Hanley Denning, a Yarmouth native and Greely High School graduate, founded Safe Passage in 1999 to aid children living around a Guatemala City garbage dump. She is shown at center in the back row, and Daniel Osorio, one of the thousands of children aided by the program over the years, is second from left in the front row. Courtesy Daniel Osorio

CUMBERLAND — Were it not for Safe Passage, Daniel Osorio suspects he likely would have joined a gang and would now be dead.

But Safe Passage – founded in Guatemala by Greely High School graduate and Yarmouth native Hanley Denning in 1999, when Osorio was 5 – has provided him a quality education he probably wouldn’t otherwise have had. It’s also steered him on a path that’s included being a media and public relations coordinator for a nonprofit organization, and next year will take him to film school in Mexico.

Safe Passage, which Denning created to educate and provide social services for at-risk children in Central America’s Guatemala City, celebrates its 20th anniversary next month with its annual 5K run/walk run fundraiser. Although the event is usually held around Denning’s Cumberland alma mater, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the 16th annual event to be held virtually. But doing so allows participants around the world, not just near Maine, to take part on their own Sept. 18-27. At least one online celebration is planned during that time.

People can register at runsignup.com/Race/ME/CumberlandCenter/CommunityFiesta5KtobenefitSafePassage.

The program aids those living around a garbage dump which, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, measures 40 acres. “Approximately 4,000 men, women, and children live within the squatting communities, scavenging in the dump for personal items, including that which can be used for housing and served up as food, as well as sought after for re-sale on the open market,” according to the organization. “Those who are unable to find space in the margins of the landfill are considered lucky if they can find a few square feet within its borders and among the fetid trash.”

Daniel Osorio, now 26 and heading next year to film school, doubts he would be alive today if not for Safe Passage. Courtesy Daniel Osorio

Safe Passage, which has an annual budget of more than $2 million, reports that it works each day with almost 500 children and 100 parents, helping them to advance beyond multiple generations of poverty and feeding their minds and bodies alike. A continually expanding school serves preschool through seventh grade, and Safe Passage aims through sponsorships, donations and registrations for this year’s 5K to raise $20,000 for two middle school classrooms.

“We are evolving our science and technology programming,” according to Anna Klein Christie, Safe Passage’s U.S. director/director of development. The funding will go toward additional computers, scientific equipment, classroom infrastructure investment and training and expanded access to technology for teachers.

“We make a promise to a child, when they enter our program at 4, that we will support them until they graduate,” the South Portland resident said, noting that Safe Passage has built relationships with Central American companies so those youths can undergo internships and job training.

That’s been the case with Osorio, whose family includes his mother and two brothers. He also knew Denning, a 1988 Greely graduate who found her life changed after traveling to Guatemala in 1997 to learn Spanish. She died there in a motor vehicle accident in 2007, at age 36.

“Safe Passage made a huge difference in my life,” 26-year-old Osirio wrote in an email. “When I was growing up in the neighborhood there were many gangs, my older brother was part of one of them, and my stepdad used to sell drugs; my stepdad was killed by other drug dealers. Often, when I look back, I think that if it wasn’t for Safe Passage I probably would’ve become part of a gang and be dead now.”

“Unfortunately, most of the friends I grew up with are dead due to the violence many people from our community have to face every day,” Osorio said. “I feel grateful not just for the education that Safe Passage provided me, but also for the lessons and advice the volunteers and teachers gave me. I think I learned to be a more generous and caring person, thanks to the many people that got involved with me and showed me a new perspective of the world and my life.”

Learning English through Safe Passage helped Osorio become the media and public relations coordinator, and he also coordinates a community library. Although he secured a scholarship to the Mexican film school, the pandemic has prevented him starting there later this month. Still, Osorio is “really excited” about moving to Mexico next year.

His achievements are his own, but Osorio also considers them Safe Passage’s as well.

“Many people, and especially children from the community, have big dreams and bigger challenges to achieve them,” he said, but with support from friends and donors of events like the 5K, “many of us have better opportunities for transforming our lives.”

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