When Hanley Denning '92 arrived in Guatemala in 1997 looking to learn the language, she did not expect to find her life's calling?especially not in an open-air garbage dump in the slums of Guatemala City.
But after a friend brought her to the dump to show her the dozens of families scavenging newly deposited trash for items to eat and sell, Denning knew that she had found a place where she was truly needed. Within the week, she sold her computer and her car for money to rent a room in a run-down church and began what would become her life's work.
Denning was killed in a car crash en route to Antigua, Guatemala, on January 18. She was the founder of Safe Passage, an organization that provides local children the hope and support they need to continue their educations and keep them from growing up to comb the dump for food and clothing, as their parents now do.
Although Safe Passage now serves over 550 children and their families, according to the organization's Web site, Denning initially faced many challenges as she worked to implement her vision.
Every morning for the first few months, Denning would find the church she used as her home base completely barren of program supplies, as everything had been stolen the night before, said 2006 Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip leader Emma Sears '06. Yet every day, she continued to welcome children into the safety of the church to keep them away from the dangers of the dump.
"She was legitimately on her own, pulling children out of the Guatemala City dump one after the other and bringing them to a local church to educate them the best she could with the resources available to her, while attempting to convince their families about the importance of getting an education," said L.D. Lord '08, who traveled to the dump site in March 2005 on one of Bowdoin's ASB trips and again this month on a Winter Break mini-grant from the Career Planning Center (CPC).
A native of Yarmouth, Maine, Denning died January 18 when a speeding bus collided with her vehicle, killing both her and her driver and seriously injuring two volunteers riding in the back of the car. According to the Portland Press Herald, Denning and the volunteers were on their way to a neighboring town an hour outside of Guatemala City where the program runs a residential school for 50 of its most at-risk children, when a bus driver swerved into oncoming traffic on the two-lane mountain road and struck Denning's vehicle.
Safe Passage offers resources such as English language classes, vocational training programs, art and music classes, and daily meals to some of the poorest children in the already poor nation. When Denning died, she was working to launch a day-care program so that older siblings could attend school instead of staying home to watch younger brothers and sisters while their parents scavenged the dump.
While hundreds mourn the loss of the program's dedicated leader, a number of Bowdoin students and alumni have found themselves personally affected by the news of Denning's sudden death, especially the 35 students who traveled to the dump site as part of three separate ASB trips and the handful of students who have completed service projects for Safe Passage on their own.
The first ASB group traveled to Safe Passage in 2003 during the organization's fifth year of operation. According to former Coordinator of the Community Service Resource Center (CSRC) Lydia Bell, Denning, who earned a degree in psychology at Bowdoin and a master's degree in early childhood education at Wheelock College, was very excited about the possibility of introducing students from her alma mater to the program.
Student participants spent their days volunteering in classrooms and quickly found themselves immersed in Guatemalan culture through day trips to a town market and a sewing cooperative, dinners at local restaurants, and a weekend excursion to Lake Atitlan, thanks to Denning's meticulous crafting of the trip.
"She wasn't trying to create a 'been there, done that' experience for the students, but an 'I've visited and there's so much more I want to see and do there, and I can't wait to return' experience," Bell said. "This was a very strategic way for her to build a lasting relationship between the student participants and the College."
So impacted by what they had witnessed, a handful of students have even ventured back on their own as independent volunteers for periods of up to a year.
Others, including Sarah Mountcastle '05, found volunteer opportunities with Safe Passage through other avenues. Mountcastle, who traveled to Guatemala in the summer of 2004 with the support of the Preston Public Interest Career Fund Summer Fellowship Program (PPICF), worked alongside Denning to pilot an adult literacy program for the mothers of the children attending Safe Passage.
Struck by the selfless work of the organization, on her return to Bowdoin, Mountcastle took on an independent study project to write grant proposals for the program she had worked to implement the summer before.
"She has served as an incredible motivation and role model for me in the work that I am doing," Mountcastle said.
Bell agreed that Denning's influence has motivated countless students to make efforts to change the world.
"She has helped many Bowdoin students see that if they are passionate about an issue or incensed by an injustice they don't have to accept it, but can do something about it, whether that's thousands of miles from home or next door," Bell said.
According to former trip participant and leader Tam Do '06, inspiration is not the only thing Denning left behind.
"Hanley's legacy has to be the testament of one's strong will. She believed in each child at Camino Seguro [Safe Passage], and fought for them with strong conviction," Do said.
"For me, the most wonderful legacy, more so than her remarkable feats, is Hanley's decision to walk off the familiar track to make a new and safer path for others," he said.
Denning's work has also inspired many beyond Bowdoin. A documentary about Denning's project and the children of the Guatemala City dump, "Recycled Life," has been nominated for an Academy Award in the best documentary short subject category.
Although Safe Passage's founder has died, the organization plans to continue its efforts to improve the quality of life for children around the world by expanding its programming to other impoverished cities and countries.
Denning also had a personal goal that she hoped to see reached during her lifetime.
"I remember her saying that one of her ultimate goals was for a child from Safe Passage to attend Bowdoin," Sears said. "I am confident that this can be achieved in the future, and I sincerely hope that it will."
Denning was presented the College's prestigious Common Good Award in 2002 for her remarkable work with the children of the Guatemala City garbage dump and their families. This award is presented annually to those alumni who have selflessly dedicated their lives to the service of others wholly without intentions of personal gain.
"I think Hanley's legacy is one of deep commitment to serving the common good,'" Mountcastle said.
President Barry Mills expressed similar sentiments in a campus-wide e-mail.
"Hanley Denning was a truly remarkable woman who embodied the spirit of selfless service to the common good," wrote Mills.
Denning's brother, Jordan, remembered his sister's accomplishments, including receiving the College's Common Good Award, in his remarks at Tuesday's memorial service in Yarmouth. While he agreed that Denning's achievements had been extraordinary, he felt a rewording of the honor was in order.
"I think we can all agree that the goodness in my sister was far from common," he said.