Angel of the Garbage Dump is the working title for a book I plan to research and write in 2018-20 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 publish Angel of the Garbage Dump by the end of 2020, 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 2000 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.