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Recycling Paper, Plastics and People

In Argentina, women leave homelessness and find hope while helping the environment

"Buen día," the neighbors greet Navarro on a fresh spring morning, giving her pecks on the cheek and filling her towering cart with cardboard, bottles, and cans. "I feel like the neighbors support me and my work," she says, walking down Thames Street and throwing greetings back. "They understand that it's a good thing to work with us by separating their recyclables and caring for the environment."

With just an  elementary-school education, Navarro, 59, is studying for her high-school diploma. She lives only a few blocks from El Ceibo's offices with her niece's 15-year-old son, Pablo, who was abandoned by his mother when he was a baby. Navarro treats the boy, now in middle school, as her son and says he was him the catalyst for her return to school: "He wanted help with his homework, but I couldn't help him. So I decided to go back to school so I could help him."

"Everyone here at El Ceibo has a story," says Jackeline Flores, 40, as she stands among six-foot-high piles of crushed plastic and cardboard. She's been working with El Ceibo for 13 years. Flores, an attractive woman with chocolate-colored eyes and straight brown hair pulled back in a girlish ponytail, lives with her four children, who range in age from 11 to 20.

She grins as she explains that she's close to her children and talks to them frequently about life. Florencia, 20, attends the University of Buenos Aires, and Romina, 18, studies journalism in high school. "They are on the right road," she says confidently, "and they know how to discern between what's good and what's bad."

Flores becomes emotional when she admits that she's living in an abandoned house, but she plans to move into her own home by the end of the month. "This job brought a change in my home," she says, tears filling her eyes. "It's very gratifying to know that I can earn my own living…I enjoy my work because it supports the interest of everyone."

For Cristina Lescano, transformation goes beyond the lives of those who work with her and the city where she lives. Her four children no longer live on the streets, and one of her daughters is in college. Lescano has gone from a woman without a home to a candidate for congress in last June's elections. She didn't win, but her fight continues. Reluctant to talk about matters unrelated to El Ceibo, Lescano quickly returns to that topic, which she calls "her life."

"They told me that I couldn't do it," she says. "Sí se puede."

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