I learned a few days ago about the passing of a colleague from some years ago, Hanley Denning. I have only had tonight to really think about that – and I did so, sitting on my front porch, watching for Perseus’ heavenly daggers, and singing verses from REM’s ‘you are the everything‘. The cicadas and in particular a rather bold katydid reminded me of that.
Hanley left Glenwood Elementary, where I worked for a number of years, seeking, as my former principal Gail Turner said, children who were ‘poorer’. Indeed she found them. In a guatemalan dump.
The story is compelling. Hanley came from Maine, a state about as far north as you can get in this country, and I would imagine about as different a culture and environment as you can imagine, compared to the Guatemala City dump. Why did she leave kids in a pre-k (4 year old classroom) who were low SES (socio-economic status) in our district for a dump?
Because there are kids there. Hundreds of them. Living in and off of the dump.
Gail told me this over dinner. We were in Maggiano’s – a linen and silver italian eatery in the vicinity. I stopped eating when I heard the news. I remembered Hanley – kind, smiling, quiet, always with a throng of kids clinging to her. She was an unending font of love for them.
REM’s lyrics, as best I can recall – “…the stars are the greatest thing you’ve ever seen and they’re there for you….”
Hanley left the comforts of Chapel Hill, NC and her home and family in Maine to go to Guatemala. That was in 1997 or so. She pretty much didn’t come back, at least not for very long, far as I can tell. Hanley cleaned up a school and started giving the kids their childhood, and some skills so they could eventually become employed. Here is a YouTube video narrated by Hanley.
She was 36 when a truck hit the car she was riding in and killed her and the driver in 2007. She had, in the span of just a few years, managed to create an organization called Safepassage.org, which focuses on providing education to children who are essentially living on the dump in Guatemala City, providing education and a safe place for kids. The stories were so powerful an Oscar-winning short documentary was made in 2006 – Recycled Life. Hanley was referred to as the “angel of the garbage dump”.
I sat for a few more minutes singing REM’s tune and watching for a shooting star, with a tear in my eye.
Wikipedia article about SafePassage.
I had no idea you knew Hanley Denning. I didn’t–but because a young friend is deeply involved with Safe Passage, and because my son was born in Guatemala, I have been following their fortunes for a couple years and attending their events in the Triangle. Small world. Big world.