In recent years the Glen Arbor Sun has written about a humanitarian non-profit organization in Guatemala that has touched the lives of numerous northern Michigan locals and sent them on service-learning trips to Guatemala City to lend a hand in and around the massive garbage dump where Safe Passage is a guiding light for hundreds of destitute families. Last Thursday, that light flickered, though we pray it will not dim.
Photo credit: Beth Price, Priceless Photography
Hanley Denning, the founder of Safe Passage and a guiding light of hope for families in the Guatemala City garbage dump, was taken from us in a tragic car accident on the night of Thursday, January 18. She was returning from the capital city to her home in nearby Antigua after attending meetings to establish a day care center so that children in Safe Passage could leave their younger siblings in good hands while continuing their studies — an impossible luxury for most Guatemalan kids, yet one realized by more than 550 children who are now part of Safe Passage.
To those children and their families, Hanley was akin to Mother Teresa. In fact, she is often referred to in the Guatemalan media as the “angel of the garbage dump”. As the news of her passing spread through Guatemala City’s poorest slums, mourners gathered throughout the night at the hospital, and crowds packed the streets at a memorial service on Saturday, especially grieving mothers with young children. “Before meeting her, I never would have imagined that my children would go far in their studies,” Yolanda Campos, a 33-year-old mother of Safe Passage kids, told the national Prensa Libre.
Hanley’s body was flown to Maine for the funeral on Tuesday in her hometown of Yarmouth, which is also the program’s U.S. headquarters. Her vision and work touched so many, both in Guatemala and the United States, that the ceremony will be an opportunity for numerous Safe Passage board members, volunteers and friends from around the country to join hands with the Denning family and thank her for the humanitarian path she chose, and to ensure that her dream of combating poverty through education for Guatemala’s children will continue in her absence — which is what she would have wanted.
While fighting back tears, Hanley’s father Michael told the Portland Press Herald on Friday, “Hanley’s only desire was to keep it going.”
Several Great Lakes Friends of Safe Passage will attend Hanley’s funeral, including Paul Sutherland, Chairman of Safe Passage’s Board of Directors and Sharon Workman, Vice President and coordinator of Great Lakes Friends. “Hanley’s life was an inspiring example of what one individual can accomplish in the cause of humanity if they dedicate themselves, work hard, and stay the course through headwinds and setbacks,” says Paul. “Hanley charged forward, with heart, intelligence and remarkable stamina to the cause of making the world a better place.
“Safe Passage is in good hands and the program will continue and grow stronger in the same spirit that Hanley brought to it.”
Hanley twice graced our presence in northern Michigan, most recently at a Fiesta at the Haggerty Center in Traverse City this past summer. Great Lakes Friends has raised over $50,000 for Safe Passage since Hanley’s first visit in 2005, and another 12 local volunteers will embark on a service-learning trip next month to Guatemala. They include Bob Heacox, a retired Emergency Room physician from Grand Rapids who will offer medical assistance, and Maggie and Kaitlynn Cassem from Lake Leelanau, who are the mother and sister of two adopted Guatemalan children. Sixteen-year-old Kaitlynn organized a drive at Lake Leelanau St. Mary’s school and filled several suitcases of donations to take with them.
Hanley Denning grew up in Yarmouth, Maine and graduated from Bowdoin College with a psychology degree in 1992. She later earned her master’s degree in education from Wheelock College in Boston and worked as a teacher for poor children in North Carolina. Hanley traveled to Guatemala to learn Spanish to help her communicate with those she was helping, and learned of the squalid conditions in the Guatemala City garbage dump through a friend. She sold her car and computer to fund a drop-in center for tutoring and shelter. Safe Passage was founded in 1999 and quickly grew to become a comprehensive support program that guides children into school and on to graduation.
A documentary called “Recycled Life” about those who live and work in the Guatemala City garbage dump is on the short list for an Academy Award nomination for Best Short Documentary, and it features Hanley, among others. The 38-minute film is directed by Leslie Iwerks of Santa Monica, California and narrated by Edward James Olmos (“Stand and Deliver”). The Oscar nominations will be announced on Tuesday, the day of Hanley’s funeral.
Today, more than 550 children who live around the Guatemala City dump spend their mornings or afternoons at the program where they receive assistance with school work, a healthy meal (often the only one they eat each day), access to a medical clinic, exposure to the arts, and vocational programs in a caring and safe environment. Many of the children in the program are the first in their families to attend school. This year, more than 10 students in the Safe Passage program will be enrolled in the most academically competitive schools in Guatemala.
“I want the next president of Guatemala to come out of Safe Passage, the next person who starts a business that employs a lot of people, great citizens that stay there and help their country,” says Paul Sutherland.
Also killed in the accident that took Hanley’s life was Safe Passage employee Bayron Aroldo Chiquito de Leon, who was at the wheel. Two Safe Passage volunteers, Beth Kloser of Indiana and Robert Tinsley from England, were injured but are expected to recover fully, though Kloser is undergoing an operation in the hospital. According to the Prensa Libre, a passenger bus commonly referred to by the ex-pat community as a “chicken bus” tried to pass another vehicle on the winding, sometimes treacherous highway between Guatemala City and Antigua and collided head-on with the car carrying our friends.
Donations in honor of Hanley Denning — to continue her legacy and sustain Safe Passage – can be sent to Great Lakes Friends, P.O. Box 621, Traverse City, MI. Great Lakes Friends are more determined than ever to see that Hanley’s legacy of combating poverty through education continues and that the programs she established flourish in the future. We will work together with you to ensure that Hanley is honored by our continued dedication to her mission. For more information about how you can support this work, contact GLF at firstname.lastname@example.org, (231) 590-6072.
Click here to read about the Safe Passage fundraising Fiesta last summer at the Haggerty Center
Click here to read about locals
Paul and Mike Sutherland visiting Safe Passage
Click here for the Safe Passage homepage