By Greg Phipps
---- — NEWBURYPORT — A group of Newburyport Youth Services volunteers recently returned from a seven-day trip to Guatemala City and the experience left members of the contingent with a more enlightened perspective on the world.
Eleven high school students and four youth service staff members took part in the trip to the Central-American country. They represented the Safe Passage program, which was established in 1999 by the late Hanley Denning, who traveled to Guatemala and was moved to found the program after witnessing people — children in particular — living in impoverished and unsafe conditions next to the city’s municipal garbage dump.
“I think the trip made me reconsider what I’m doing with my time and how much I can do as one person,” said Newburyport High School junior Meredith McCloy. “What Hanley did is amazing. She sold all her things to start the program. It made me realize how much one person can really do. It’s empowered me to feel like I can do something more.”
Denning, who passed away in 2007, has left a powerful legacy of volunteerism, awareness, sponsorship and giving. Safe Passage has become a global volunteer network. Its mission is to empower the poorest, at-risk children, whose families live in the Guatemala City dump community by cultivating dignity through the power of education. The objective is also to keep children out of the dumps, away from gangs, and in school.
“I think the students were inspired by all the volunteers they met, whose stories are similar to Hanley’s. They’re people who saw a need and decided to do something about it,” said Youth Services director Andrea Egmont.
The Newburyport group spent time in the city school helping with educational activities such as language learning and homework help, and participating in enrichment activities, which included an outside field trip and a visit to three indigenous Mayan communities. According to Safe Passage statistics, currently less than half of Guatemalan students make it to the secondary school level.
But, despite the difficult living conditions and struggles the Guatemalan people face on a daily basis, the Newburyport students were impressed by their resilience and upbeat nature.
“They don’t have the material things we do here, but I never heard them complain about anything,” said eighth-grader Camille Allen. “They never complained about any of the things we’d complain about here.”
“Their attitude is amazing. The kids are so happy and they have so little. Most of them don’t have the things we take for granted like clean water and an address. People are (constantly) moving from place to place,” McCloy said.
“Seeing the positivity of the kids we worked with and the mothers, who are so proud of the jewelry they make — it’s a good feeling knowing that Safe Passage is providing better opportunities for these people,” said Newburyport High sophomore Nick Bushnell.
Through their jewelry-making, Guatemalan mothers, with the help of Safe Passage’s Social Entrepreneurship program, have spawned a global company called Creamos. Recycled material from the garbage dump is used to make the jewelry. Bushnell said Newburyport Youth Services is conducting a local project to sell the jewelry and that 90 percent of the proceeds will go to support Creamos.
Before leaving on the trip back in November, the group viewed a film documentary on the Guatemalan dump sites but actually being there made the experience far more pronounced. None of the students had previously traveled to Central America, or witnessed, firsthand, life in an underdeveloped country.
“All of our senses were there, not just our eyes and ears,” Egmont said. “The smell of the dump, the noises, and seeing tons of vultures circling overhead. You can’t capture that by watching a film.”
NHS sophomore Teddy Wollman agreed.
“A third of the city’s garbage ends up in that dump. You see the trucks bringing it in, you see the vultures, and then you see the people working in the dump, collecting material so they can sell it,” he said. “We knew about the conditions at the dump, but being there and seeing it is a whole different thing.”
The students admitted the experience provided plenty of “culture shock” but it has inspired them to continue being active in volunteer projects such as the Safe Passage trip in the future.
“I’m definitely going to continue volunteering. I look forward to traveling and continuing to help children in need,” Allen said.