Guatemalans mourn Maine woman activist

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GUATEMALA CITY (AP) – Guatemalan slum dwellers and activists held a memorial Mass over the weekend to honor a Maine woman, Hanley Denning, who died in a highway accident earlier in the week, eight years after she founded an organization to help slum children.

The Roman Catholic Mass was celebrated Saturday in front of Denning’s plain wooden casket at the Guatemala City offices of Safe Passage, the organization she founded in 1999, as parents, children and activists mourned Denning’s death at age 36.

“Before I met her, I never would have imagined that my children would get so far in school,” Yolando Campos, 33, said.

Hundreds of children and parents, mainly from neighborhoods around the Guatemala City municipal dump where Denning began her work, attended the ceremony, some weeping.

Denning lived in Yarmouth, Maine, and her remains were to be returned to Maine on Sunday. She died Thursday when the vehicle she was traveling in was struck by an oncoming bus near Antigua, about 18 miles west of Guatemala City, where she was also working.

Denning was a teacher visiting Antigua in 1999 to learn Spanish when, through a friend, she met children of Guatemalan families who made their living scavenging at the garbage dump. At age 29, she sold her car and computer in the United States and with $2,000, she came back to Guatemala to seek out children who needed help staying in school.

“That’s the best example of that fact that if you really want to do something, you can,” said Rosemary Lemcke, the spokeswoman for Safe Passage, which now operates out of a three-story building and helps about 500 children with food and tutoring. “She gave classes at meeting halls, churches, wherever.”

The organization has also established a garden for children to play, a youth shelter and a day care for working mothers.

“She always liked flowers,” said Safe Passage activist Lety Mendez. “She asked us to plant flowers with a lot of colors, ones that smelled good.”

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