, educating them, and helping these young ones see themselves differently.
From scavenger to treasure
Locals call children who work in the dump “scavengers.” But The Potter's House has another name for them: tesoros. Treasures.
Due to the personal investment of a few staff members of this nonprofit, Marlon started seeing himself differently. He found a purpose beyond scavenging and subsistence.
Hearing this young man speak, I see a strength that comes only through the hardships of a tough life. But I also see a tenderness and humility that flows from faith.
Marlon believes God was watching over him and his family when his dad died. He believes his life was spared many times, that there is a reason for everything that's happened to him. Such beliefs give him hope, something he's been searching for ever since he was sent scavenging in the dump at six years of age.
“The best sermon I've ever heard”
When asked about his dream, Marlon doesn't hesitate; he's ready for the question. He wants to some day share his story in a stadium full of people, encouraging others to trust God and believe in a bigger story.
Listening to this young man finish his tale, I wipe away a few grateful tears. What a life, I think. And he's only just beginning. Quietly, I make a few promises to myself and my family that I'm honestly not sure I can keep, but I need to.
Standing, we applaud Marlon, but not nearly as much as he deserves. One person says this is the best sermon they've ever heard, and I have to agree.
Thanks for the inspiration, Marlon. I don't know that I'm able to live up to the standard you've set, but I intend to try.
Have you ever met someone whose story inspired you to live a better life? Share in the comments.