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Rite of Passage

A 64-year-old grandmother kayaks from Maine to Guatemala – stopping briefly in Vero Beach – so that the “poorest of the poor” can have better lives. Her journey, like theirs, has its trials and its triumphs.

At the 400 mile mark – Deb retired from a 30-year career as a cognitive scientist and university vice president and immediately began promoting Safe Passage.

At the 400 mile mark – Deb retired from a 30-year career as a cognitive scientist and university vice president and immediately began promoting Safe Passage.

Dr. Deb Walters is kayaking through icebergs. Sporting a bulky, yellow jacket and a tan hat whose wide brim reveals nothing but shadows, she wields a long paddle. One end pushes through frigid water; the other seems to point behind her, saying “Pay attention to where I’ve been.” 

This is her business card photo, the one you see first when she talks about her latest expedition: kayaking from Maine to Guatemala for the kids who live in the “garbage dump community.” When you hear their story, the photo takes on a deeper meaning: “Pay attention to where they’ve been.”

In the past four years, Deb, 64, has raised more than $425,000 for Safe Passage, a nonprofit founded in 1999 to enroll Guatemala’s “poorest of the poor” in school. About 10,000 people live in a 40-acre landfill in Guatemala City, referred to as the “garbage dump community” or simply “the dump.” What might look like a wasteland is home for countless families, who sift through mountains of refuse to build makeshift houses, find food and locate salable items. 

In 1999 the founder of Safe Passage, Hanley Denning, tried to enroll some of the children from the garbage dump community in school. The local principal told her that the school didn’t accept garbage. Unfazed, Denning sold her belongings – including her car – to open a school for 46 children as well as an additional 70 who participated in a drop-in program when they weren’t working in the dump. 

Today more than 500 children are enrolled in school and about 2,000 family members receive health care and nutrition from the nonprofit. And in the past four years, the program has grown considerably, thanks to Deb’s own “safe passage.” 

Read the entire article in the March 2016 issue