South Portland residents Anna Marie Klein-Christie, US director and director of development for Safe Passage and her family, George (left) and Eleanor (right) participated in a global virtual 5K race over the weekend of Sept. 19. The fundraising event goes from Sept. 18 through 27 and funds will go to helping students in Guatemala City. Photo courtesy of Anna Marie Klein Christie

SOUTH PORTLAND — The pandemic has created challenges for many nonprofits, which depend on donations and fundraising, but some, like Safe Passage, have been able to turn traditional in-person events into virtual, global ones.

Founded in 1999, Safe Passage has helped 128 students in Guatemala graduate high school since 2007, according to the organization’s website. Volunteers and donors are able to provide students in Guatemala City with educational programming and materials.

Education serves as a pathway to help people find jobs that can support their families, Anna Marie Klein-Christie, U.S. director and director of development for Safe Passage, said.

Klein-Christie is a South Portland resident who, along with her family, participated in a global 5K event and fundraiser that usually takes place in May, she said. Because of the pandemic, Safe Passage turned the race into a week-long virtual event from Sept. 18-27.

“This was really a wonderful opportunity to connect people over a weeklong period of time and pull together pictures and have people tell their stories about Safe Passage, their family, or with the founder,” Klein-Christie said.

Safe Passage is an organization founded by Hanley Denning, a Yarmouth educator who traveled to Guatemala in the 1990s and saw hundreds of families living in Guatemala City, around a huge dump, which children would scavenge along with their parents, said Jennifer Wilson, annual fund and communications manager.

Because children were working in the dump, they couldn’t attend school, so Denning started a support program that now serves almost 400 students, has an international board of directors, and is largely run by Guatemalans, Wilson said.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Guatemala, the government has taken an aggressive approach to quarantine measures, but this means that students cannot attend school and families cannot work at the dump, Klein-Christie said.

“They were hit a bit later than the U.S. and the government has been very aggressive initially in quarantines and shutting businesses down,” she said. “The dump is actually not open to our constituents right now. The families we serve whose income is $3 to $4 a day now cannot pick garbage in the dump. Now the cities will dump bags of garbage in the streets — families will pick garbage for recyclables, and then the city will take what’s left and take it into the dump. This has had a serious impact on our families who have been living a life on the borderline as it is.”

Safe Passage has been checking in on families every two weeks, providing grocery bags as well as homework assignments for students who can’t be in a classroom right now, Klein-Christie said.

“The school is closed, so we just don’t have the kids,” she said. “In addition to a good education, we provide safety for these kids. They’re away from the violence, gangs, away from poverty. They come in and are taken care of in a holistic way so they can learn. This is devastating for our families.”

The organization is also facing difficulties when fundraising and keeping in contact with donors and volunteers, Klein-Christie said. Safe Passage is raising $20,000 for a new classroom and technology, so that students’ STEM education can expand.

The 5K event has helped Safe Passage stay connected with donors, she said.

“Having supporters who are committed to the long-term education of the kids is what the basis of our revenue comes from, so we need to have people come on our journey with us,” Klein-Christie said. “People can make a gift of $10 a month and that pays for lunch.”

The 16th 5K event, which also falls in the same year as Safe Passage’s 20th anniversary, has been such a success and has gained so much excitement, the organization may continue the virtual format in the future, Klein-Christie said.

“In this time we’ve stopped talking about immigration and the people who live in these countries,” Klein-Christie said. “Because of the pandemic people are focused on what’s going on (in the United States), and I mean, of course, but this is a human crisis. Having a shared sense of humanity goes to who we are as Americans and as people. We appreciate people have recognized that over the years.”

For more information about what Safe Passage does and how Mainers are supporting the programs, visit www.safepassage.org.

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