“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Device Solutions has built its reputation on imaginative approaches to engineering challenges, a dedication to employing talented engineers, and a commitment to giving back to its community. Giving back takes many forms, but one of the most compelling involved traveling far beyond the borders of North Carolina to the slums of Guatemala.
The story begins in 2013 when the son of Device Solutions’ CTO, Eli Lamb, joined a team of students going to Guatemala to volunteer at Safe Passage, a non-profit organization founded in 1997 by a North Carolina teacher named Hanley Denning. Denning originally traveled to Guatemala to study Spanish, but a visit to the slums outside the Guatemala City Dump changed her life. The Guatemala City Garbage Dump is the largest dump in Central America. About 500 tons of trash are dumped in it each day, and the 11,000 people who live and work in and near the dump rely on that garbage to survive.
The scene that greeted Denning was so horrific and heartbreaking that she cancelled her return flight, sold everything she owned and devoted the rest of her life to helping educate the children and families that live and work in the dump. To get an idea of what Hanely experienced, watch this video entitled, “A Recycled Life:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMDKtWMEyyk
Caption: Child atop dump heap in Guatemala City
Hanley opened Safe Passage in 1999 in a tiny church beside the dump. In its first year, Safe Passage tutored, provided school supplies, and offered nutritious snacks to 46 of Guatemala’s most impoverished children. An additional 70 children participated in a drop-in program when they weren’t working in the dump.
Over the next eight years, the Safe Passage program grew and expanded, adding an early childhood center and adult literacy program. It also moved to a new and safer home further from the garbage dump. Thanks to a passionate outreach program, community members and international volunteers and supporters began to find their way to Safe Passage, offering much needed manpower and financial support. By the time Eli arrived in 2013, Safe Passage was providing 600 children and 100 mothers with an education and a variety of life changing health, social, and entrepreneurial programs (see http://www.safepassage.org/programs).
Eli’s first visit to Safe Passage was a deeply moving experience. “When we first arrived, one of the men heard us say we were hungry, so he came up and offered us some of his pineapple,” Eli said. “We were wearing shoes. We had clean clothes, and he offered us some of his food. That was probably all the food he had for the day. They live on less than $3.00 a day for a family of six. I don’t usually cry, but when he did that I completely lost it. That experience gave me an entirely new appreciation for what I have, and the fact that he had no concept of the wealth that even the poorest American has just completely blew my mind and changed my life.”
Two years later, as a senior, Eli helped his Spanish teacher, Amy Wilson, organize another trip. His father Chris was not originally scheduled to make the trip, but was asked to fill in at the last minute. “Of course I was eager to go, but didn’t think I’d have the opportunity until one of the chaperon’s had to cancel unexpectedly,” Chris says.
Money to fund the trip was raised by Eli and a team of students who helped move and set up office furniture when Device Solutions was expanding its office. In return for the students’ help, Device Solutions donated funds for the trip. In the end, more than $1,000 was raised and 40 lbs. of school supplies were donated for the students at Safe Passage.
Chris, Eli and the rest of the team (18 students and five adults) arrived in Guatemala in the summer of 2015 and were picked up at the airport by one of Safe Passage’s team coordinators. These are volunteers who live and work in-country for long stretches of time. From the moment they arrived, Chris was struck by how safe and friendly the Safe Passage school was situated. “It was like an oasis in the middle of the slum,” says Chris, “and the kids were wonderful. They were happy, playful and friendly. You’d never know the tough lives many of them have.”
Caption: Eli Lamb with some of the Safe Passage students
As members of the team of 18 volunteers, Chris and Eli participated in everything from teaching English classes, weeding the sidewalk and playing soccer to making paracord survival bracelets and treasure boxes. “The whole week-long experience was an eye opener,” says Chris. “Even though I had a pretty good idea what to expect, seeing how people lived and what an impact one person could have was powerful.”
Safe Passage has a variety of ways for volunteers to make a difference and Device Solutions will continue to be involved. “We assist with some fundraising, and I continue to give them a bunch of good ideas and work to connect them with local businesses like Spoonflower and Lulu that might be interested,” says Chris. “I also know that there is an active North Carolina branch of the Safe Passage Friends Group that people can work with. Visiting and volunteering at Safe Passage was a great experience, and as Eli said, it changed his life.”
To learn more about Safe Passage, visit them online at: http://www.safepassage.org/
To learn more about the lives of those living and working in the Guatemala dump, see this photo essay by Boston Globe photographer Rodrigo Abd: http://bit.ly/1UiJV5f
If you’d like to know more about what you can do at Device Solutions to help Safe Passage, contact Chris Lamb.