Endangered Kids in Guatemala

Endangered Kids in Guatemala

Jim Highland knows what it takes to start an organization from scratch. Back in 1997, he sold his car in order to launch a health care consulting firm. So when he learned that a woman named Hanley Denning had done the same thing in order to launch her nonprofit, it struck a chord.

Denning, like Highland, had big dreams. A social worker who’d been teaching Spanish-speaking children in the United States, Denning went to Guatemala City in 1999 to hone her language skills and during her stay there visited the city dump, where hundreds of families, many with small children, lived in tin shacks. Denning watched with horror as kids scrambled after garbage trucks, scooping up food and metal scraps with which to build the homes they inhabited with their families along the periphery of the dump. She immediately cancelled her flight home, phoned her father in Maine, and told him to sell her car so that she could start a nonprofit aimed at helping the children of the Guatemala City dump become self-sufficient.

Seven years later, Denning’s organization, Safe Passage, provides over 500 Guatemalan children with educational resources, healthy meals, and basic hygiene, as well as an early-intervention program for preschool kids, a residential program for children who are physically and/or sexually abused, a medical clinic, an adult literacy program, and a handful of vocational programs.

What she’s achieved, says Jim Highland, is “really miraculous.” Highland first heard about Safe Passage in 2004 through Denning’s father, a friend, and he knew at once he had to get involved. Since earning his M.H.S.A. in 1984, followed by a Ph.D. in health economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Highland had spent his career helping public and nonprofit health care organizations with financial management and information technology. He’d even founded his own consulting firm, Compass Health Analytics, in Portland, Maine. But it wasn’t enough.

Like many people who’ve been drawn to Denning’s organization, Highland initially volunteered for Safe Passage and did a short stint in Guatemala City, where he worked with children in school-rooms and met with them in their homes at the dump, an experience he calls “transforming.”

Before he knew it, Highland had donated office space in Maine to Safe Passage and was funding a staff person for the group. Volunteers from Highland’s company helped build a database for Safe Passage, and Highland and his wife and three children signed on to support three children living at the dump.

Earlier this year, Highland joined the board of directors of Safe Passage and became chair of the finance committee—a significant responsibility, given that the organization needs to raise $107,000 a month in order to operate. “Jim’s very practical, nuts-and-bolts take on things and the financial expertise that he brings has just been incredibly important at this stage, because we’re trying to solidify our funding base,” Denning says.

During a visit to Guatemala last February, Highland spoke to a seventh-grader who’d grown up in the city dump, and thanks to Safe Passage, had just completed his first term at the most prestigious private middle school in Guatemala. “To see a kid who’s been in this program since kindergarten and is now poised to become a leader in society, it’s incredibly impressive,” says Highland. “It’s changed the way I look at things.”

When he first decided to go into health care his basic motivation was to help others, Highland recalls, “but what I’m really good at is quantitative analysis.” Safe Passage allows him to use his mathematical expertise to benefit people in need. Although he enjoys working one-on-one with individual children in the program, “what I really get gratification from is enabling 100 or 200 kids like that to be in that program and get that kind of attention. Because we help make the numbers add up at the end of the day so the program can keep going and growing.”

Highland credits SPH, and particularly Professor John Griffith, with having taught him that health care administration is a “kind of calling.” Griffith, he says, emphasized “the great social responsibility that you have in helping to administer health care organizations. I think that without doubt is a seminal experience in how I think about things and about my career.”

If he needs reminding that one person can make a difference, Highland has only to think of the moment Hanley Denning saw the Guatemala City garbage dump and decided she wasn’t going to go home after all. She sold her car and launched an organization that has changed hundreds of lives—and that, says Highland, is all the inspiration he needs.

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Flocks of vultures endlessly circle above the dump (at left), searching for anything edible. On the ground, families live in structures made of materials scrounged from the site, mostly corrugated metal, cardboard, and plastic. Respiratory, skin, and eye diseases are common.

Although he's always sought to help others, it wasn't until Jim Highland, M.H.S.A. '84, heard about the children in the Guatemala City garbage dump that he realized where he was most needed.

TRAGIC FOOTNOTE, posted in spring 2007: Safe Passage lost its visionary founder, Hanley Denning, when she was fatally injured in an automobile accident on January 18, 2007, in Guatemala City.