Sponsor stories: meet the Holsen family

This article was written by Safe Passage sponsor, Molly, about visiting Guatemala and Safe Passage with her family and their adopted Guatemalan son, Tomas.


This past July we took our family of 5 to Guatemala for a cultural visit. The last time we were there we were picking up our oldest son, Tomas, and bringing him to his new home in the U.S. He came home to Wisconsin with a new mom & dad, and a 1-month-old baby brother named Jeffrey. That was August of 2007 and Tomas was 10 months old. He is now almost 10 years old, Jeffrey is a new 9-year-old, and Gunnar is 7.5 years old.

We knew after adopting Tomas that we wanted to give back to the country that gave us our oldest son. I stumbled upon Safe Passage and really liked what I saw, so we decided to help sponsor a child. We’ve been sponsoring Julisa since she was in the Safe Passage Escuelita (preschool) in Guatemala City. She is now in middle school.

From the moment I began arranging our visit, both the Safe Passage staff in Maine and in Antigua were extremely helpful and flexible. We were unable to make the normal tour day that is Thursday as we were just getting into Antigua that day from Santiago, Lake Atitlan. They were wonderful and set us up for first thing on Friday morning.

At 7:30 am Friday morning I gathered my crew, and we walked through the streets of Antigua to the office of Safe Passage (we picked up some yummy treats on the way). It was an easy walk from our hotel. When we arrived we were invited in and sat down to watch a video featuring Hanley Denning and the beginning history of the program. My husband, Pete, and I cried quiet tears as our boys sat in quiet awe (which is VERY RARE) for the 15-20 minutes of the video. The usual tour guide was called away for a family emergency. In her place was Carlos, a very kind and thoughtful soul. We had the pleasure of spending the next 4 hours with him.

The drive from Antigua to Guatemala City was something we had begun to get used to – fast and curvy. The first landmark Carlos pointed out was the original church where Hanley started the program in 1999. It was a modest building surrounded by ghettos. I thought of her with pure admiration – to accept a personal mission so fully, like she did, is humbling to think about.

We then drove to the cemetery. The boys remained in the back of the car, per protocol, while Carlos walked Pete and I to a cliff to view the Guatemala City Dump. The first sensation that overwhelmed us was the stench. The second was the sight of the enormous size of the dump. It was as deep as it was wide. Carlos gave us great insight into the wide-ranging socioeconomic and class differences in Guatemala. He also talked to us about the history and politics of the dump.

From there we traveled to the preschool or Escuelita. The little students were on break so we were able to explore the classrooms and playground. Still, the smell of the dump was surrounding us. As a former kindergarten teacher I loved hearing about the curriculum and seeing all of the materials the kids were using. It was impressive to see.

We then drove to the Learning, Art & Fun Center and looked around at all they had to offer. Art therapy, music classes, jewelry making classes, vocational classes, educational resources, exercise classes (we saw a Zumba class with mothers and daughters going on), and one-on-one tutoring (we saw one going on with an abuelita). We were amazed at all the goodness that was being offered. Just as much attention was placed on emotional well-being as physical and intellectual well-being. We took a family picture in front of the beautiful painting of the owl, a reminder to all who enter that there is life outside the dump.

“This is an effective program – it works because it takes into account the whole child, the whole person. How can I get one started in the poverty stricken areas of my city?” Molly

Our last stop was to the Educational Reinforcement Center (CRE). Classes were in session for the middle school children only. The 1st through 5th graders were on break. Again, we visited classrooms, learned about the curriculum, observed the health center and talked with the nurse. We watched the students move from classroom to classroom. My birth children loved being called “cute white boys” in Spanish, and Tomas loved looking like the students who were walking around us.

Julisa, our sponsor child, was not in school and she hasn’t been for a few weeks due to some family issues. We are all hoping that she is willing and able to return soon. We were invited to stay and eat lunch, but I knew after the many hours we spent there my boys were tired and we should start heading back. Carlos drove us back to Antigua. He talked with us as we processed all that we had seen and heard and learned and smelled.

We arrived back at the office, said our thank yous and walked back to our hotel. We had a quick lunch by the pool and the boys hopped in and swam away the afternoon – as all kids should be able to do. Pete and I sat in silence for awhile considering all that we had just witnessed. And we just witnessed it, we do not live it. We privately counted the million and a half ways in which we are fortunate & blessed in this life. We privately gave our reverence to the people that work in and around Safe Passage. The good energy and love that they share is palpable.

We privately gave our reverence to the people who live in the dump day in and day out. They, like us, are trying their best in this life.

Safe Passage is one of those lights that gives them a shimmer of hope, that directly provides them with choices. Nothing else and no one else does. “YOU HAVE A CHOICE” is what they learn early on in the program and continue to do as they grow with it.

Guatemala is one of the most beautiful places we have ever visited. Our boys saw a lot and probably learned more than they are able to comprehend at the moment.

We will continue to return to this land every few years. We will continue to support Safe Passage and their mission. We will continue to visit and eventually volunteer our time.

I think Hanley would be so proud of how the program has grown. I know I am.

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Molly Holson taught Early Childhood Education for 10 years in Milwaukee Public Schools before starting a family and has witnessed the devastation of poverty with many of her students.