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Luis Romero, Associated Press
Mandy Van Leeuwen, left, and Holly Smith serve Kenia Canjura a Thanksgiving dinner. Instead of the traditional American turkey, the Salvadorans requested one of their favorites: fried chicken from one of the country's most popular fast food restaurants, Pollo Campero. Van Leeuwen and Smith are part of a group called Soles for Souls working to help families living at La Espiga dump in San Luis Talpa, El Salvador.

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — It's not exactly traditional, but it gets at the heart of the holiday.

A group of 16 Americans and Salvadorans living in the United States flew here from Salt Lake City to have Thanksgiving dinner Thursday with families who live at a trash dump.

"In the United States this is a day of giving thanks and we decided to offer a meal to give thanks to God and give adults and children here a happy day," said Brooks Dame, a 25-year-old who helped organize a nonprofit group called Soles for Souls that held a silent auction to raise $2,000 to pay for the dinner.

Like many others in Latin America, the scavengers survive by sorting through waste to find old tin cans and other items they can sell or even use themselves. Most earn only about $1 a day from recycling goods.

They caught the attention of a Salt Lake City LDS missionary who lived in El Salvador for two years. He suggested to a group of people in Salt Lake City that they should help the 300 families at La Espiga dump in San Luis Talpa, 24 miles south of San Salvador.

In addition to bringing Thanksgiving here, Soles for Souls brought $30,000 worth of donated shoes, school supplies, clothing and toys.

Instead of the traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner, the families requested a Salvadoran favorite: fried chicken from one of the country's most popular fast food restaurants, Pollo Campero.

"For us, this is so flattering," beamed Jose Duran, a resident of the dump who was waiting with his wife and two children for their chance to partake of a plate of chicken. "We never imagined this."

"We live in misery," he said, adding that sometimes an entire day's worth of collecting cans earns just 25 cents.

Veronica Van Leeuwen, a member of Soles for Souls and El Salvador's honorary consul in Salt Lake City, said the families usually eat Pollo Campero that they dig out of the trash, and they had specifically requested it for the Thanksgiving feast.

Van Leeuwen, who has lived in the United State for 26 years, said her group picked Thanksgiving for their pilot project because it seemed like a "symbol of the holiday and everything we take for granted."

"Many of the collaborators sacrificed their time and left their families, but they were happy to come here to be with the people and kids," Van Leeuwen said.

She said the group decided to come and actually share their meal on the dump because they wanted to get to know the people they were helping and not just "meet with officials and say, 'This is what we did.' "

Van Leeuwen said the Thanksgiving feast was only the first of several projects planned for the people of La Espiga.

"We want to make a long-term commitment, not just come and say, 'That's it,' " she said.

She said she hoped to get more Salvadorans involved and start medical projects. Already, she said volunteers were noticing that many family members had severe foot infections because they walked on the dump with no shoes and often cut their feet on broken glass and other sharp objects.