(I’ve got thoughts to compose and post, but we’re fast on the move as the semester comes to close. The following comes from a newsletter update that Hanley, the director of Camino Seguro, asked me to write to their sponsors. Camino Seguro (or “Safe Passage”) is a non-profit in Guatemala where I spent six months volunteering to help the children living in the squatter community of the city dump break out of poverty through education. )
Dear Friends and Sponsors of Project Safe Passage,
I am an old volunteer, yet forever fan, of the Safe Passage project. Almost five years ago while studying Spanish in Antigua, I saw a flyer on the wall advertising a need for volunteers. I copied down the address having no idea, but a pretty strong intuitive feeling, that I was signing up for a life-altering experience. And as always, to both the children of the dump as well as its volunteers, Safe Passage provided.
My experience volunteering at Safe Passage was life-shaping. I remember writing of my time, “It’s confusing sometimes. Inside the doors of the school we paint volcanoes, sing about worms, make papier-mâché pigs, share healthy meals, do homework and have bean-sack races. I’m often so busy having a good time that I forget what the other option is for these children. And what IS the other option to passing time in the project? The other option is usually a mixture of scavenging the dump for recyclables, caring for younger siblings, selling candies/trinkets in the street, and/or following big brother’s gang and glue-sniffing example. On the way to the project each day, we pass a half dozen “fathers” slumped in doorways, covered in flies, passed-out, with a bottle of cheap liquor or glue rolled off in the corner, as guilty as a gun in the bushes at a scene of a crime. Every day, I wonder which one of these beautiful children that is now painting a papier-mâché pig under my supervision, might be, in a few years, slumped in this same doorway. It’s a terrible thought that puts a lump in my throat that I never seem to be able to swallow.”
Well those “few years” have now passed and I have been so fortunate as to return to Guatemala and revisit both the children and the long-term accomplishments of the project. In the most obvious way, the project has, incredibly, grown from serving 230 to over 500 children. And the new school and housing facilities easily match, if not surpass, the professional, beautiful and creativity-inspiring ambiance of any in developed countries. Perhaps less apparent, but that which truly moved me to tears, was that the project has matured from assuring not just the short-term safety and health of the children, but has also adopted a long-term dedication to safely guiding the children to alternate, educated, creative and self-sustaining futures as well.
Over the last five years I’ve done various forms of volunteer work for NGOs on four continents, so from vast experience I can easily say that I have never seen a project make such amazing progress and advancements in such a short amount of time. Hanley is by far the most resourceful, productive and successful visionary I know. And what I wrote about her five years ago still stands true, “Hanley scares me. She scares me because she shows me the power and potential of what one human being can do, the potential of what each one of us could do, the potential of what I could do — if I were brave and selfless enough.” Although I hardly have the courage that she has, I have since dedicated my life to sharing the inspiration that Hanley, and working in the project, has inspired within me. And I know not every sponsor has the opportunity to come and see it for her or himself, so as an (tearful) eyewitness, let me assure you that your support makes all the difference in the world for these children – I’ve seen it. You have my personal gratitude, for it’s only because of your continued contributions and long-term commitment to the project, that I can finally swallow that lump in my throat — and have hope.