An interview with Heather Graham, the Director of Communications and Fund Development of Casa Guatemala.
Casa Guatemala, located on the Rio Dulce near the southeastern coast of Guatemala, is an orphanage and school serving over 300 children who have been abused, abandoned, suffer from malnourishment, or were living in extreme poverty. These children come from all over Guatemala and the surrounding Mayan villages. CG seeks to provide a safe home, love and nurturance, proper health care, and an adequate education to the children of Guatemala and strives to equip the children in their care with the skills and education needed to become upstanding, empowered citizens in their community. CG strives to become fully self-sustained through the businesses that they run which provide financial support and meaningful job training for the older children. These businesses, Hotel Backpackers and a butcher shop “Granja de los Niños”, improve the financial sustainability of the organization so that the quality of life for the children can continue to improve without the fear of crisis due to a lack of consistent funding. Sustainability projects such as these and for these purposes are setting an admirable and effective example for other NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organization) worldwide. The following is an interview with Heather Graham, the Director of Communications and Fund Development of Casa Guatemala.
World Travel Buzz: When and what were some of your very first volunteering experiences, including the first time you volunteered abroad?
Heather: In middle school and high school I was involved with World Vision and other 24-hour Famine Drives. At seventeen, I volunteered with Public Access Television in Canada, both on and off the air. I helped with things like Arts & Community Projects. My first work with an NGO was with the David Suzuki Foundation. The first time I volunteered abroad was when I came here to Casa Guatemala in 2001.
WTB: How did you hear about Casa Guatemala?
Heather: I was looking to travel around Central America and volunteer while I was there. I also wanted to improve my Spanish, which was minimal at the time. I began researching volunteer opportunities in the area and when I found Casa Guatemala and I liked their mission, values, and what they’re vision was, so I committed to three months. I spoke with their representatives in Canada before I left home, and that secured my thoughts and opinions on the project.
And what was that first experience like for you?
I started off working on the farm as the Farm Supervisor, so I was slaughtering chickens and pigs and making blood pudding. I was driving a boat around and bringing eggs to the butcher’s & Farmers Market every day; we had over 10,000 chickens at the time so it was pretty intense. I didn’t know a lot of Spanish to be speaking to so many Mayans, Spanish guys, and farmers, so it made me learn Spanish really quickly. I began managing our store in town shortly after that, which led to managing the hotel and opening our restaurant and bar.
Wow. All that in three months?
No, I actually ended up staying for three years! Then I left and did some traveling. I eventually came back and then decided to go back to Canada and earn my degree in Non-Profit Management so that I could come down here and work full time.
So your volunteering experiences eventually led to a career path for you?
Although you are no longer a volunteer yourself, your position now entails working with them, most of whom come from outside Central America. What has it been like getting to know them and facilitating their experiences at Casa Guatemala?
You get to see a lot of potential, to see people push themselves to levels that a lot of times I don’t think they’ve ever reached before. It’s a really good dynamic of really inspired people who are working to do something bigger than themselves.
I can imagine. What advice do you have for people interested in long term volunteering that will help them have a positive impact and fulfilling experience, wherever they choose to go?
They definitely must be open-minded, patient and be there to observe and to learn. They will need to consider the strengths & weaknesses of the NGO, as a lot of times they are severely under-funded. They should really consider the culture into which they are going and can’t come in with an ethnocentric attitude. They really need to choose their project wisely and consider doing something where the impact of what they’ve done will continue after they’ve gone. They must engage the local people and make sure they’re doing something the people actually want; making sure they’re getting positive feedback from them. You really need to consider a lot before you go into an area you’re unfamiliar with, equip with all of your grand ideas on how to change or save the world, because quite frankly, that’s been tried before and it just simply doesn’t work. There are geo-political schemes and cultural schemes rooted in the places you are going to that you may not have taken into consideration upon arriving. So really it goes back to being open-minded and patient and being there to learn.
Casa Guatemala is currently looking for female volunteers to help in the girl’s house. To qualify you must be 24 or older, able to speak Spanish, and willing to commit to at least three months at the Children’s Village. For more information on Casa Guatemala, their current projects, volunteering opportunities & application, or to donate, visit their website.