Mary J., a 5th grader at the St. Brigid School of Maine, entered the speech below in her school's Civic Oration Contest. She was inspired by Hanley Denning and wrote the speech about Hanley's life and work at Safe Passage. The speech won 1st place and is going on to compete at the district level. Congratulations to Mary for this wonderful speech and thanks for remembering Hanley and her positive impact on this world. Here is Mary's speech:


Hanley Denning, a young woman from Yarmouth, Maine is a great example of a volunteer who made a difference. She started Safe Passage, a program for at-risk children living in the dump outside Guatemala City.

The dictionary defines a volunteer as “a person who voluntarily undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service” and Hanley did just that.

After graduating from Bowdoin College and getting her master’s degree, Hanley started teaching in North Carolina. She was frustrated that she could not communicate well with her Spanish-speaking students. So, she decided to go to Guatemala to brush up on her Spanish. Upon arrival, Hanley began volunteering by helping adults and children living outside Antigua, Guatemala. One year became two, and when Hanley was preparing to leave for her return to the United States, a friend asked her if she would be interested in visiting the garbage dumps outside Guatemala City. Hanley agreed immediately.

What she saw was not pleasant. For about forty acres, there was nothing but trash, and there were hundreds of vultures circling the sky. The smell was horrible and overwhelming. Some people were slumped against huge piles of trash, they had just given up with life altogether. It saddened her to see the hundreds of struggling people who called this place home.

Hanley saw a way out of poverty for the children living and working in the dump, and that was education. She thought that if she could teach them enough, then they could get a good job in the city and turn their backs on poverty. Hanley sold her computer and her car and used some of the money she had in savings to open a school near the dump. She also started an early childhood center and an adult literacy project that offered support to the very young and the adults living in this makeshift community.

Hanley’s school had about forty students. Forty fewer children who would work at the dump for the rest of their lives, and forty fewer who would live in constant risk of dying from starvation and toxic fumes. Every day Hanley and her crew of doctors, dietitians , and teachers instructed the children in reading and math, and made sure they had a good meal and health care.

As word of Hanley’s project spread, many people around the world gave donations to Safe Passage, and some even came to volunteer to help with cooking, teaching, and the many other everyday chores that allowed Hanley’s dream to continue to make a huge difference in the lives of Guatemala’s poor.

Tragically, Hanley died in a car accident on January 18th, 2007, while driving on one of Guatemala’s treacherous mountain roads. She will always be remembered as the woman who kindled the fire of hope in the hearts of the poorest of the poor. Today, Safe Passage provides 550 children with education, social services, and the chance to leave behind the poverty that they have faced for generations. Hanley showed that one volunteer can bring a dream to reality and in doing so, make a huge difference in the lives of many.

If you want to volunteer or make a donation go to  remember, every donation counts.