On July 12, 2014, sixteen intrepid and caring youth from Belfast as well as Ellsworth and Bangor will venture far from home to Guatemala in Latin America to explore how their neighbors to the south live, learn, work, play, and worship. Under the watchful eyes of six supportive adults, these youth will volunteer for Safe Passage (Camino Seguro in Spanish), a support program for the children of families who make their living by scavenging the Guatemala City dump. It was created in 1999 by a former Maine resident. The trip is coordinated by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Belfast (UUCB) and co-sponsored by the Bangor and Ellsworth Unitarian Universalist churches.

Safe Passage was established 15 years ago as an educational and health support program to improve the opportunities for the children of one of the poorest communities in Latin America and to engage American volunteers in expanding their horizons and hearts.

“Our youth and their chaperones comprise two Safe Passage ‘support teams’,” said Rev. Deane Perkins, who will lead the group. “The youth anticipate with excitement being in Guatemala for one week to be with the preschool children in a guarderia (a daycare center), and with older children in the Safe Passage school classrooms,” said Perkins. “Support teams help the Guatemalan students learn English, and work with two classes on a project initiated by the team itself. The Maine youth will also take the Guatemalan students on an outing, perhaps to see and swim in the ocean, which many of the children have never seen,” he noted.

Safe Passage sprang from the inspiration of Hanley Denning, who began working with 40 children in a broken-down church in Guatemala City. A former resident of Yarmouth, Maine, Denning ventured to Guatemala in 1997 as a way to improve her Spanish. Just before returning to the United States, a friend asked her to visit the slums surrounding the Guatemala City dump. That visit changed Hanley’s life. She witnessed children and mothers scavenging in the city dump — their only means of survival. Hanley was deeply moved and motivated to provide a means by which the children could get out of poverty. Thus, in 1999, she started Safe Passage. Fifteen years later, Safe Passage is helping more than 500 children and their families, operating in two new buildings. Safe Passage provides the money for students’ enrollment fee, uniforms, and books for the portion of the day that they are at public school. The rest of the day the students stay at Safe Passage working and playing, and receiving help with their studies, nutritional meals, potable water and medical care. Several graduating students have received grants and scholarships to attend colleges in the United States.

The youth from the Bangor, Belfast, and Ellsworth Unitarian Universalist churches call themselves MYSP (Mid-Maine Youth for Safe Passage). They decided to form two support teams and go themselves to volunteer for Camino Seguro this July. These teenagers want to make a difference. Instead of proselytizing, the youth will help children meet their fundamental needs. That means in this case, supporting, loving and being present to the Mayan children who live off the Guatemala City dump and who experience extreme poverty and often abuse on a daily basis.

“We look forward to joining Safe Passage in building bridges between people of different languages and cultures. Love is more powerful than lines drawn on a map,” said Emma Moessweild. Jessie Knight added: “Our presence will show the children that they are loved. We are so grateful for the congregational and community support for our journey." Both students are MYSP members from the UU Church of Belfast.

“Such experiences are often powerful personal learning and transformational for participating senior high youth,” explained Perkins. “Of course, the leaders and students are fully aware of the need for volunteer service here at home as much as anywhere else. The Maine students also participate in various local service projects."

"This unique program provides a safe, foreign learning environment where the language is not known, and the culture is completely unfamiliar," Perkins observed. "When young people are open to and exposed to such experiences, the potential for greater understanding, awareness, and compassion is profound.”