TRAVERSE CITY — Amanda Herman is only 10, but she understands how lucky she is to have clean, dry shelter, running water and enough food to eat.
They’re basic comforts families who live near the Guatemala City garbage dump have never known, said the Glen Lake Community Schools fifth-grader.
“That plastic we use for a fire escape,” she said, gesturing to the outside of her family’s home in Cedar. “Their houses are made of things like that, and tin, and wood scraps.”
Amanda learned about conditions in the slum two years ago when her Spanish teacher gave a presentation about the region and the people who scavenge for their livelihood at the city dump.
“I looked over and I saw that Amanda was tearing up,” said Glen Lake elementary and middle school Spanish teacher Ellen Piña. Piña traveled to Guatemala with a local group called Great Lakes Friends of Safe Passage. “She was very touched by it. She wanted to know right away, ‘What can we do about this situation?’ She’s pretty laid back, but she’s very sensitive to what’s going on, sensitive to other people.”
After learning about Safe Passage, which creates educational programs to help break the generational cycles of poverty experienced by families living near the dump, Amanda decided to raise money for the group by putting her sewing skills to work. Using donated fabric and a $100 sewing machine — a 2010 Christmas present destined to make clothes for her Barbie — she creates cloth bags, purse tissue holders, pillowcases and rice bags.
She then sells her creations at various craft shows.
So far she’s raised $2,500 through the project, which included giving away teeth whitening kits in the bags to contributors of $100 or more to Safe Passage. The kits were donated by Suttons Bay dentist Thor Mikesell, whose practice is managed by Amanda’s mother, Becky Herman.
“It’s a great bonding activity for her and I,” said Herman, who foots the bill for supplies like sewing machine needles and thread. “I cut and iron, but she could do it all. She’s a great example for her sister, Faith, who is 5.”
Herman said Amanda’s commitment to the people of the Guatemala City dump goes beyond fundraising. She also works to create awareness of their plight through activities like a school history project in which she portrayed Safe Passage founder Hanley Denning.
Denning, a 29-year-old volunteer from Maine, started Safe Passage in 1999 — an organization that turned out to be her legacy after she died in a car wreck in 2007.
Amanda’s work on the group’s behalf inspired the Great Lakes Friends of Safe Passage to create its first Hanley Denning Award. Amanda received the award at the eighth annual Great Lakes Friends “Fiesta” fundraiser Oct. 19 at the Children’s House in Traverse City.
Eliminating poverty isn’t the grade-schooler’s only cause. She also raised $2,500 for a church in the Ukraine by sewing and selling the bags, along with wallets and cell phone bags. The slogan on her business cards reads: “Making the world a better place, one project at a time.”
“The Lord has blessed us so much and she wants to pass it forward,” said Herman, who oversees Amanda’s email contacts at Amandasews8@yahoo.com.
Amanda hopes her next project involves traveling to Guatemala City herself to volunteer with Safe Passage. More than 550 children from pre-school to high school participate in the organization’s educational programs in three buildings located near the garbage dump. Along with learning English and computer skills, the children receive nutritious meals and healthcare and enjoy sports and creative arts. Their parents attend adult literacy classes, join entrepreneurial cooperatives and participate in parenting programs.
Amanda’s mother hopes to delay the trip for a few more years.
“Amanda’s a very compassionate person and until she’s at least in high school I’m not going to let her go,” she said. “Her heart is so huge I don’t think she’s emotionally ready to go see (the poverty) for herself.”