In an unassuming house set back from the road, a revolution began that changed the face of the South African community. It began with a boy with a beautiful smile and wide, open eyes — and a heart the size of Johannesburg itself. A boy who looked out of his house, beyond the gated-in property and the electronic fences, and saw the unseen.
And he didn’t stop simply at seeing. Hugo Paluch took his vision — and changed the reality.
Step into the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa, and you will find that Hugo’s name has become a byword. Hugo’s Greenhood, a project aimed at improving the lives of poor men who collect garbage for recycling, was launched in September 2017, along with a parallel effort to encourage members of the Jewish community to recycle their waste materials. There are also schoolchildren trained as junior first-aiders, known as Hugo’s Heroes.
All of this named for Hugo, a 14-year-old boy who died following a schoolyard accident last May. The projects have sprung up, spearheaded by his parents Dov and Nicole Paluch, along with dedicated friends and community members, and have spread beyond anyone’s expectations in just a few short months. How did this happen?
“First, I’m going to correct you on something,” Nicole Paluch, Hugo’s mother, says. “This project is not something we’ve started in Hugo’s memory. It’s something we’ve continued in Hugo’s memory. But the one who began the Greenhood project — who changed the lives of the neglected, unnoticed men on the streets — was Hugo himself.”
Making Wednesdays Happy
“It started with the recycling men,” Nicole explains. The recycling men, who can be seen each Wednesday in the streets of Johannesburg, pulling carts many times bigger than themselves, filled with garbage. Some come for paper, some for plastic, others for any type of recyclable material. After spending the nights sleeping on the streets, they awake before sunrise to rummage through garbage bags that await collection, retrieving anything that could be recycled, and then they push and pull their carts to the town center, where, by the end of the week, they can hope to earn 600 rand (under $50), for their efforts. Whether in the heat of a December summer, or the cold of a July winter, sometimes sick or injured, these men don’t miss a week.
No one ever really thought about the men at the side of the road, searching through the trash. Until Hugo and his mother looked again.
“We thought about how Wednesdays must be the worst day of their week,” she says. “And I suggested to Hugo, maybe we can do something to make Wednesdays happy days for them?”
It began with taking hot lunches out to 12 recyclers. The shocked, almost hesitant smiles on the recyclers’ worn-out faces were the first indication that the Paluchs were onto something.
But Hugo wanted to take it further. “I want to get them jobs,” he told his mother one day. “I want to make things happen.”
And despite the obvious difficulties involved, he was determined to create change.
“That was Hugo — he took everything to the nth degree,” his father, Dov Paluch, says, on the official Hugo’s Greenhood video clip, available on the Greenhood website.
The recycling men on his block became “his” project, and what started with a hot lunch and a drop of human caring became bigger: Others got involved, and people began thinking of these poverty-stricken men and their families. Food and clothes for their children were delivered. Holiday gifts were handed out. And that’s when Hugo decided to up the ante and raise serious money to give 12 men a holiday gift they would always remember. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 711)