Hanley Denning was only 36 when a car crash outside Guatemala City ended her extraordinary life last month.
According to those she left behind at her innovative brainchild, Camino Seguro (Safe Passage), a program that’s helping hundreds of children who live at Guatemala City’s largest garbage dump, the work she began will far outlast her too-brief life.
“Before, the kids would say, ‘I want to be a cardboard collector (when I grow up). I want to work on the truck with my dad. I want to be a policeman,’ because that’s all they saw,” Lety Méndez, one of the program’s leaders, told The Nica Times in a phone conversation this week. “Now, they say: ‘I want to be a doctor.’”
Coming from children who, a short time ago, were forced to drop out of school to help their families sort garbage at the dump, aspiring to become a doctor is no small dream. But Denning, a teacher from the U.S. state of Maine whose efforts earned her the nickname “The Angel of the Dump,” helped inspire hope in many kids and families in just eight years of working in Guatemala.
This year, Safe Passage is serving 580 students, with approximately 500 more on the waiting list. The program offers before- and after-school support, vocational training, and even a hotel service school. The organization relies on volunteers, earnings from its Posada Lazos Fuertes hotel in Antigua, and donors, including people or groups who “adopt” a child or classroom.
Denning, who first went to Guatemala in 1999 to study Spanish for three months, visited the massive dump one week before she was scheduled to return home. At the dump, where approximately 4,000 people live in shanty homes on its outskirts and work over new garbage each day, Denning talked to kids who wanted to go to school but couldn’t afford the $20 fees. Determined to change this, Denning immediately sold her car and computer and used the funds to help get 40 students enrolled in school.
“She had so much faith,” Méndez said.
Denning’s commitment was much deeper than providing some money.
Because the students often worked until the wee hours of the morning sorting trash, they weren’t used to getting up at 6 a.m. to go to school. So Denning went to each home to make sure they made it to the classroom on time, sometimes with a backpack full of bread and jam. She also had to convince public school teachers that the children were worth the effort.
“In many schools, she found an attitude of, ‘We can’t do anything with these kids,’ but she was so insistent,” Méndez said. “She convinced the teachers to accept them.”
Having students in school meant a loss of income for their impoverished families, so Safe Passage also began providing a monthly basket of basic food items as a reward for students who attended school and other programs, including homework sessions, English classes, art courses and other activities.
Denning, who through the years accumulated staff support, a team of social workers, and volunteers from overseas who came to work with the kids, also worked to get highschool scholarships for students who successfully completed primary school. She also began vocational training centers in baking, carpentry, tourism and other fields.
Participants in the vocational courses receive practical training, then an apprenticeship, with the goal of starting a small business.
At Posada Lazos Fuertes (www.posadalazosfuertes.com), where 100% of the profits go to Safe Passage, a team of 21 young people from the program is learning about hotel management – and also getting a chance to experience a touristy section of Guatemala that is foreign to those who live in the dump.
Through it all, Denning’s work ethic inspired – and sometimes worried – her coworkers.
“She didn’t sleep,”Mendez said. “We’d get really concerned, asking, when did she last eat?”
On Jan. 18, a bus struck the car in which Denning was traveling from Guatemala City to Antigua, killing her and her driver and injuring two program volunteers in the backseat, according to a Portland Press Herald article on Denning’s funeral in her hometown of Yarmouth, Maine. Parents, children and coworkers mourned her passing in Guatemala City on Jan. 20, followed by a service Jan. 23 at YarmouthHigh School, where both Guatemalan and U.S. flags were draped over Denning’s coffin. She is survived by her parents and three brothers.
Méndez, 34, who traveled to Maine for the service, said that she, like the rest of the Safe Passage staff, is determined to carry on Denning’s work. She’s a believer in the Safe Passage mission, though she admits it wasn’t always that way.
“I was working for (Denning) as a secretary in Antigua – I had never been to the dump,” she said. Méndez said she made her first trip to the dump with Denning in 2000 and was shocked by the children working, the baby she saw in a cardboard box, the story of another baby who’d died the week before because a garbage truck threw trash on top of her.
Méndez said, “My first impression with Hanley was to tell her, this can’t be. People aren’t going to change.”
But, she added, “not even a year went by before I changed my way of thinking.
Normally, people in Guatemala, we try two or three times, but she tried 1,000 times. She showed it really could be done. And now, more than ever, I believe it.”
For more information about how to help Safe Passage by participating in volunteer projects; donating to the Hanley Denning Memorial Fund; sponsoring a child or classroom; staying at Posada Lazos Fuertes; and other means of supporting the program, visit www.safepassage.org.