Angel of the Garbage Dump:

Maine-native Hanley Denning, the Angel of the Garbage Dump, saw poverty and desperation in its ugliest form, and refused to turn a blind eye. In the Guatemala City garbage dump she launched an educational reinforcement nonprofit called Safe Passage, or “Camino Seguro,” and helped pull thousands of children out of the teeming filth of one of the largest urban landfills in the Americas. 
Many idealistic Americans and Europeans travel to places like Guatemala to learn the local language, engage in humanitarian work, and seek adventure. Most of us return to our comfortable lives. But Denning, a collegiate track star and trained social worker with degrees from Bowdoin and Wheelock College, saw garbage pickers competing with vultures for the food dumped by trucks. She saw toddlers playing amidst rats. The experience changed her. It prompted her to, as Mother Teresa said, “find her own Calcutta.” Hanley called her family in New England and asked them to sell everything she owned and wire the money to Guatemala City. 
Hanley was killed in a car accident outside the Guatemalan capital in 2007, but Safe Passage continues to change countless lives today.

Book available now. Published by Mission Point Press, Traverse City, MI.


Scroll down for upcoming author events. Read blog posts here.

“Guatemala City overwhelms with its crowded, harsh and even hellish realities, its endless varieties of human cruelty and corruption. But it is also home to beauty and innocence, humble and brave human endurance, resilience and generosity. An observant and compassionate writer, Jacob Wheeler is impressively up to conveying all that he encounters. The story he tells here, of the unlikely heroic young American angel and her collaborators, will alternately make your heart and mind glow with hope, but also painfully wrench them. I felt the majestic yet modest shadow of the young George Orwell rustling through pages of this beautifully written, remarkable book.”

— Francisco Goldman, Guatemalan-American bestselling author

Upcoming events:

Thursday, March 23, 6:30-8 pm, Peninsula Community Library, Traverse City, Michigan

Wednesday, April 26, 6:30-8 pm, Traverse Area District Library, Traverse City, Michigan

Video of readings:

View a recorded video of Jacob Wheeler reading from Angel of the Garbage Dump on March 3 at Brookline Booksmith in Boston.

In the News:

The Boardman Review, Fall 2022

The Bowdoin Orient, Oct. 14, 2022

Foreword Reviews, November 2022

Practice of the Practice podcast, November, 2022

Pulso Republicano, Radio Infinita, Guatemala, November, 2022

Prensa Libre, Guatemala, November, 2022

Traverse City Record-Eagle, November, 2022

Leelanau Enterprise, November, 2022

El Pais de los Jovenes, Guatemala, November, 2022

9&10 News, November, 2022

Glen Arbor Sun, November 2022

Interlochen Public Radio, December, 2022

“Gorgeously written, Jacob Wheeler’s compelling tale of the power of one is required reading for anyone who feels the call to serve humanity. It is an account of how selfless love, lived presence and trust earned mobilized a community and created diamonds of hope from the ashes of despair. It begs us to ask, what we, too, can do?” 

— Carrie Hessler-Radelet, NGO leader and Former Peace Corps Director

“Hanley Denning’s story is filled with practical magic, brought to warm, vivid life by Jacob Wheeler’s reporting and storytelling. It’s a handbook, too, filled with dramatic triumphs and hurdles, on how to be a neighbor, a maker, a parent, an engaged citizen, no matter your home. In this book are simple but critical lessons about living; there is much we can learn from Wheeler’s telling of the story. This book needs to be on every library shelf and in every city hall in America.” 

— Doug Stanton, New York Times bestselling author

Chapter 1—Excerpt: “Staring into the Abyss”

Black vultures soar in the sky above the garbage dump. They glide in meandering circles, carried by the updrafts of the wind as it whispers over the hills and volcanoes of this beautiful, rugged, haunting land. The buzzards wait, watching, smelling for opportunity below them. Something fresh, or something rotting. They follow a pecking order that determines which vultures will eat first. A meat carcass. A bag of rotting fruit. A stack of moldy tortillas. These scavengers are not picky. Far below, a truck arrives, dumping more trash into the teeming filth, its contents spilling into the ravine below. Creatures that look like ants scurry around the vehicle, carrying away their own treasures.

Suddenly the vultures sense opportunity. They turn and dive down, down—passing over the city cemetery and its tapestry of crosses and ornately decorated mausoleums. Like the trucks, this cemetery also feeds the garbage dump. The deceased whose families don’t pay “rent” for their vaults here sometimes get evicted, their corpses tossed over the cliff and into the landfill that seems to suck everything into its grotesque, hungry maw. Only the vultures glide effortlessly between the filth and the volcanic views above.

As the birds sweep down to eat, those ants swarming the yellow garbage truck evolve, suddenly becoming people. A second truck leaves the city streets and enters the basurero, the garbage dump, to drop its payload, and four men jump onto its back fender and hold on. Others jockey for position, placing their palms on the sides of the truck as it moves toward the ravine, then when it stops they box out their fellow scavengers like bouncers blocking the entrance to a nightclub. The truck’s hopper opens, and they climb up onto the trash as it tumbles down. One man grips the rope attached to the hopper, swings back and forth while peering inside to see what treasure the garbage yields today.

Each dump truck bears three digits written on its side, which broadcasts the zone of the city from which this garbage comes. Could it be whole, uneaten pizzas and discarded electronics from Zone 1, where the wealthy live? Or chicken scraps and plastic bags? Rotting fruits and vegetables? Even plastic bags and sheet metal command value in these parts of the city. They could be used for shelter, or sold on the underground market.

Author Jacob Wheeler fell in love with the Central American nation while studying Spanish in Quetzaltenango in the Guatemalan highlands. His first book, Between Light and Shadow (University of Nebraska Press, 2011), covered Guatemala’s child adoption industry.

Wheeler lives in Traverse City, Michigan, with his wife Sarah and children, Nina and Leo. He publishes the Glen Arbor Sun newspaper and works with student journalists at Northwestern Michigan College. His reporting has won awards from Project Censored and the Michigan Press Association. A native of Denmark, he has filed stories from five continents, and his work has appeared in such publications as The Rotarian, Teaching Tolerance, Utne Reader, In These Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Detroit Free Press, and San Francisco Chronicle.

Wheeler has a BA from the University of Michigan (Residential College) and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing from Goucher College. Contact him at

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