Safe Passage provides hope for children in Guatemala

By Patrisha McLean | Oct 12, 2017
Photo by: Patrisha McLean

Camden — It was my first hour at Safe Passage in Guatemala City, a nonprofit that helps the families who subsist on food and recyclable materials from one of the biggest garbage dumps in Central America, and I told myself, “I can’t make a week here. I don’t think I can make even another hour.” Two days later, I was trying to figure out how to extend my stay even longer than planned.

What initially had me reeling was the combination of the stench, the vultures (in the cemetery that looks directly down on to the dump), and the box of lice treatment on an office desk.

But that was before I met the children.

I was at Safe Passage to provide photos for their annual report. I had been hearing about the group for years from friends in Camden and I remember Antonia Monroe, who headed up a number of art projects there, telling me that Hanley Denning, the young Bowdoin College graduate who founded the group in 1999, had just died in a car accident.

In the 10 years since Denning's death, Safe Passage has steadily expanded on her vision of combating poverty through education. Now, 550 children aged from 2 to 21 spread across three school campuses, while their parents learn how to read and make healthy meals and make and sell objects like jewelry toward financial independence. In a city with a high school graduation rate of 10 percent, 120 students from Safe Passage have gotten their degrees.

Safe Passage is headquartered in Yarmouth and about one third of donations and half the volunteers come from Maine. The Midcoast’s Karen Hansen has led volunteering trips with about 50 of our high school students, and is bringing over another 15 in April, just launching fundraising for this trip. She says many of the kids she brings end up going back to volunteer on their own.

Because Guatemala City is so dangerous, Safe Passage recommends staying in Antigua. So I commuted with other volunteers in a bus painted a riot of colors and belching black exhaust fumes, transitioning in the one- to two-hour ride from high-altitude hairpin turns overlooking lush greenery to traffic-choked, gray city streets.

Safe Passage is based directly in the garbage dump community, and on my second day we were greeted with the news that we needed to be extra careful because there had been two armed robberies in the neighborhood that morning.

I was told the Safe Passage badge I wore around my neck would help keep me safe on the streets because of the respect gang members have for the group, but much more comforting were Carlos and Salvador, two squat and stern brothers in mirrored sunglasses and flak jackets assigned to shadow me.

On the streets, garbage is everywhere: Piled impossibly high on the backs of bent-over adults and trucks, making up the homes of Safe Passage families in squatter communities with scavenged corrugated steel and cardboard for roofs, plastic sheeting for walls and ragged cloth curtains for doors. Plastic bags dry on clotheslines, children clutch soda and chips, diseased stray dogs lurk, and flies are so thick I dared not open my mouth to speak.

The dump scavengers often have a specialty, so walking means sidestepping mountains of glass bottles or plastic milk cartons or metal being hoarded for when the commodity price is up.

Entering a Safe Passage school campus, a large metal gate opens, a security guard waves, and we are in an oasis of cascading fuschia flowers; grass and trees; brightly colored murals; and children with smiles like sunshine.

Elementary school kids in their blue-and-white uniforms with yellow daisies on the shoulders hold out leaves, each cradling a tiny worm from their Montessori-based, hands-on learning program. They greet volunteers with hugs and fist bumps and children and adults walk down hallways with arms flung around each other. In the light-filled classrooms kids huddle together over books, leap up bright-eyed with answers, and confer intently with caring teachers, some of whom, like the gym teacher, Mynor, were students here.

Students have access to medical care and showers. They break-dance, play guitar and create artwork; one papier-mache painting of orange and green roses so exquisite I am giving it center stage in my new home.

In the end, I left Safe Passage as scheduled, because it was too complicated to shift things around back home in order to stay longer. But I plan to return in the spring to teach photography.

Meanwhile, two questions burn in my mind: Safe Passage brings color and hope to these children; where would they be without it? And how can children who live in garbage be so beautiful?

To learn more about volunteering at Safe Passage in Guatemala City, donating money, or sponsoring a child, call 846-1188 or email

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Oct 13, 2017 15:51

A heart warming but heart breaking story. But for the grace of God, go I? God Bless America.

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