It had been only a few short weeks since we had said goodbye to our families at a Mexican tienda in Chapel Hill and boarded a bus for the border. With a year of travel ahead of us, we had slowly made our way down through northern Mexico and were busy exploring Mexico City with friends made during trips past. It was late in the afternoon on Friday, Jan. 19, when I received the message that my parents had been trying to contact me all day. As I hurried around the small colonia of Santo Domingo, searching for an Internet café with long-distance phone service, I tried to convince myself that it was surely nothing more than a complication with my insurance forms. The moment I heard my father’s voice on the phone I knew that was not the case. Choking back tears, he told me that Hanley Denning had been killed in a car accident.
As the founder and director of Safe Passage, Hanley dedicated the last eight years of her life to serving the children of families who live in the area surrounding the Guatemala City garbage dump. This group of children has become a large part of my life, my heart and my extended family. Hanley was my dear friend, my personal hero and my primary role model and source of inspiration during five years of frequent travel and social service in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Hanley’s impact is not limited to the hundreds of Guatemalan children whose lives have been completely transformed because she was determined to give them a chance. It is not limited to the thousands of people worldwide who have been touched and forever changed by meeting, working with or simply hearing her story. Her life, her vision and her spirit continue to represent an incomparable example of the possibility for positive change in the world.
Within moments of hanging up the phone and working up the courage to pass this news on to my traveling companions, we all agreed that we needed to get to Guatemala as quickly as possible. We were on a flight out of Mexico City the next morning and arrived in Guatemala City with just enough time to take a taxi straight to Safe Passage for the memorial service. The main project site was filled with children, parents, staff members, volunteers, supporters and admirers who had gathered to mourn this unimaginable loss. The sobs of the children reflected the pain of losing someone they loved so dearly as well as the uncertainty of wondering what would happen to them without her.
While the months since Hanley’s death have been filled with challenge and anguish, her unwavering dedication to these children has been maintained by the entire Safe Passage community. The children continue to grow, learn, thrive and amaze me on a daily basis. The void of Hanley’s absence will never be filled, but her work will continue.