About 10 years ago, Hanley Denning, a teacher, just a regular girl from Maine, went to Guatemala to learn Spanish. What she saw there affected her so deeply that she chose to sell her possessions and stay in Guatemala for what turned out to be the rest of her life.
In Guatemala City, there are thousands of impoverished families who live at the dump. They survive by spending all day in extraordinarily toxic and dangerous conditions, sorting through the trash and collecting recyclables to sell. They live on food that they salvage from the massive piles of waste. At 355 Days, you can read a first-person account of what the living conditions are like. It's truly horrific.
In a very interesting article at World & I, Denning is quoted:
"These people were not ashamed," retorts Denning to what she knows middle-class Americans (and Guatemalans) must think. "They were working to survive, and they were proud of their work."In fact, when I watched the recent documentary, A Recycled Life, I was amazed by the amount of work they were able to do each day, sorting and removing so much material from the landfill that could then be recycled and reused. But the toll is outrageous. Sickness and death are common, everyday occurrences.
What struck Denning the most, and what ultimately caused her to change her life's path, were the children. The hundreds of children who work and live at the dump with no education, poor nutrition, often no family, and nothing more than life at the dump ahead of them. She created an organization called Camino Seguro, which means "Safe Passage" to try to do something, anything to help these children have a better life. She set up a make-shift school and slowly began to educate and feed the children of the Guatemala City dump.
Tragically, earlier this year, Denning was hit by a bus and was killed. She was 36 years old. But according to a recent Boston Globe article, her school now accommodates over 500 children and provides a safe place for them to learn and grow. She has given them hope, and Safe Passage is committed to continuing her vision. (Please click on the banner to the right of this blog or visit www.safepassage.org to learn about how you can help too.)
Documentary filmmakers Leslie Iwerks and Mike Glad created the short film, A Recycled Life, about the people who live and work at the Guatemala City Dump. The DVD includes a special feature "Safe Passage--Tribute to Hanley Denning" which describes her work with the children at the dump. Both features are definitely worth watching, though as far as I can tell, the DVD is only available from the film's website right now (and is relatively expensive). Hopefully, it will be available on Netflix soon. I've included a preview of the documentary below, and an interesting interview with Leslie Iwerks can be found at Film Radar.