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Hanley Denning went to Guatemala in August of 1997 to learn Spanish, never imagining she would stay. She had been teaching in North Carolina after receiving her master’s degree in education from Wheelock College and was frustrated by her inability to communicate with her Spanish-speaking students. Upon arriving in Guatemala, Hanley began volunteering with children and adults living in small towns near Antigua, Guatemala, in an effort to improve her Spanish. One year extended into two and just as Hanley was preparing to return to the United States in 1999, a good friend named Regina Palacios urged her, as a favor, to accompany her on a visit to the slums adjacent to the Guatemala City garbage dump.
That visit changed Hanley's life - and the lives of thousands in Guatemala and around the world.
Ever since graduating from Bowdoin College in 1992, Hanley had worked tirelessly on behalf of at-risk children. The reality facing children at the Guatemala City garbage dump was unlike anything she had ever seen. She knew she had to do something.
The very same week Hanley visited the dump, she sold her computer and her car and, using some money she had in savings, opened the doors of Safe Passage (known in Spanish as "Camino Seguro") in December of 1999 by enrolling 46 of Guatemala’s poorest children in school. These children couldn’t afford the books, school supplies, and enrollment fees required by the public school. This initial group received tutoring, a healthy snack, and the care and attention they so desperately needed. Another 70 children participated in a drop-in program when they weren’t working in the dump.
Over the next eight years, Hanley's original program grew. The educational reinforcement program found a new home in a safe and beautiful building further removed from the garbage dump, and an early childhood center and adult literacy program were established, thanks to the commitment and ambition of staff, community members, volunteers, and international supporters.
On January 18, 2007, Hanley was killed in a tragic automobile accident in Guatemala. However, through her many admirers and dedicated Safe Passage staff and volunteers, her vision continues today, stronger than ever. Hanley received a commendation from US Senate delivered by Maine senator Olympia Snow and received commendations by the Maine Senate and Legislature among many other awards and prizes for her humanitarian work with Safe Passage.
Today Safe Passage provides approximately 600 children and 100 mothers with education, social services, and the chance to move beyond the poverty their families have faced for generations.
Safe Passage is a refuge for children contending with situations marked by extreme poverty, neglect and abuse. Hanley’s story reminds us of the power of one person’s vision to make a difference. The children in Safe Passage's care remind us that there is much to hope for.
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