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Author Jacob Wheeler gives talk on Bowdoin alumna Hanley Denning, the “Angel of the Dump”

October 14, 2022

On Thursday, October 6, Jacob Wheeler gave a talk at Kresge Auditorium regarding his biography, “Angel of the Dump,” which tells the story of Bowdoin alumna, Hanley Denning ’92. Denning founded the non-profit Safe Passage, the mission of which is to break the cycle of poverty in Guatemala through education, nutrition, healthcare and social services. Wheeler’s book highlights Denning’s seven years with Safe Passage before her unexpected death in 2007.

After graduating from Bowdoin, Denning taught for a few years in Glenwood Elementary School in Chapel Hill, N.C., before traveling to Guatemala in 1997. It wasn’t until a trip to the Guatemala City Dump in 1999 that she finally found her calling. After witnessing the poverty in the dump, she called her family and had them sell all her belongings and wire her money. With only $5,000, she started Safe Passage in early 2000 as an afterschool enrichment program for children who reside in and around the dump. Since Denning’s passing, Safe Passage has transformed into a school that currently serves 600 children in preschool through ninth grade.

“[The dump] is just Hell on Earth,” Wheeler said in a phone interview with the Orient. “The families, mostly single mothers, bring their children to the dump with them to help them scavenge for food and other materials. What’s different about Hanley is that so many of us would choose to turn a blind eye to this terrible scene and forget we had seen it … but she couldn’t turn a blind eye. She decided she had to do something about it.”

Wheeler is a published author, a journalist with the Glen Arbor Sun newspaper and no stranger to Guatemala. His first book, “Between Light and Shadow,” investigates the Guatemalan child adoption industry, was inspired by observations made over his three years as a Guatemala resident. It was around this time that Wheeler met Denning.

“I met her for the first time when she came to Michigan on a fundraising trip when I was home,” Wheeler said. “I interacted with her a few times in Guatemala and I certainly knew of all the great work Safe Passage was doing and there were a lot of expats around that area who were involved with Safe Passage at the time.”

Wheeler first had the idea to write a book about Denning after hearing how positively she was received by her peers early in her career. Since her passing, Denning’s legacy has grown, earning her the namesake, “Angel of the Dump.” It was after the namesake that Wheeler decided to begin writing.

“It wasn’t until I began to think more seriously about it and had some conversations with people in Maine, Michigan and Guatemala that I began to realize that beyond the veneer, she was a real person,” Wheeler said. “[Denning] changed during those seven years, between founding Safe Passage and her sudden death. She was capable of going in with all of her heart, mind, energy, stubbornness and doing things that no one else could do,” Wheeler said. “The more complex story of Hanley and Safe Passage suddenly appeared to me and I realized that this is a book. This is a deeper story.”

In addition to shedding light on Denning’s legacy, Wheeler hopes that Denning’s altruism inspires readers to also help others.

“I hope that the book inspires people and maybe inspires someone who’s in a position to go do some service learning work,” Wheeler said. “Look for injustice. Look for inequities. Look for things that we should not ignore and don’t turn a blind eye.”


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