FARMINGTON — Seven UMF students just returned from a life-changing experience at Safe Passage, a school and Maine-based non-profit charitable organization built on the edges of the Guatemala City Garbage Dump in the Republic of Guatemala in Central America.

The UMF students — members of the UMF Rotaract Club — along with two Mt. Blue High School students, three Maine teachers and two local Rotarians, spent their February break in community service helping children of the poorest of the poor a world away.

The dump is the largest in Central America with 500 tons of trash dumped each day and approximately 11,000 people who live and work in and near the dump and rely on the garbage to survive.

Bryce Neal, a UMF junior from New Gloucester, said the experience cemented his commitment to help others. A geology major and treasurer of the UMF Rotaract club, he helped organize the fundraising efforts to pay for the students’ lodging, transportation and meals in Guatemala.

According to Kirsten Swan, UMF director of student leadership and service and the club’s advisor, the students raised more than $3,000 doing lawn work, parking cars at the Farmington Fair, selling handmade Fair Trade bracelets and more. In addition to their fundraising, each volunteer had to pay for their own airfare.

While at Safe Passage, the volunteers helped children whose parents worked in the dump. They coordinated and assisted with day-to-day educational activities, created lesson plans, helped with reading and math, played soccer and got to know them. They quickly observed that in spite of the children’s demanding life circumstances they were still just children eager to learn.


Blair Bailey, a UMF junior from Presque Isle, is majoring in elementary education. Involved in community service since high school, she values learning by experience and wants to share the Safe Passage experience with her students in the future.

“It was such a privilege to go on this trip and have a wider view of the world,” said Bailey. “The children in Guatemala were wonderful, creative and self-reliant. I typically collect children’s books, but this time I brought back some of the children’s artwork that I plan on incorporating in a diversity and letter exchange lesson plan I’m creating.”

Of special importance to Melissa Eelman, UMF junior from Merrimack, New Hampshire and UMF Rotaract president was the chance to meet the Safe Passage student the UMF Rotaract Club supports throughout the year.

“It was great to meet him and have the chance to actually see the difference we’re making in his life,” said Eelman. “I wish we had the means to sponsor more children because it truly does change their lives.”

Safe Passage was founded in 1999 by Hanley Denning, a Maine teacher, who went to Guatemala to learn Spanish. Once she saw the living conditions of the tens of thousands of people who lived and worked there, she committed herself to create a program that would provide the families with an education, social services and a chance to move beyond extreme poverty.

Denning died in an auto accident in 2007, but her dream of providing the people of Guatemala with a gateway out of poverty continues. According to the Safe Passage website, the organization provides more than 550 children and 100 parents with education, assistance and hope for the future every day.

UMF Rotaract students and Farmington group volunteers arrive at Safe Passage preschool in van previously donated by the Farmington Rotary.

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