At Bowdoin, we talk a lot about the common good, but few in our small community end up making it their life's mission in the way that Hanley Denning did.
From higher education's seat of privilege, Denning descended into the slums of Guatemala City, giving up nearly everything she had so that she could help people who had even less. In the face of such overwhelming strife and hopelessness, there is no doubt that her work was difficult, even excruciating at times. But one by one, Denning led children out of the Guatemala City garbage dump and into her makeshift classroom, where she helped provide them with food, shelter, and an education. She exposed them to English, art, and music. But most importantly, she exposed them to the possibility of a future where life was about more than just survival. A future of hope and opportunity. A future outside the dump.
But Denning's work was not limited to exposing the impoverished youth of Guatemala City to the privileges of her past. She also sought to expose the privileged youth of her past to the poverty of Guatemala City. In 2003, through coordinated efforts with the Community Service Resource Center here on campus, she helped bring Bowdoin students to Guatemala City on an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip so that they could see the poverty for themselves. Struck both by the destitution of the slums and the power of Denning's example, students on Bowdoin ASB programs have returned on two separate occasions to work with Safe Passage, the organization she founded. A number of students have gone back to volunteer there on their own.
One of Denning's goals represents the ultimate synthesis of her past and her present: to see a child from Safe Passage matriculate here at Bowdoin. Though she didn't get to witness it in her lifetime, the passion Denning sewed in the hearts of her colleagues and friends is so strong that it seems almost inevitable that this dream will be realized.
When her car was struck by a bus nine days ago, Denning was on her way to a school that her organization had built for at-risk children in a town outside Guatemala City. She was on the job. It was a hard job, we imagine, full of small victories strewn amid heaps of frustrations.
But to Hanley Denning, it was a job worth doing. So she did it. It is in this way that her death, while tragic, reminds us of how we all ought to live.
The editorial represents the majority view of The Bowdoin Orient's editorial board. The editorial board is comprised of Bobby Guerette, Beth Kowitt, Anna Karass, Steve Kolowich, and Anne Riley.