Safe Passage: Black Mountain educators talk working with school in Guatemala City

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News

Students in Black Mountain grow up differently than the students of Safe Passage, a learning community in one of Guatemala City's most impoverished districts. 

The Black Mountain Rotary Club hosted speaker Trae Holland on March 8 to talk about the work done by the organization. 

Workers at the Guatemala City garbage dump gather to sort through trash for recyclables.

Safe Passage, a Guatemalan-led community made up of educators and volunteers, operates a school near the Guatemala City garbage dump, the largest landfill in Central America. The group aims to create opportunities for the community living in and around the dump through education. 

Though he's worked many professions, Holland's background is in education. In 2018, he joined Safe Passage as the executive director. 

"It has been the most authentic, life-affirming thing I've ever been through," Holland said. "It has also been the most taxing, challenging, heart-rending thing I've ever experienced."

Gangs, poverty and life in the Guatemala City garbage dump

In addition to their life of poverty, Safe Passage students deal with gang culture, violence and the challenges of living directly adjacent to a massive landfill.

"It's a war zone for sure," Holland said. "The suffering is astronomical."

Most families work in the dump, earning a meager $3 a day on average, half of which must be paid to local gangs through extortion. Holland said workers in the dump suffer from early onset cancer, emphysema, chronic congestion and high rates of respiratory illnesses.

Guatemala City is divided into zones. Unsafe zones are labeled by the government as red zones. The Safe Passage community resides in Zone 7, a red zone, according to Holland.

Zones surrounding the garbage dump present the highest rates of homicide, sex trafficking and drug addiction in the city, according to Safe Passage data. 

View of the Guatemala City garbage dump beside the Safe Passage school.

In the local Guatemalan community, the graduation rate is around 17%. Roughly 20% of the community is gang affiliated, and the life expectancy of a gang member hovers at 26 years old. 

The most significant factor in necessitating the survival of a gang, Holland said, is a lack of hope. 

Holland gave the example of a hypothetical 12-year-old Guatemalan. One can live an abject existence in the garbage dump, earning meager wages to support an entire family, or go the more glamorous route with a short-lived career as a gang member. 

"They're realistic about it," Holland said. "They don't see any other option."

The role of Safe Passage 

According to Holland, Safe Passage provides a sense of hope.

For many students, the school exists as the only alternative to working in the landfill or joining a gang. Graduates can seek employment outside of the dump, earning better wages and breaking the cycle of poverty. 

Safe Passage Executive Director Trae Holland presented updates on the school and Guatemalan community to the Black Mountain Rotary Club on March 8.

In addition to regular schooling, Safe Passage provides trauma-informed education and counseling. Holland said what with violence and blood in the streets, many students simply don't possess the neural pathways to navigate a world without stress. 

"Their fight or flight syndrome has completely overtaken everything neurologically," Holland said. "The learning model has to be really dynamic and engaging and real world."

Students at Safe Passage learn how to interact with one another through hands-on learning. For the children to be able to participate in school, they have to have some stability, Holland explained. 

The school provides education, health care and psychological care, among other things. 

"Two months ago, a student of ours graduated from medical school," Holland said. "On the other end we have electricians, we have bus drivers. Not all kids coming through our program are university bound."

Out of the roughly 100,000 people living around the garbage dump, Safe Passage serves 600 students and 1,500 family members.

Compared to the regular public school graduation rate of 17%, Safe Passage boasts a graduation rate of 88%. Prior to the pandemic, Holland reported the school's graduation rate was 92%. 

To keep students in school, Safe Passage fosters a community with parental involvement. Though a foreign concept for many families, the school tries to build a culture of education within the home.

Those involved with the project emphasized the importance of staying away from the "white savior" approach by working in congruence with the Guatemalans to develop tools and practices for success. 

"I'm a big advocate of families contributing whatever they can," Holland said. "If a family can't afford anything at all, we have volunteering."

People line the street outside the Safe Passage school in Guatemala City.

Safe Passage has added a new grade level every year since 2012. Now, the school serves early childhood through ninth grade. 

For a student to land a job outside of the dump upon graduation, Holland described wages increasing by 300%-400%. This increase from $3 a day helps pull families out of poverty, breaking the cycle of suffering. 

Safe Passage and Black Mountain

A member of the Rotary Club, John DeWitt spent a day at Safe Passage. 

Upon his return to Black Mountain, DeWitt wrote a grant to send volunteers to Guatemala to boost the school's curriculum. He also organized a trip for the Guatemalan teachers to come to Black Mountain.

"I sent six teachers from Owen Middle School to set up the middle school, train the teachers, get their curriculum set," DeWitt said. "The following year we had 100% retention."

However, DeWitt also recognized a significant need for child care in the Guatemalan community. Holland agreed, saying one can observe dump workers carrying infants with them while they work, setting babies in boxes to shield the children from buzzards. 

Gabriel Guyton, the vice president of child and family service at the Verner Center for Early Learning in Asheville, said a child care program developed organically at Safe Passage. She said the Verner Center's infant care program was a good match for developing a more solidified program in Guatemala. 

"They already had an elementary school but they wanted to have trainings and conversations around how their pre-K programming could make sure that its aligned with development," Guyton said. "They were already doing amazing stuff."

In traveling to Guatemala City and working with Safe Passage, Guyton observed both the Americans and the Guatemalans informing one another. The American team doesn't just come in and fix the problem, but rather all the groups involved work together to develop the tools necessary for the school to function. 

"I think a lot about what we could do with our families by learning what they're already doing," Guyton said. "It was really important that we're co-constructing together, not just showing up and telling them."

Before working at Western Carolina University as the director of the North Carolina School Executive Leadership Program, Heidi Von Dohlen was the principal of Owen Middle School. While still at Owen, Von Dohlen found natural similarities between her goals, her background and the mission of the Rotary Club. 

When the Rotary Club sent a group of Safe Passage teachers to Owen, Von Dohlen, observing the progress made in Guatemala, helped a Black Mountain group travel to Safe Passage as the organization worked on establishing the middle school. 

"It was a prime opportunity then for us to bring a group of teachers down to Safe Passage to work with their teachers," Von Dohlen said. "From developing norms and values to differentiation to developing thematic, experiential learning lesson plans."

Von Dohlen said this trip opened the eyes of the group to the poverty experienced in Guatemala City. Recognizing the need for trauma-supported education and professional leadership in the U.S. made Von Dohlen realize how Safe Passage could benefit from similar training. 

"We became keenly aware that they could benefit from trauma-informed and trauma-aware practices," Von Dohlen said. 

Back in the U.S., Von Dohlen was recruited to WCU, where she trains educators for leadership positions, among other things.

The Black Mountain community gets involved

"Definitely life-changing," said Krista Langlois, an English teacher at Owen Middle School who went to Guatemala as a member of a group of Black Mountain educators. "It definitely gave me hope because all teachers seem to want the same things for their kids, regardless of language or culture barriers."

Von Dohlen constructed a team of educators and social workers, recognizing the need for a mental health support staff at Safe Passage. She said while teachers need to possess basic capabilities to ensure healthy communication, they must also be aware they are not mental health experts and shouldn't take that role on.

Warren Wilson professor of social work Lucy Lawrence was a part of Von Dohlen's team. Lawrence observed how Safe Passage social workers visit families regularly to keep the community involved.

"It really is interesting to me how holistic they're approaching education," Lawrence said.

The team of local educators who volunteered to help out in Guatemala City attended Holland's Rotary Club presentation on March 8.

Since her team was not a part of the Guatemalan community, Von Dohlen surveyed Safe Passage to tailor professional development to what the Guatemalans needed. 

"We developed a multidisciplinary framework for all of Safe Passage which was designed to increase communication," Von Dohlen said. 

With immigrants coming to the U.S. from many different locations, Von Dohlen said keeping U.S. educators informed as to where these people come from adds significant value to formal and informal settings. She said this can lead to culturally informed teaching practices as well as providing for a greater sense of belonging for immigrant students. 

Now, when Langlois has students who may not have English as their first language, she can empathize, knowing the feeling of being in a room where she doesn't speak the language.

Despite the language barrier, Langlois said all the teachers, both Guatemalan and American, were clearly on the same page. When she returned to the U.S., Langlois saw her teaching influenced not only by the school, but by the people she met.

"It was just amazing to see people who have so little be so caring," Langlois said. 

Challenges to the Guatemalan school

Despite all the pitfalls of working in a dangerous community, Holland never once doubts the impact Safe Passage has. 

Though he would like to see Safe Passage expand, Holland said its size is advantageous for its safety. To the gangs in the area, the school does not pose a threat. 

The real challenge, in Holland's eyes, is an economic debate among individual families. He said it remains a luxury to decide if a child can go to school, to decide if they can afford for their child to be in school and not working in the dump.

"We do enough so that the parent can make a decision for the long-term versus the short-term," Holland said. 

A student enters Safe Passage in Guatemala City following COVID-19 safety protocols.

When COVID-19 hit the area, government mandate forbid Safe Passage from holding in-person learning. A month and a half ago, the students returned to school after a two year absence. 

Holland said there were visible changes in every student.

"The future will be very challenging for us," he said. 

Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.