YARMOUTH — Canadian Richard Schmaltz helped Safe Passage founder Hanley Denning paint the first classrooms for her program in Guatemala.

Now, years later, he has been named executive director of the organization.

Schmaltz will replace Barbara Nijhuis, who stepped down last August. Treasurer John Gundersdorf has been acting as interim executive director since September.

Gundersdorf said Schmaltz is a skilled administrator.

“Richard is a wonderful choice,” Gundersdorf said. “He was the superintendent of schools in Canada, helped to design the Safe Passage pre-school program, and knew Hanley before she died.”

Safe Passage was created by Denning in 1999 as an educational program for the children of families living in the municipal garbage dump in Guatemala City. In 2007, Denning, 36, died in Guatemala when a bus traveling in the wrong direction struck her car.

But Safe Passage continued her mission. It now offers Guatemalan children and their families educational support, food, medical assistance and a chance to socialize, gain confidence and teach others.

Schmaltz is from Ontario, Canada, and has a background in education. He and his wife Susan worked closely with Denning when she was creating Safe Passage and were advisers to its early childhood education program. They developed the guarderia (nursery school) curriculum, helped train teachers, raised funds for the program and donated supplies and built furniture for the classrooms.

“It’s true we have a curious history with Safe Passage,” Schmaltz said. “We met Hanley through our volunteer efforts and found we shared the same passion and compassion. It became an easy partnership.”

When Denning died, Schmaltz said the organization was shocked, but the board of directors had the strength and the power to continue her work.

“She was the heart and the soul of the organization,” he said. “It is such a phenomenal program and the board was able to continue with the mission and flourish.”

Although he has many responsibilities as executive director, Schmaltz said he and his wife want to focus on maintaining the passion and compassion within the organization to help it grow. He said Safe Passage is not just a service for those in need, it is the hope and possibility awaiting the people of Guatemala.

He said being named executive director is an exciting honor, but is also intimidating. He said while his strength is education, he is looking forward to learning more about fundraising, an important and integral part of the organization.

“To follow in (Denning’s) footsteps is a huge honor and challenge,” he said. “For us, this is not a job, but a service to the poor. This is such a beautiful project and I want to do it justice.”

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]

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Richard Schmaltz is the new executive director of Safe Passage.

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