“Of all my travels to the seven continents around the world, this—my 11th visit to Safe Passage—is closest to my heart. From 2006, when my grandchildren and grandniece were 4 and 6 years old, they learned about the poverty, as well as the miracle of hope that is Safe Passage. They sent books, school supplies and clothes. Sometimes they asked, ‘When can I go?’ This year they saw for themselves. From the moment we arrived, I believe they shared my passion.”
Pat’s first trip to Safe Passage was in September 2006. 17 years later (March 2023) she arrived on campus with her granddaughter, grandson, and grandniece: Emma Ellis (24), Pearce Ellis (20), and Tylar Powell (24).
A Look Back
My history with Safe Passage began in early 2006 when a colleague gave a presentation at a civic organization meeting I attended. She had worked as a volunteer in the Safe Passage office (back then located in Antigua) during the start-up days from 2002 to 2004. She shared fascinating stories of her experiences while there. Little did I know at that time that new worlds were about to open to me. Life has a way of unexpectedly transforming an ordinary day into a life-changing one. That was such a day.
Immediately after the meeting, I sent an email of inquiry to Safe Passage. It included a brief summary of my career in higher education as an administrator, instructor in ESOL programs (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and as an adjunct professor at several universities around the world training ESOL teachers. I posed the question, “Can you use my skills as a short-term volunteer at Safe Passage?” The following day I received a response from Hanley Denning. I still have a hard copy of her email – it read: “Can we use you????? YES!!!!!”
Upon arrival six months later, it took about a day, and I was hooked. It was astounding to witness first-hand the contrast between the lives of the children beyond the walls of Safe Passage and the opportunities afforded them within. I wanted to be a part of it for the long haul. But I never made the sacrifice of a long-term volunteer. My contributions were limited to consulting stateside, video calls and short-term annual trips over a ten-year period when I was asked to conduct workshops for rotating volunteers. But each time I departed, I had a gnawing sense that I would return. If this were a memoir instead of just a reflection, I would have an extensive list of long-term volunteers, teachers, administrators and board members whom I met along the way. So many have left a rich legacy that paved the way for the extraordinary international model that Safe Passage has become. Today, I could include a new list of remarkable staff carrying on.
My most recent visit in March 2023, marks eight years since my last workshop. My hopes were realized back in 2015 when a full-time Guatemalan professional educator was hired to coordinate the English program. Elizabeth Franke, now the Director of the Hanley Denning Elementary School, attended my last workshop that year to become familiar with the training I had been doing over the years. We became fast acquaintances, and I knew the fledgling English program would be in good hands.
As I look back to those early years of Hanley’s vision, the growing pains of 2006, and the tragic time of her loss, I witnessed a committed and highly skilled Board of Directors, along with dedicated staff and volunteers, that made some difficult changes to continue her work.
Sadly, I never met Hanley. She was traveling during the first weeks of my initial visit. I considered stopping by the Antigua office to meet her during my last morning before heading home that year. But I was reluctant to drop in unannounced and decided to wait until next time. Her accident occurred two months after I left.
Although I never worked with her face-to-face, I did experience Hanley’s influence while she was there. In my files I have kept a few hard copies of her emails; she outlined a vision for replacing scattered English classes with a fully developed English program on each site. Her tenacity, humility and commitment were awe inspiring. Safe Passage was facing a host of challenges as it grew from 46 children in borrowed space in 1999 to a beautiful new school reinforcement center for 500 children by 2006, when I arrived. It was said that Hanley didn’t want to say no to ideas posed by volunteers as long as they raised their own funds. Such was the status of English in the early days. As the lingua franca of the global economy, I feel endlessly grateful that an insightful Board maintained English instruction so often not available in developing countries for children in poverty.
During this trip, I didn’t meet with any staff who were there when Hanley was still there. The children in attendance now were not born at the time of Hanley’s passing. Yet one child, when learning I was returning after many years, asked if I had known her. Hanley is obviously the soul of Safe Passage. Her culture of love and unfaltering belief in the potential of each child remains remarkably the same. Her memory, as well as her legacy, is indelibly preserved.
The transformation of an after-school reinforcement center to a fully accredited Guatemalan-led school addressing the plethora of social, psychological, health and academic needs of families in extreme poverty is beyond extraordinary. I want to shout the successes from the rooftops!
March 2023 – First Impressions
Arrival and our experiences on the first day far exceeded our expectations. We were enchanted from the moment we arrived in Guatemala and settled into our very Antiguan hotel, steeped in antiques and tropical gardens. Our Support Team Coordinators, Candy and Lez were wonderful and took care of our every need.
Traveling in our private van from Antigua to the Safe Passage campus in Guatemala City was a far cry from my previous days of walking a mile to catch the chicken bus at 7:00 am and sharing it with the general population. The maximum capacity of chicken buses is “one more.” Now, the commute for Safe Passage staff and volunteers is much safer, using private transportation.
Day 2 was spent touring the campus and educating us on all things Safe Passage. The “What We Do” presentation and the historic video featuring interviews with Hanley were inspiring. The reality and harshness of living conditions in the community were overwhelming. Security guards escorted us through the cemetery above the dump, where we could safely observe the systematic procedures of workers, without invading their space. They earn an average of $4 a day.
There was beauty that day too, as we saw the facilities. We even tried out a new piece of playground equipment when no one was looking! Naturally, we took no pictures of the deprivation we saw in the neighborhood.
Day 3 was the one we were all waiting for: interacting with the children. Our first experience was a lesson set out for us with a fourth-grade English class. We were amazed at how excited the children were to see us. After nearly three years of isolation and school closures due to the pandemic throughout Guatemala, visitors coming expressly to see them seemed to make them feel special. They delivered notes of appreciation to us (in English) after the class: a forever keepsake for each of us.
It was a unique coincidence for Tylar that our first class was with fourth graders. When Tylar was in fourth grade, her class in the U.S. wrote letters to a fourth-grade class at Safe Passage. The Guatemalan children then each responded with letters, in English, to Tylar’s class.
Teaching a foreign language to preschoolers is, of course, experiential, not academic. Immersing them in a language-rich environment of stories, songs, dance and play in English promotes early understanding. We did just that and fell in love.
We wrapped up our time on campus with the women of Creamos. They taught us how to make jewelry beads from magazines and screen prints for cloth bags. They told us of their challenges as single moms with teenage boys in a community of guns, drugs, and gangs. These moms once worked in the dump. Creamos has helped them to learn skills and develop their own businesses. Still housed on the Safe Passage campus, Creamos is now an independent 501(c)(3) organization and a testament to the strength of the human spirit.
Then there were the little tasks that were just an extra helping hand. Sweeping a playground after high winds; sorting and packing boxes, and delivering lunches to the classrooms. Since the pandemic, food is carefully packaged and served in classrooms so students can follow social distancing guidelines.
So much was packed into seven days with a lifetime of memories. Our evenings and days off were fun-filled too. We shared wonderful meals in a variety of family-owned restaurants every night. We experienced a cooking class, salsa dance lessons, and a zumba class with the ladies from Creamos. We even booked a tour of villages in the highlands and had a history lesson at the Iximche Mayan ruin site just a short drive from Antigua.
It was thrilling to watch the enthusiasm with which my grandchildren and grandniece approached each of our tasks from sweeping to teaching. They are already planning a return next year and have gathered a list of potential team members. I wish them the same joy that Safe Passage has given me. I pass my torch now…but maybe I’ll make it back for another year.
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