Four rising senior student-athletes have recently returned from the annual Wheelock College Athletics Department service-learning trip to Guatemala City, Guatemala. The trip marked the second for cross country runner Ian Umphrey (Spearfish, S.D.) and men’s lacrosse player Marcus Sardella (Stow, Mass.), while Alexandra Clark (Oak Bluffs, Mass.) and Abbegail Adams (Southborough, Mass.) represented women’s lacrosse and softball, respectively, for the first time. The 2017 trip is the fourth trip for the College overall, and the third annual trip for the Department of Athletics.

On Sunday May 28, 2017, the group took off en route to serve at Safe Passage (Camino Seguro), founded by Hanley Denning ’96 MS in December, 1999.

“The Safe Passage organization holds a special place with us at Wheelock College and the Department of Athletics. Hanley Denning’s selfless commitment to the children of Guatemala City truly exemplifies the College’s mission of improving the lives of children and families, so it was an obvious choice in selecting our service-learning destination”, said Assistant Vice President for Student Success and Director of Athletics, Dwight Datcher. “We’re proud of what she’s created and feel it’s important to educate our students on the incredible work she’s done.”

hanley's legacy

A year after receiving her Masters degree from Wheelock College in 1996, Hanley Denning traveled to Antigua, Guatemala to learn Spanish and volunteer. After visiting the impoverished Zone 3 community that surrounds the garbage dump of Guatemala City a few years later, she knew she was needed. Denning quickly called her family in Yarmouth, Maine and asked them to sell her personal possessions, and with those funds she opened the doors of Safe Passage. In the first year, she went door-to-door speaking to parents, eventually enrolling 46 local children who hadn’t otherwise had the opportunity to go to school. The project started out as an educational drop-in program that took place in a donated church hall which lacked electricity and running water, but throughout the next eight years, the program took astounding strides. Tragically, Hanley Denning passed away in 2007 after an auto accident in Guatemala.

Since its first day of operation in 1999, Safe Passage has grown from 46 students to over 550 students and 100 parents participating in educational and family programs at the project. In its existence, Safe Passage has seen 110 high school graduates; whose families earn nearly five times more income than families without graduates, mothers of Creamos earning 65 percent more income than they would be earning working in the dump, 496 parents who have participated in the Adult Literacy Program and 100 parents participating in the Family Nurturing Program. Safe Passage continues to empower hundreds of children and adults to strive for better lives.

parents of safe passage

On their first day of hands-on activity, the Wildcats learned about Safe Passage's family programming, such as the the project’s CREAMOS program. CREAMOS is an NGO founded by Safe Passage that empowers women through financial literacy training, micro-enterprise initiatives and a holistic emotional support program. These women, many of whom also receive an education through Safe Passage, shared their incredible stories during a panel discussion of what the project has meant to them and their families. The group was even treated to bead-making and Mayan language classes, led by some of the Safe Passage moms!

first-hand experience

For much of the week, the clan of six dove right in, assisting teachers with English classes and tutoring students of varying ages in small groups with math and other activities. Another highlight of the week was the day spent with the preschoolers at the project’s Jardin Infantil.

Additionally, student-athletes were given the opportunity to lead activities in physical education classes, while also picking up some interesting games from the Guatemalan students. Wheelock’s time with the organization was capped off by a fun day at a local waterpark with the older students.

Alongside Professor Willie Rodriguez, Chair of the Juvenile Justice and Youth Advocacy program, and Meghan Griffin, Head Women’s Lacrosse Coach and Director of Sports Information, student-athletes were encouraged to explore topics related to their academic majors while exercising their own leadership abilities.

personal reflection

Each of the students took time to reflect on their experiences throughout the week. When asked about personal goals moving forward, Ian Umphrey shared thoughts on his professional future. “I want to empower youth and I’m still trying to figure out in what context. With my interest in international affairs and diplomacy, I’m trying to fit my interests together” said the Political Science and Global Studies major. “This trip has reminded me how much I do like working with youth, so I want to make sure I always continue to do that, even if I get into government or other work.”

Alexandra Clark, an education major, described how the trip has helped her realize the importance of knowing another language as an employee in a public school system. “I think moving forward, being an education major, [Spanish language] is definitely something that I want to work on and continue”, remarked Clark.

Marcus Sardella explained his inspiration to make a difference in students’ lives in his future career as a teacher. “One thing that I keep thinking about every day is the fact that these kids go back home and they could have a terrible life; but when they come to school they are so excited to see us, to see their teachers and to learn. I’ve realized that coming here and being a part of what’s making them happy has made me understand that bringing that happiness to people is something I really want to do.”

Abbe Adams reflected on the experience she's gained that is directly applicable to working with ESL (English as a second language) students here in Massachusetts. "In my student-teaching this year, I had students who were learning English but spoke Hebrew and Chinese. I didn't know how to communicate with them" she explained. "Being here has helped me talk to people who don't understand me and I've been able to make connections with these kids. I want to get to the point where I become more comfortable and can interact with my students more."

pacaya volcano

The Department of Athletics at Wheelock College would like to thank Safe Passage for continuing Hanley Denning’s legacy and giving our students this incredible opportunity to serve.
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