YARMOUTH — Nell Pierce was accepted to Dartmouth College, but decided to postpone her college education to spend a year helping disadvantaged children in Guatemala.
As a volunteer for Safe Passage, Pierce and two other Yarmouth High School alumni participate in an educational reinforcement program for children who live in poverty in Guatemala City.
Safe Passage, the nonprofit organization founded by Greely High School graduate Hanley Denning, provides education, confidence, health and hope for children of families working in the Guatemala City garbage dump. Denning died in an automobile accident in Guatemala in January of 2007.
Pierce teaches third- and fifth-grade classes of children from ages 9 to 14.
“I know this is what I want to pursue, so it is hard to imagine leaving,” she said. “But I also know college will only better my ability to pursue my goals.”
Peirce said Safe Passage is not a school, but an educational program that focuses on teaching children cleanliness, exercise, music, art and core values.
She said she and other volunteers help the children with their homework and provide social services.
“It is a full-time job,” she said. “The children are active and filled with energy.”
Pierce said most of the volunteers are teachers aides, such as Wilson Slader and Tyler Costello, two other YHS alumni spending the year in Guatemala.
Pierce was thrown into a teaching position immediately as the teacher she was working with retired. She now teaches nearly 40 children with another volunteer.
“This experience has influenced me in my college decisions,” she said. “I may double major in sociology and education.”
Slader said he was accepted at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., and after his year in Guatemala, may study sociology or social work.
“It is easy to get close to the kids,” he said. “Over time, a lot of them warm up to you and you just learn so much from them.”
Slader has been to Guatemala four times with Safe Passage and helped found the Yarmouth Safe Passage Club when he was a sophomore.
He said he has been home since Dec. 14, but already misses Guatemala.
“You almost forget that these kids live in such horrible conditions because they are so happy,” he said.
Pierce said the Safe Passage program puts a lot of emphasis on order and cleanliness, a concept the children are not used to, living in and around the largest dump in Central America.
“Hanley believed in cleanliness for these children.” Pierce said. “They come in and wash their hands, brush their teeth and clean the classroom when they leave.”
Alexandra Cowen, outreach coordinator for Safe Passage, said Pierce, Slader and Costello are providing a wonderful service in Guatemala.
“They hit the ground running,” she said.
She said Pierce has been in a leadership role since day one and said she is a wonderful asset to children and the program.
“We are lucky to have them,” she said.
Pierce said it is fulfilling to connect with the children on a human-to-human basis, and offer them the opportunity to be children, to laugh and have fun.
“Am I the one deserving this praise?” she asked. “I think the little kids are the ones who deserve recognition. They are amazing people.”
Yarmouth High School alumna Nell Pierce decided to take a year before college to volunteer her time with Safe Passage in Guatemala. She is teaching third- and fifth-grade classes.