Hanley: The Angel of the Rubbish Dump

On 18 January 2007 a young American woman died in a car crash in Guatemala City; her name was Hanley Denning and she was only 36 years old. The news of her death barely made it to the outside world, but in Guatemala, thousands of people went into mourning. To Guatemalans, Hanley Denning was known as “the Angel of the Rubbish Dump”.

Hanley arrived in Guatemala for the first time at the age of twenty six. A schoolteacher from Portland, Maine, she was taking advantage of her long summer holiday to learn Spanish. Like most American visitors, when she arrived, she was staying in the beautiful old colonial capital, Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage site of eighteenth-century ruins filled with Spanish schools and markets selling textiles to tourists. It was an a hour’s drive and a world away from the bustle and misery of Guatemala City.

The year was 1997 and Guatemala was just emerging from almost four decades of civil war. The country was ravaged by poverty and social problems, thousands of people had been killed by their former neighbours turned guerrillas. In addition 33,000 Guatemalans had died in a devastating earthquake in 1976; the survivors were still living with the scars. Safely in Antigua, Hanley was sheltered from most of the realities of life in Guatemala. An intelligent and empathetic young woman, she knew there was more to this country than the sanitised version of Guatemalan life that she was able to see. She voiced her concerns to a friend, who told her about the Guatemala City rubbish dump and then took her to see it for herself. Hanley knew she wanted to help these people and instead of going home, she ended up working for two years with a charity helping the rural poor in areas outside Antigua and thinking about the plight of the people of the rubbish dump.

The rubbish dump in the centre of Guatemala City is one of the largest in the world, with a stench that pervades the surrounding streets; it is a sinister sight even from a distance with a continual mass of vultures circling overhead. When Hanley visited, she was appalled to discover thousands of people were not only working at the dump but living in it, making their homes out of discarded and often dangerous trash thrown out by the rest of the world. The dump does not only contain rubbish generated by Guatemalans, it is the repository for the trash of North America, Canada and other “developed” nations; first world countries expecting the third world to absorb their most unpalatable remnants of twenty-first-century living.

In amongst the discarded oil drums, broken bottles, rotting mattresses, stinking food containers, unwanted clothes and abandoned refrigerators leaking chemicals, whole families were living, working and eating. When the rubbish trucks arrived, anyone who was able would grab hold of some part – anything – of the truck, in order to hang on and be the first to get at the trash when the truck started unloading. The drivers, desperate to dump their loads and get back out to the next, would sometimes unwittingly drive right over someone who had been too weak to hold on for the whole journey or, tragically often, a child who had wandered into its path. People died regularly on the dump, most from being in the wrong place at the wrong time and being too weak to scramble to safety.

Hanley was appalled to see babies placed in stinking cardboard boxes to keep them “safe” while their mothers searched among the detritus trying to find something they could eat or sell. Items Hanley had never thought valuable before were snatched up with glee by toddlers whose whole lives encompassed the dump, already they were deemed old enough to work and already savvy about what would sell and what was genuinely rubbish.

Hanley began to research educational facilities and discovered that although education is ostensibly “free” in Guatemala, the actual cost is prohibitive. Children attending school are required to have the correct school uniform, to buy their own books (including text books) and to bring their own food. Any child arriving at school without the exact uniform or books is sent home. Text books cost on average 2-3 times more than they would in the UK; yet the average wage of a maid in a rich part of Guatemala is approximately £17 a month[1]. In a country where over 75% of the inhabitants live well below the poverty line, such demands are impossible for parents to meet. In addition, children are needed to work, as their family is dependent on their income.

Her depressing research complete, Hanley contacted her family in Maine and asked them to sell everything she had of value, including her car and computer. The sale raised $2000 and with the money, she set up a charity called Camino Seguro (Safe Passage). In 1999, she opened the first Camino Seguro classroom, next door to the city dump. On her first day she welcomed 26 children who would otherwise have been working in the dump. In return for their children attending the project, parents were compensated with a monthly food parcel. Once at the project, the children were given three meals a day and taught basic hygiene as well as being provided with an education.

Hanley also worked tirelessly to help end the conditions that had led to children living and working in the rubbish dump. Her mission was helped by a tragic event, which brought the realities of life in the Guatemala City dump to the outside world. On 24 January 2005, gases given off by the rotting rubbish built up to a crescendo and a large area of the dump burst into flames. With no shortage of fuel, the fire spread voraciously and raged for several days, despite the best efforts of firefighters to control it. During that time, news cameras from several countries filmed footage of people crawling out of the rubbish, fleeing the fire as their homes caught alight. The number of children filmed trying to escape from the flames was deeply shocking and forced the Guatemalan government to acknowledge this huge problem they had been ignoring.

As a result of the fire, and thanks to the persistent calls for change from Camino Seguro and other charities, no one lives inside the dump any more and no one under the age of 14 is allowed to work there. It is a strange sight, to walk by the dump and see the entrance policed by armed guards – who are there to prevent children from entering. These changes in the law led to a huge increase in the number of children entering the Camino Seguro project, as their parents now needed someone to take care of their children while they went to work.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that these children and their families now live in palatial homes: they may not live in the rubbish dump anymore, but the alternative was not social housing, it was the slum, next door to the dump. The slums are a dangerous place, where drugs and guns are commonplace. To see a mother breastfeeding a baby while sniffing glue is not uncommon. Violence is endemic in Guatemala City and hundreds of rival gang members kill each other every year. In addition, there is a serious and ongoing problem of women being killed in Guatemala City, often as a revenge killing carried out by an enemy of their husband or boyfriend. In the single month of January 2007, 44 women were murdered on the streets of Guatemala City.

The oasis that is Camino Seguro’s city project gives the children of these terrible slums a chance to glimpse another world, one in which they are valued and where they can learn that it is possible for them to make a difference in society. The education provided by the project is not only academic; in a country where vocational skills are far more important than the ability to read and write, the children are taught carpentry and metalwork (popular industries in Guatemala), cookery and English. The latter is increasingly important as the country opens its doors to ever-growing numbers of tourist; the majority from North America. Camino Seguro has also set up a hotel, in which older children from the project can be trained as waiters, chefs, bar staff and hoteliers.

Hanley’s dream was that the children of the children from the Guatemala City dump would never need to sort through her country’s trash in order to survive. One of the boys from the project – a twelve year old whose early life was spent almost entirely in the rubbish dump – has already announced that he intends to become President of Guatemala.

Despite Hanley’s tragic and untimely death, Camino Seguro perservered, albeit without its Angel of the Rubbish Dump. By the time of Hanley’s death, just eight years after she set up the project, Camino Seguro had grown from a small, smelly, dingy schoolroom running on an initial investment of $2000, into a major charity with an annual income of $1.2million. In addition to the city project, which helps around 550 children, there is also a safe house, Casa Hogar.

I worked at Casa Hogar, which was about a two-hour bus journey away from the city project in a small village. During my time volunteering there, Casa Hogar was home to 50 children who had been removed from abusive homes. It was an incredible place where, for the first time, these terribly abused children could learn to have hope. Working there changed my life for the better; I hoped it would be able to continue to do so for the many needy children who come through its doors, although sadly its doors were eventually closed and the children rehoused back in Guatemala City.

Camino Seguro still continues its work, however, and you can visit the website at: www.safepassage.org To find out about other great charities doing some great work in Guatemala go to: www.wingsguate.org and www.plan-uk.org (through which you can sponsor a child in Guatemala. A month’s sponsorship costs about the same as four café-bought coffees).

This article was originally published in Cyprus Magazine, in 2007.

[1] This article was written in 2007, so these figures were correct for the time.