In a huge ravine that runs right through the middle of Guatemala City, an estimated 500 tons of trash is dumped each day, including medical waste.
Covering nearly 40 acres, the dump is the largest in Central America. Yet thousands of people live and work here, depending on what they find in the trash to survive.
“What strikes you first is the smell of methane, and then the dust blowing around that gets in your eyes. Seeing the vultures always circling overhead ... it’s a horrific place,” says Deb Walters.
But Dr. Walters, a retired cognitive scientist and university vice president, is doing something about it. For the past 10 years she has volunteered for Safe Passage (Camino Seguro), a nonprofit group that provides education and social services to children and families who live at the garbage dump. She is also the sponsor of a young boy, Angel, who lives in the area.
Founded in 1999 by an American social worker, Hanley Denning, Safe Passage serves more than 2,000 Guatemalans, “empowering the poorest, at-risk children of families” who live at the dump and “creating opportunities and fostering dignity and self-esteem through the power of education,” according to its mission statement.
Safe Passage provides full-day education for young children, including two meals and health-care services.
Older children attend public schools, but they only receive about four hours of instruction per day. Safe Passage gives students the opportunity to continue learning after school through classes in English, computer skills, and art, and career counseling. Adult literacy classes and entrepreneurship initiatives help women learn how to make a living.
Safe Passage’s programs are having a positive effect. “Only 10 percent of the Guatemalan population has graduated from high school. Forty percent of our students do, and graduates are earning five times the average income,” Walters says.
Despite her volunteering efforts, Walters wanted to do more for the people of Guatemala City, the country’s capital and largest city. So she decided to combine her two passions: Safe Passage and kayaking.
“When I was working professionally, I would take a few weeks off in the summer and go on long solo kayak trips, quite often in the Arctic,” she says. “People think you’re crazy because you go off kayaking but it was a great stress reliever [for me].
“So I thought, given how hard the parents and children work [at the dump], what could I do that would be symbolic of that grit and hard work? That’s when I decided to kayak from Maine to Guatemala.”
As Walters explored the idea, she learned that parts of the Mexican coast were controlled by drug lords. Kayaking in those waters would be unsafe. Eventually she decided her route would include three sections: kayaking from Maine to Key West, Fla.; sailing from Key West to Belize; then kayaking the rest of the way to Guatemala. In total, it would be a 2,500-mile trip.
For the past year and a half, Walters has been taking this journey of grit and hard work. Along the way, she has made stops to give presentations at Rotary Clubs, churches, schools, and libraries about the work of Safe Passage.
“It’s been a great way of getting thousands of new people involved and raising money,” she says. But what’s most important to her is spreading awareness. “Just to understand how other people in the world live,” she says, “that is what’s important.”
Walters initially set a goal of raising $10,000 through her kayaking expedition, but to date she has raised more than 40 times that figure. The money, she says, will go toward establishing an education program for each elementary grade.
Walters says the kayak trip hasn’t been easy. “I’m no longer a spring chicken,” she says. “Some days it’s felt like jumping off a cliff just to get in my kayak and keep going. But I just feel compelled. I started this, and I said I would do this.”
After paddling 1,500 miles from Maine to Georgetown, S.C., she had to stop because of an injury that led to her having surgery in February 2015.
Yet Walters wanted to stay true to her goal. In September, she returned to South Carolina to pick up where she left off. “Many people told me, ‘You’ve already demonstrated hard work, you can stop now.’ But there were two things that made me continue: I knew the parents and children wouldn’t stop [working], and many people were donating by the mile. It just felt like I needed to carry on and do it.
“All of this just goes to show that you really can break the cycle of chronic poverty,” she says. “You can make a difference in the community.”
• Deb Walters is currently kayaking along the Florida coast and plans to reach Guatemala by April 2016. You can follow her progress at http://bit.ly/WaltersJourney. Learn more about the work of Safe Passage at http://bit.ly/PassSafe.