Angel of the Garbage Dump Book
Angel of the Garbage Dump is the working title for a book I plan to research and write in 2018-19 about the late Hanley Denning — a Maine native who founded the nonprofit Safe Passage, which helps thousands of families living and working in the Guatemala City garbage dump and offers their children a path toward education. Denning was killed in a tragic car accident outside the Guatemalan capital in 2007. But Safe Passage continues to change the lives of impoverished families today.
My name is Jacob Wheeler. I'm a journalist and author based in Traverse City, Michigan. I have spent significant time in Guatemala and am captivated by the country and its people. My goal is to self-publish Angel of the Garbage Dump by the end of 2019, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Hanley founding Safe Passage. Your contribution to this campaign will help cover my research, travel, and writing costs. I'm grateful for your help.
Here's the inspiration for writing this narrative biography and profile in courage: Once in your life, if you are lucky, you’ll meet a leader with a halo over their head. An activist, humble to the core, who forsakes first-world comfort to reach into the desperate slums and help the forgotten masses.
For thousands of Americans and Guatemalans, that person was Hanley Denning. The “angel of the garbage dump”. In 1999 Hanley founded Safe Passage , or Camino Seguro in Spanish. An international nonprofit that offered a path toward education and dignity for thousands of families growing up in the Guatemala City garbage dump, the largest in Central America.
Many idealistic young Americans and Europeans travel to Guatemala, or places like it, to learn the local language, dip their toes in humanitarian work, and seek adventure. Most of us eventually return to our comfortable, middle-class lives. But Hanley, who hailed from a prominent family in Yarmouth, Maine, and had been a track star at Bowdoin College, saw the garbage dump on the last week of her initial trip to Guatemala. She saw people competing with vultures for the food dumped by trucks. She saw babies playing amidst rot and dead rats. She saw hopelessness in its ugliest form.
The experience changed her. It prompted her to, as Mother Teresa said, “find her own Calcutta.” Hanley didn’t come home. She called her family in New England and asked them to sell her computer, her car, and everything she owned, and wire the money to Guatemala City. That’s where she launched Safe Passage on a shoestring budget.
What was it about Hanley Denning that prompted her to forsake the comfort of home and light a torch of hope in one of the darkest, most dangerous urban environments in the hemisphere? What was the unfulfilled need that she carried, and did she satisfy it in the end? And what can we learn from such a selfless hero, as more and more of us feel the call to action from the forgotten corners of the world? How did the characters who Denning met along the way influence her and spur her to action?
Those questions have inspired me to research and write this book about Hanley. The story begins with her meeting the garbage dump and the human scavengers who compete with vultures. It leads us to the program’s first graduation ceremony, 9 months after her sudden death. Kids who grew up hopeless in the garbage dump now stood with pride, dressed in cap and gown, about to matriculate at college. The book’s central question will examine why Hanley stayed and founded Safe Passage after seeing the garbage dump. What set her apart? And what can we learn from her today?
If you are moved by this project, please consider supporting it today. And look for updates on the book’s progress, and how to support Safe Passage.
Feel free to reach out to me with any questions at jacobroyalwheeler (AT) gmail (DOT) com.
Here's an update on my progress. This past March I traveled to Guatemala (Guatemala City, Antigua and Lake Atitlan) for 10 fantastic, thorough, intense days of interviews with many who knew Hanley and worked with her at Safe Passage—both Guatemaltecos and expats. The 35 hours of interviews I conducted revealed a protagonist who was an idealistic hero to many, but also complex and human. Enough time had passed since her death in 2007 that, I think, many had been able to analyze and understand how she affected, and continues to affect, their lives.
In June my family and I traveled to Denmark to introduce our daughter Nina to her fatherland for the first time. As luck would have it, I was able to meet and interview Joan Juanita Anderson, a Dane who happened to be Hanley's very first volunteer when she launched Safe Passage in 1999/2000. Juanita's memories of those important days nearly 20 years ago are vivid and crucial for telling the story of what changed in Hanley when she saw the dump for the first time. Juanita wrote a book in Danish about her own time working in the Guatemalan City garbage dump, titled Drømmenes Losseplads (dreams of the landfill), which I am using as background material for my book about Hanley.
Moving forward, I plan to visit Maine some time this coming winter to retrace Hanley's early steps before she moved to Guatemala. I'll continue to post updates (more frequently) as well as snippets of the story on my Facebook page.
Thanks again for your support.