Through Safe Passage, a Maine-based charity in Gutemala City, a Lewiston doctor finds defining character is matter of circumstances

It’s an eerie feeling to view the immense Guatemala City dump from a cemetery.

The dump serves a population of over three million, and the people of the dump look like ants, carrying huge bundled on their backs or bunching around garbage trucks while waiting for the release of a fresh load of garbage.

This eeriness was accentuated by vultures circling above the cemetery, as odors from the dump wafted into my nose. As my visual and olfactory senses were afflicted, my guide spoke about the shortened life span and high cancer rate of dump workers, and the many accidental deaths occurring in the dump.

The stories resonated, and stirred a deep awareness of the enormity and gravity of this environment, and its implications on public, medical, social, educational and occupational health perspectives.

For an occupational health physician in Maine, these feelings were overwhelming, especially when I reflected on my route to this forlorn promontory in Guatemala City, where I intended to volunteer my time, and expertise, to help these people.

The organization that brought me here was called Safe Passage.

The beginning of change

As a family man with five children, my focus has been on those close to me: children needing and wanting love, attention, and help with homework, patients needing aid for their health, work, and general well-being, and those needy in our communities.

I heard about “Safe Passage” from a friend, and slowly learned about its mission of helping children get out of the Guatemala City Dump and into classrooms – addressing poverty through education.

Its founder, Hanley Denning, was from Maine and a Bowdoin College graduate. The Maine connections, and the story about Hanley and her work, were inspirational. Safe Passage seemed like a good organization to support, but for me – like so many other programs – it seemed distant.

Last year, things changed for my son Luke and I. A friend of his, Jake Gallagher, encouraged high schoolers to travel to Guatemala for Safe Passage. He found interest, not only from classmates, but from parents, like myself.

I needed to make a decision, one that reflected a shift of priorities; was I committed to this trip, and the work of Safe Passage? I decided to commit, and bring my gift of medical expertise to the trip, in whatever form needed.

My world expanded, and I began to wonder where this trip would take us, physically, geographically and spiritually. I knew for myself, getting close to extreme poverty was going to be hard, which caused emotions and thoughts difficult to describe, similar to those stemming from important life events where all the contemplation and descriptions possible doesn’t really prepare for what’s to come.

I quickly learned there are wonderful things about human nature, while we went through the whirlwind of preparation. As my friends and colleagues learned about our Safe Passage trip, they eagerly offered support, contributions and encouragement. Friends, office staff at Workmed and colleagues at St. Mary’s Hospital and the Lewiston-Auburn medical community contributed significant funds to purchase medical supplies for the clinic at the Safe Passage School. St. Mary’s offered to purchase supplies at cost, and help set up the fund for Safe Passage, all helping to make this effort meaningful and successful.

A dentist friend contributed 300 toothpaste tubes for the school; another friend donated blankets for the nursery school made by Long Creek. People just stepped forward, wanting to support and give, and it gave me strength that meant so much, given the amount of work needed, and unknown challenges ahead.

I began to feel like I was not going alone, but representing a much larger supportive community from Maine.

We Arrive In Guatemala

Our group of six adults and nine high school boys and girls arrived in Guatemala City on a sweltering afternoon in August. We packed our gear, gifts for sponsored children, and several bags of medical supplies into the vans for our drive to our home base in Antigua.

We met our Safe Passage host, who would orient, guide and accompany us during our stay. We realized immediately we were immersed into a quite different culture, with language barriers, unbelievable pollution, traffic and safety issues.

We made our way to Lazos Fuertes, the Safe Passage hotel, which we would call home. Antigua is nestled within a mountainous and volcanic backdrop, and crisscrossed by narrow cobblestone roads; it was quite a picturesque home base, compared to Guatemala City. Antigua helped us recharge and regroup after our daily work in the city.

Our first weekend in Guatemala was scheduled for a trip to the lake, Lake Atitilan, a lake formed by a collapsed volcano, or caldera. The trip to this beautiful part of the country was intentional, as the country of Guatemala is a country of extremes and this contextual exposure is considered important.

We would learn to appreciate the extreme beauty, as well as witness the extreme poverty of Guatemala. Visiting the Mayan communities around the lake revealed simple and beautiful, yet poor, people, creating and selling their works of art for modest returns.

While being transported around the lake by boat, we befriended the boat driver, a father of several young children. He patiently allowed me to practice my rusty high-school Spanish.

With my pocket dictionary, distant memory of the language, and some interpretation skills by our friendly driver, I learned business owners are the same the world over. When I asked him how many hours he works, he replied – as I translated from my dictionary – his “boat business in his life.”

Driving through the country roads and seeing farm workers, including children, working the fields and carrying large and heavy loads on their backs and secured with their head, and hearing the response of the boat driver, I came to realize how hard the people of Guatemala must work.

When they have the opportunity to work


Our tour with Hanley

Work has different meanings in varied contexts, and I’m sure scavenging the Guatemala City dump is considered important work for the families living in the Liberdad neighborhood, a tiny network of precarious shanties made from corrugated metal next to the dump.

Although the extreme living conditions evoked many emotions within me, the faces of the people had a certain dignity, a dignity that seemed to carry much importance given the life in this community.

We toured Liberdad on our first day of work, and had the opportunity to meet with Hanley Denning, the founder of Safe Passage, and hear from her directly how the program started, and the incredible adversity she faced.

There we stood, at the front of a small church across the street from the dump where the program first started.

Hanley described how she arranged a small classroom in this church, and how local people initially broke into the church, and stole her supplies. How they tried to intimidate and scare her into leaving, and how she often was tempted to give up this mission, but somehow found strength to rebuild and keep going.

As she spoke, I admired Hanley’s perseverance, fortitude and willingness to push forward and not give up. It’s amazing to think in just seven years, Safe Passage grew to serve over 500 students.

It struck me that one person can make a difference in the world.

She reminded me of a quote by Rick Warren – “Circumstances define character” – and more than that, how Hanley’s character has defined the circumstances for the impoverished people in this little neighborhood in this part of the world by giving hope, a warm meal, love, and education within a nurturing sanctuary.

I then thought that the reverse is also true:

Character can define circumstance.

One child’s life

Touring the dump area and the neighborhood near the dump was most troubling, especially in the context of seeing our sponsored eight-year-old boy. My son Luke and I met him after seeing unbelievable living conditions.

It was this face-to-face encounter that was the most difficult; it made all of this so real, not from a distance in mind, spirit and space any longer. We were face-to-face with the human result of extreme poverty.

Luke and I each hugged him tightly, each time feeling as if he would not let go, as if to signaling us of his need to have us take him away from there, right now, to a better place. Maybe the message was to bring him home with us, a message Luke and I would discuss seriously later.

We later took him to his restaurant of wishes…Burger King! He wore a crown for the day and enjoyed a full meal. I watched him eat French Fries over quite a long time – one by one – savoring each bite because he knew he wouldn’t be back to Burger King for many years, if ever.

I couldn’t help but think of our society, how we gobble down handfuls of fries like there’s no tomorrow. There is a tomorrow for him, but what it holds is so uncertain and his life so “at risk” I felt sadness, concern and despair for him.

Combating this sadness and concern was the feeling of hope fostered by Safe Passage. Yes, just maybe, he could do better in school, become more nourished physically and emotionally, and receive attention and nurturing in a safe environment.

The things all children should have.

Spending time with our sponsored boy proved to be the most emotionally challenging time of our stay, but this extreme helped other realizations surface. As we discussed the day with our Safe Passage leaders and our group, introspective dialogue and supportive discussion aided our processing of the appalling sights and close interaction with poverty.

It was then I realized the extreme benefit and goodness of Safe Passage, which I would not have had, if I did not experience the extreme poverty and life of the Guatemala City dump.

Hello, doctor

My medical work started at the Safe Passage hotel, Lazos Fuertes, where the manager asked me whether I minded if she spread the word there was a physician in the hotel willing to evaluate anyone needing medical attention.

Needless to say, I became instantly needed, and had people to see at the end of most days. The evening hotel sick call was a first for me, and it felt good to be needed. I provided medical advice and some treatment to volunteers from around the world, all of them there for Safe Passage.

It gave me great satisfaction to present the school nurse, Lucy, and senior school officials with the medical supplies from Maine. These efforts, along with the additional funds for priority medical purchases, were greatly appreciated.

I soon shadowed one of the Guatemalan doctors in the school clinic. Afterward, I was quickly seeing the sick children from the school on my own, and the nurse was always able to find me for unexpected visits. I saw some common ailments, such as colds or upper respiratory infections they call the “Grippe,” as well as some more serious conditions reflective of endemic problems of the area.

I found I was naïve in thinking I could give a bottle of Amoxacillin I brought with me to a sick child, without thinking the family had no way to keep the medicine refrigerated.

I was naïve in failing to ask a 10-year-old Guatemalan boy about his line of work, when he appeared with back pain. It didn’t occur to me the boy was doing heavy manual labor, and carrying heavy material on his back and strapped to his head, on weekends.

These were just a couple of the challenges I discovered while working outside my traditional medical environment.

I was saddened to learn many local people, including children, use inhalants, sniff glue and solvents to escape their environment, at least for a while, and sadly enough, because it suppresses appetite. Being an occupational medicine physician, I was further concerned about the physiologic toxicity, neurobehavioral effects, and reproductive toxicity.

I saw how quickly things expanded from a one-on-one encounter to a public health concern – a huge concern – but only one of many for this area, and these people.

After seeing many sick children, with many more waiting, it dawned on me I never received permission to treat patients independently, and I didn’t have a medical license for Guatemala. I quickly wanted permission to continue, and asked to talk with Hanley.

She chuckled at my question.

She smiled and thanked me for my efforts, and said I was free to offer whatever medical services were needed. I had wanted to be sure, but this confirmed my suspicion that Safe Passage would embrace and encourage all efforts to help the children.

Our last day

Our last day at the school was a family day, when the families of Safe Passage students come to the school for activities and farewell ceremonies for staff. Volunteers packed food bags for the families, and we prepared a warm meal for the attendees, and treated children for lice.

(On the scale of concern, lice was the least of the students’ worries, as evidenced by their carefree and often humorous approach while progressing through our treating, rinsing, and combing stations.)

The day’s ceremonies also included songs of friendship and thanks by the students, and some sentimental farewells for volunteers. Some of the children performed traditional dance, as a cultural and heartfelt demonstration of gratitude. Saying goodbye and giving thanks for the assistance and hospitality offered from the Safe Passage staff, teachers, nurses, students and fellow volunteers was an important part of this day.

That evening, our group met at an Antigua restaurant with our group leaders and Hanley, where we shared our thoughts and emotions from the week. Most important, we had the opportunity to speak with Hanley, a time that would later be treasured and appreciated, to such a greater degree than we could have realized at the time.

We left with these parting thoughts:

Remember the children at the dump, when we return to normal lives.

Remember that they are still here.

A pause to reflect

I believe everyone has God-given gifts in who they are, and what they can give. We found a place in the world where all one’s gifts are needed and wanted and appreciated. Whether it be teaching art, offering medical work, helping the children in class, playing sports at the campo, or connecting with one child, every volunteer and every gift was valued. The common thread was clearly the gift of oneself.

In addition, I see the rallying of good people – as shown through support from friends and colleagues – there is realization that when activities are part of a larger context of goodness and goodwill, special things can happen.

I’ve noticed many things that remind me of our trip: school donations for classroom supplies for Safe Passage, hearing of other groups planning future trips, to day-to-day experiences that cause me to remember and process.

I hear of our St. Mary’s group returning from their medical mission work to Haiti, and about other groups doing important work in Africa, and about people doing much needed volunteer work in our local communities.

I often think about the positive effects of Safe Passage work that will become evident in years to come, and the ripple effects it will have on future generations of the Guatemala City dump community.

A friend had given me a book to read on this trip, “Of Beatles and Angels,” by Mawi Asgedom.

One quote surfaced as inspiring, which I have saved in my mind for future reference. “Any one of us, however small and helpless we may feel, can spark unimagined changes. Today’s small act of kindness can become tomorrow’s whirlwind of human progress.”

Although there are so many problems and needy people all over the world, and here in Maine, it is comforting to know so many people and organizations continue to do good work, and that little by little, person-by-person, change does occur.

This has clearly happened with Safe Passage, a real example of how one person can affect change when simply being motivated by compassion.

Dr. Jonathan Torres is an occupational medicine physician with Workmed and St. Mary’s Medical Center in Lewiston. He has practiced here for 12 years, and lives in Yarmouth.
As she spoke, I admired Hanley’s perseverance, fortitude and willingness to push forward and not give up. It’s amazing to think in just seven years, Safe Passage grew to serve over 500 students.

It struck me that one person can make a difference in the world.
We left with these parting thoughts:

Remember the children at the dump, when we return to normal lives.

Remember that they are still here.

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