My time as the Programs & Development Coordinator at El Nahual Community Center in Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala, was at times fun, intense, and difficult, but it was always a learning experience. Prior to receiving the Christianson Grant from the InterExchange Foundation, I had never traveled to Central America and besides arming myself with a Spanish phrasebook and sturdy shoes, I really had no idea what to expect. The money that I received from the InterExchange Foundation allowed me to travel to a region I have always wanted to live and work full-time at a non-governmental, non-profit organization in whose mission I was deeply committed. El Nahual (a "nahual" is a Mayan spirit guide) is the first community center in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second-largest city, founded in 2004 by a Guatemalan native after a long period of reflection on the national reality of education and cycle of poverty in the country. El Nahual runs a daily after-school program for children and sends foreign volunteers to teach English, art, music, and theater classes to children at four local public schools. As of March 2010 we completed construction of our very own building, with long-term plans to start a primary school, daycare, and health clinic of our own to serve people on the vastly underserved outskirts of Quetzaltenango. My role at El Nahual was to supervise individuals who wanted to do something meaningful with their time traveling and volunteered to teach English or lead activities with children in this community. Another part of my job was helping to ensure the long-term sustainability and viability of this incredible organization by researching grant opportunities, designing a new website, and appealing to international donors for funds. Because the programs we run in schools had never been evaluated for effectiveness, I co-wrote a curriculum for teaching English to children in Latin America and then designed an evaluation to gauge the progress of the children with whom we work throughout the school year (which runs from January through October). Supervising and liaising with local contacts in the schools where El Nahual sent volunteers to teach helped me gain invaluable international grassroots development and social work experience. Living for 8 months in the city of Quetzaltenango was something I would never have been able to do without the support of InterExchange, as my position was unpaid; because of my extended period of time in the city, I was able to become more immersed in the culture and language than I ever would have been otherwise.
My goal before applying to the InterExchange Foundation for funding was to work in Central America because, as a social worker with an interest in community organizing and women's economic empowerment within the immigrant community in the United States, I believed that living in Guatemala would enable me to become a more effective practitioner. Developing the language skills, cultural understanding as well as the awareness of what it is like to live as an "outsider" in another country was an unparalleled experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. I met some incredible people and had the opportunity to work for a Guatemalan-run grassroots organization that is well-known and respected by the community in which it is located. Although I accomplished everything I set out to do when I took over as the Programs & Development Coordinator at El Nahual, the benefits were all mine: every day I learned something new, and every day I grew to love the kind-hearted, resilient people of this breathtakingly beautiful country even more.
Visit www.elnahual.org for more information on volunteering and/or taking Spanish classes at El Nahual Community Center in Guatemala.
A fan of independent cinema and proponent of the Oxford comma, Matthew began his career at a Miami-based tech startup before returning to West Virginia University to pursue his M.A. in Foreign Languages. He has worked at InterExchange since 2006 and currently serves as a Marketing Project Manager.