Our History

Hanley Denning wanted to speak her students’ language.

Hanley Denning went to Guatemala in 1997 to study Spanish. At the time, she had been teaching in North Carolina after receiving her master’s degree in education from Wheelock College. As soon as she arrived in Guatemala, Hanley began volunteering with children and adults living in small towns near Antigua.

Hanley loved Guatemala. A one-year commitment became two years, but still, she never imagined she would stay. Just as she prepared to return to the United States in 1999, her good friend Regina Palacios asked her a favor: to accompany her on a trip to the slums by the Guatemala City garbage dump.

That visit to the Guatemala City garbage dump changed Hanley’s life, and, in turn, the lives of thousands in Guatemala and around the world.

Since graduating from Bowdoin College in 1992, Hanley worked tirelessly on behalf of at-risk children. The hard reality of life in the Guatemala City garbage dump was unlike anything she had ever experienced. She felt a calling to do something.

That same week she sold her computer. She sold her car. She emptied out her savings account. And she opened the doors of Safe Passage (Camino Seguro) in December 1999.

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Hanley enrolled 46 of Guatemala City’s poorest children in her new program. These children couldn’t afford the books, school supplies, and enrollment fees required by the public school system. Through Safe Passage, these children received tutoring, a healthy snack, and the care and attention they 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 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, donors, volunteers, and international supporters.

On January 18, 2007, Hanley was killed in an automobile accident in Guatemala. Though her life was tragically cut short, her legacy lives on. Those she inspired continue to advance the mission she envisioned.

Today, Safe Passage is stronger than ever.

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Each day, Safe Passage provides more than 550 children and 100 parents 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 facing difficult situations marked by extreme poverty, neglect, and abuse. Safe Passage is a gateway out of poverty.

Safe Passage is hope.

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. View our timeline of events to see our progress since 1999.

You, too, can be a part of our story. Take action today.