It was like standing on the dunes of Lake Michigan and instead of
seeing an endless amount of water, there was just this sea of garbage, said Sharon Workman, vice president of the Great Lakes Friends of Safe Passage, who lives in Traverse City.
In the last year, 20 volunteers from Northern Michigan visited a non-profit organization called Safe Passage in Guatemala that gives the children living in the Guatemala City dump a chance to become educated and established citizens. Great Lakes Friends is a chapter of Safe Passage. The group is sponsoring a benefit for the kids on Wednesday, July 19, at the Hagerty Conference Center on the Northwestern Michigan College Great Lakes Campus.
The fiesta benefit from 5:30-8 p.m. will include music by 3-Hour Tour, the original 3rd Coast band, Adair Correll, Les Dalgliesh and Norm Wheeler. Hanley Denning, the founding director of Safe Passage, will also be on hand.
WADING THROUGH A LANDFILL
The Guatemala City dump is home for the citys poorest and most uneducated residents. Because of civil wars, political unrest, financial and social inequality, a large number of families spend most of their
time wading through the landfill. They try to find anything that they can sell or re-use according to Paul Sutherland, chairman of the local Safe Passage board of directors, who lives in Suttons Bay.
Mothers leave their little babies under tires so the dogs cant eat them, while they scavenge for food, said Jacob Wheeler, a Safe Passage volunteer and media relations representative who also serves as editor of the Glen Arbor Sun newspaper.
No one under the age of 16 is allowed in the dump according to Wheeler; thus children are often left to fend for themselves while their parents scavenge.
Almost 70 percent of the countrys population lives on less than $2 a day, according to a study conducted by San Carlos University. Of that 70 percent, 30 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day.
The city dump is in a large ravine that runs through the center of the city. At the end of the ravine you can actually see water draining down to some of the lower lying areas, said Tom Wigton, a registered nurse at Munson Medical Center and a Great Lakes friends volunteer.
Wigton and his wife Joan (who also works at Munson) and two daughters spent a week in Guatemala City, working with the Safe Passage Center.
We actually got a chance to see where some of the kids live; they were just tin shacks put together with stuff that they collected from the dump, Wigton said.
Most of the clothes the kids had were donated, Joan Wigton said.
They have no way of washing clothes because most of the kids have no running water, Joan Wigton said. There was just this pile of dirty clothes on the ground that looked like [the kids] had worn so much they just couldnt wear them anymore.
The Safe Passage kids live impossibly hard lives with difficult families, who squeeze into small tin shacks.
Everything inside their house was just so dark and depressing because the family we saw didnt have electricity, Joan Wigton said. It was just the hope of their day to have this bright shiny place to come to.
The kids were very grateful for the opportunities that Safe Passage has given them, Tom Wigton said.
The kids were so happy to see us, always wanting to jump in your lap and were so affectionate, he said.
Even planting a few flowers and some sod meant a lot to the kids, said Chris Skellenger, Safe Passage volunteer and a landscaper from Empire.
I thought I was just landscaping, which up here is pretty meaningless, but when I was done down there all the little children absolutely loved it, Skellenger said. Then I realized that these are the only plants these guys see. Its a little Garden of Eden for them.
Before the advent of Safe Passage when kids were still allowed in the landfill, they would go to the dump just to find food, Sutherland said.
Because these kids are living in this extreme poverty we have to educate them, because the more educated they are the more economic opportunities the children will have, Sutherland said.
Maine native Hanley Denning founded Safe Passage in 1999 after traveling to Guatemala City. She started in a small facility near the city dump. Denning offered a safe place for kids to drop in for a healthy meal.
I came to Guatemala and found that there were so many kids that just wanted to go to school here, and it would take so little just to do it, Denning said.
Safe Passage has grown into a much-needed educational option for the poorest children in the city. Today, 548 children,
from preschool to high school receive support financially and emotionally, Sutherland said.
The Safe Passage website notes that, Education is beyond the reach of many of the children of the Guatemala City dump, as they cannot afford the books, supplies, enrollment fees, and uniforms required for public schools.
Denning started the program with her own money, sleeping in the first offices she was able to establish in Guatemala. I sold my car and some things in storage, and with my savings it came to about $5,000.
From that modest beginning, the nonprofit now raises more than $1 million each year from hundreds of donors.
Were not just trying to feed the kids like other groups, were trying to change this craziness, Sutherland said. I want the future president of Guatemala to come out of this.
KEEPING UP WITH SCHOOL
Each child is given food bags for their families still living in the dump as long as they continue with the program. The kids participate in recreational activities and receive help with their schoolwork.
Theoretically, public school is free, but because of enrollment fees, uniforms and books, it costs about $100 for a kid to go to public school, Sutherland said.
If a child remains in the Safe Passage program through donations and outside contributions, the program will fund his or her schooling.
Hanleys philosophy, was always Look, there are plenty of schools in Guatemala and theyre not bad. What they need is funding, and more support, Wheeler said.
The program has been so effective that six Safe Passage boys passed a rigorous exam for one of the countrys top private schools. Safe Passage plans to pay their $2,400 yearly tuition.
Wheeler said that without Safe Passage most of these kids wouldnt have a chance.
Violent crime such as murder, rape and armed assault against foreigners has been a serious concern for many years in Guatemala because of the high levels of poverty and abundance of weapons, according to a report issued by the State Department.
The murder rate is higher now than it ever was during the Guatemalan civil war, which is when about 250,000 people were killed, Wheeler said. Its not about a war anymore, its this kind of urban gray area where rival gangs are killing each other.
The two main gangs in Guatemala City are Salvatrucha and 18, both of which originated in Los Angeles, Wheeler said. It is American policy to deport first-time gang offenders back home to their country; this is how they ended up in Guatemala, he added.
The most obvious way this relates to Safe Passage is any boy who is seven or eight years old, growing up in zone three (where the landfill is located) of Guatemala City, if they dont get out of that environment and be given some hope of a future, it is damn likely they will end up in Salvatrucha or 18.
For donations and more information contact Sharon Workman of Great Lakes Friends at 231-590-6072 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the children of the Guatemala City dump, go to www.safepassage.org. Admission to the Wednesday, July 19 benefit for Safe Passage is $25 at the door.