She arrived with a backpack full of dreams, a pair of comfortable shoes and a tidal wave of energy, an American volunteer like many others who wanted to make a change in the world and in our country, Guatemala. But this woman had no idea of the legacy she was on the verge of building. In 1999 Hanley Denning began volunteering in Guatemala. At that time it was a nation full of indifference, racial problems, limited access to education, a general lack of opportunities and it had just emerged from a 36 year long civil war.
When Hanley found herself in Zone 3 of Guatemala City, she saw the extreme poverty of Guatemala – she saw, literally, families living off the Guatemala City Dump. Hanley decided she needed to do something profound. It was then that Safe Passage, now considered one of the best structured NGO’s in the country, was born.
The fundamental objective of Safe Passage is to create opportunities for the children of the City Dump to develop the essential values and skills so that they can develop into productive people with happy lives. Safe Passage does this by requiring that the children of the dump go to school. School for these children is a half day, the other half of the day the children come to the project. While there they are given educational support, artistic outlets, good nutrition, medical attention and love.
Hanley was founder and the central pillar of Safe Passage until she was killed in a traffic accident on the Pan-American Highway in January of 2007. 500 children survive her – and each one of them has a better opportunity for a successful life thanks to Hanley and her work.
Her legacy would not be left to drift. At present, after an arduous and worldwide selection process, Barbara Nijhuis, of Amsterdam, Holland was selected to be the director of Safe Passage. Since 2007 innumerable changes have taken place within the organization. Under Barbara’s leadership the organization has been more formally divided into specific departments, each with their own goals and priorities, such as Social Development or Direction of Operations.
The Guatemala City Dump is a world of its own, situated inside the belly of the Capital. This sub-world has its own economy – and one that demands the labour of children. Families harvest the dump for scrap metal, glass, food – anything that can be resold or consumed – and for these families each child represents a source of income. Because of this very few of them attend school. To address this problem, Safe Passage makes an institutional commitment to each family that if they allow their children to participate in Safe Passage, the family will receive a donation in food to make up for the lost wages of their children’s work. At the project, during the day, the children are also fed and are under the supervision of a nutritionist who monitors their growth.
Safe Passage is an oasis inside the world of the Dump. It functions in this difficult environment thanks to a brilliant team of professionals and enthusiastic volunteers. Most of the volunteers are young – the general range is from 18 to 25 – coming from the United States or Europe. They offer classroom support under the direction of a Guatemalan teacher, and also provide assistance specific to their own talents.
Organizations such as Safe Passage have grown because of a desire that people have to share. Most of the volunteers have grown up in developed countries and they understand that privilege. These volunteers then, either through the Web or word of mouth, spread Hanley and Barbara’s message – and more volunteers come.
After visiting the project, meeting the children and the volunteers and the staff of Safe Passage – who everyday give of themselves without an expectation of anything in return, I can only say “thank you” for helping my country. And at the same time I call upon all Guatemalans to reflect upon what is happening in our world. We all have been, at times, indifferent to the problems of the boy on the corner sleeping in a cardboard box – as do many of the children of the Dump. But with examples like Safe Passage we should take the responsibility to expand this project – and this spirit – to other cities in the country.