From the trash heap into the classroom

Hanley Denning created Safe Passage to give some of Guatemala's neediest children a chance to work at a school desk instead of a junkyard

Hanley Denning spends most of her waking hours caring for and teaching 325 of the world's poorest children.

The children live and work in the central trash dump in Guatemala City. Many are without fathers. Most cannot afford school.

Almost all have been forced since a very early age - sometimes as young as 4 years old - to collect and then refabricate or resell the twisted-metal appliances, soiled clothing, and battered toys that litter the dump.

Ms. Denning's group, Safe Passage, is not unlike scores of other charitable organizations spread throughout Guatemala and Central America.

All have the aim of sustaining and, as best they can, lifting up a group of people who have not found a place in the region's fragile economy, explained Denning who met with the Monitor during a recent fundraising trip to the US. Often, those they seek to help have also been battered by emotional trauma.

But Safe Passage remains unique. For one thing, Denning's care of the children goes beyond basic philanthropy.

Her group pays for children's school tuition, their uniforms, their books. It also offers instruction in reading and writing, and life skills, such as carpentry and sewing.

But Safe Passage also puts into practice Denning's belief that education is pointless without focused care for the emotional well-being of children and even support for their families.

Many of the children she works with - all of whom enter first grade in their first year in the program no matter what their age - are deeply serious. Because they have been called on to work for their families at such a young age, they have often adopted a rigid demeanor better suited to a chief executive than a child.

"Part of what we do is teaching them how to be children again," says Denning.

"That comes from integrating them into a classroom setting helping them establish peers, and giving them the emotional support to adopt a routine."

For many children, that sort of progress comes in very small increments, says Denning.

One example: a boy who two years ago had difficulty staying in school, which is a requirement of the program, more than 15 minutes each day. He was extremely angry, says Denning, and struggled through every moment of class.

Now, the boy is one of the program's strongest students. "We really believe in giving everyone as much of a chance as we can to let them improve their life," says Denning.

Denning's critics say Safe Passage dedicates too much time and too many resources to working with children who are too old for reform, or are so emotionally fragile that they are not teachable.

The group accepts applicants as old as 13.

"Some other orgs might say, 'Well, it's a little late for them,' looking at a 13-year-old, for example. That's a very personal decision for every program director and staff to go through," says Denning. "We don't share that belief. We believe it's never too late for working with a child."

And she is committed to supporting them in their education as far as they want to go - even through college.

The program has been running for about four years, and parents in Guatemala City's brutal Zone Three district are clamoring to gain admission for their children. This fall, Denning expects interest from more than 300 families.

She and her staff will visit the children's homes and evaluate their economic need and their family structure, and the children's desire to participate. They will admit children with the most need and the sincerest desire to learn, says Denning.

Now, the program runs on a $20,000 per month budget, which allows it to admit only 30 new students each year. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the program's budget.]

"We usually have money for a couple of months in advance only. There's never been peace of mind," says Denning, who recently visited several cities in Maine, her native state, to help raise whatever funds possible for the program.

Schmoozing and self-promotion do not come easily to this self-effacing woman. Before her trip to the US, Denning had to buy a pantsuit at T.J. Maxx because all she wears in Guatemala are blue jeans and tennis shoes, and in her life there doesn't ordinarily don the kinds of clothes normally considered suitable for fundraising activities.

A key target audience for Denning is friends from college, many of whom are now investment bankers, lawyers, and doctors, all fellow graduates of Bowdoin College in New Brunswick, Maine.

Asking them for money, she says, has not been easy.

"My relationships with them have taken very different forms now," says Denning. "Some friends are very supportive of the program. But they struggle with my decision to sell what I had and live the way I have."

Now, Denning relies on word of mouth to grow her pool of donations. While in the US this month, she plans to speak to Maine church congregations, Rotary Clubs, and a few businesses with ties to Bowdoin.

The media have sometimes likened Denning to Mother Theresa, a comparison she prefers to avoid.

Though Denning has little free time to dance or go to movies in Guatemala, she says she has many good friends among her staff, and also receives tremendous support from a Roman Catholic nun who does similar work in the area.

"People say that I work too hard, but for me it feels natural," says Denning. "What I receive from this is enormous. It gives my life enormous fulfillment."

Safe Passage is only the latest chapter of Denning's work with children at risk, which began in Boston after she graduated from college.

She started Safe Passage after visiting the Guatemala City dump while studying Spanish in the country. One day, she decided to step in and help clean up the area and feed the children.

Over time, Denning has seen positive changes both for individual children and the institutions that surround them.

After adding more vocational training - a practical tool she says some children require just as much as literacy - many children have shown enormous gains in self-esteem.

"Originally, most of them were only thinking about survival. Now they are thinking about the future," says Denning, who hopes that some students will come back to run Safe Passage after graduating from high school or even college.

She also says that the public schools in Guatemala her program is affiliated with have begun to show a broader appreciation for aspects of teaching that go beyond rote learning.

"Teachers are starting to realize and take into consideration the environmental factors that influence these kids as they integrate into the public school system," says Denning.

Now in her third year directing Safe Passage, Denning is focused on securing its financial stability. But she also likes to glance ahead from time to time at the program's future.

"Right now, we need to become financially stable, then when I'm old and gray I'd like to see the program expand in other countries, probably in Latin America," says Denning.

What she feels she's proved with Safe Passage is that "this model for caring for children in a variety of ways will work wherever there's need for it."

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