PMPs travel to Central America to help citizens break poverty cycle.
Now that he’s retired, Stephen Certa has plenty of time to travel. And though you might expect to see him frequenting tropical beaches or boarding luxurious cruises, it turns out that Certa’s favorite destination is on the opposite end of the spectrum: the Guatemala City Garbage Dump — a place he’s visited 14 times in the past eight years.
The garbage dump is home to thousands of poverty-stricken individuals who make their living scavenging for plastic, metal, magazines and other materials of value to recyclers. (On a good day, these guajeros make the equivalent of $5.) Three generations of families live adjacent to the dump, where nearly 500 tons of trash is added each day. Conditions are so toxic that chemical fires often break out, and the air is perennially thick with smoke and dust.
“When I heard about Safe Passage, a program that supports the families living around the edge of this dump, I proposed that my local Rotary Club get involved,” said Certa, who sold his Boston-based company, Watch All, to Rentokil in 2008. “Our first volunteer support team included eight Rotary members and eight high-school students who committed to spending a week at the dump. All of our lives changed that week. I was so moved that I couldn’t wait to pull another team together. We started making regular visits, helping in any way we could.” One of these volunteer efforts involved providing pest management services through a collaborative effort with Mauricio Conde, then owner of Sagrip Pest Control, a leading pest control company in Guatemala and El Salvador. (Conde sold his firm to Rentokil in March 2015.) Conde met Certa at an NPMA meeting last year, and after hearing about the Safe Passage program, asked Certa to contact him the next time he visited Guatemala. That happened last November.
How One Person Can Change the World
Safe Passage, or Camino Seguro, was established in 1999 by the late Hanley Denning. The North Carolina teacher had traveled to Guatemala in 1997 to improve her Spanish. Two years into the Spanish Immersion Program there, she was introduced to the Guatemala City Garbage Dump. As the 26-year-old watched children dig through mounds of trash looking for food or items to sell, she envisioned better lives for them. She sold her car and laptop to generate the cash needed to establish Safe Passage in a nearby church.
“It is incredible how the program has progressed,” says Stephen Certa, a Safe Passage volunteer. “Hanley started by meeting with a couple of mothers. Then she befriended a priest, who gave her an old church. She engaged people of wealth, people willing to contribute to the mission, and was able to construct one building, then another.”
Denning’s personal efforts ceased in 2007, when she was killed in a car accident. Her work continued, however, as news about her work at the dump spread by word of mouth and the 2007 HBO airing of the Academy Award-nominated short film “Recycled Life,” produced by Leslie Iwerks and Mike Glad. Certa and the Weymouth Rotary Club continue to ramp up volunteer efforts as well. The group is spearheading efforts to secure grants that would fund a third building as well as new curriculum development. “Hanley Denning proved that one person really can change the world,” says Certa. “So imagine the good we can do when we all work together.”
“Mauricio and his 14-year-old son toured the Safe Passage facilities with us,” says Rod Kreimeyer, retired founder of Best Pest Control Services, who, along with Peter Wonson Sr., founder and president of General Environmental Services, joined Certa’s volunteer support team. “Within two weeks, Mauricio had installed fly-control units and began providing pest management services free of charge.”
About 660 children are served at the Safe Passage facilities, where they receive books, supplies and uniforms so that they can attend public school. Volunteers also provide supplemental tutoring, regular medical and dental checkups, and a daily hot meal and snack. The Safe Passage program aims to discourage parents from allowing their children to work in the dump, each month rewarding students with strong attendance with a bag of food and basic necessities for their families. The organization’s commitment to “combat poverty with education” also plays out in tutoring for adults, many of whom cannot read or write prior to their participation in the program.
“Thanks to Safe Passage, the Guatemalan government now recognizes these children as citizens; previously, they had no identity outside of the dump,” said Certa. “Once they graduate from the Safe Passage program, they have the opportunity to look for meaningful work outside of the dump. We’re finding that the supplemental tutoring gives them a leg up in terms of knowledge, too, so they leave the program with the tools they need to change their situation and pave the way for the next generation.”
Call to Action.
Certa encourages others to become involved. “People live in dumps throughout South America, and they need our help. While we may not be able to change the entire dump situation, we can offer some children opportunities to learn and develop skills that they can take out into the world. We’re trying to change as many lives as we can,” he says.
You can learn more about Safe Passage at safepassage.org.
The author is a PCT contributing writer and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.