The most impressive thing about Xela Aid to me was the degree of community development that is visible through their work. Because they have invested their energy through so many years and projects, the progress they have made is evident. Also, while there is some direct charity for short-term need, the main work focuses on long term development: education, health, better housing.
It was a great experience for me to be a part of their work through volunteering on one of the trips. We worked, but we had a LOT of fun doing it. The people of the town are so welcoming and generous, patient with my still-developing Spanish abilities, and really seemed to enjoy the fact that our group was there to help. Guatemala is a beautiful country and I fully intend to go back, both on a service trip and as a tourist.
I took my first trip with Xela Aid just a few months ago in June not really knowing quite what to expect. I have to say now that this was hands down one of the most impactful experiences of my life. Never really experiencing poverty like there is in the small village of San Martin Chiquito, I was in shock at how much joy we brought the locals with just our presence. My project was to help construct a basketball court at a local middle school for the kids, that also opens up to the entire community on Sundays which not only allows for the kids to play but also offers them another way staying in shape and staying out of trouble. Other projects such as the making of a computer lab and constructing homes for those in need are slowly turning this village into a better place, and you can see that simply by looking at the smiles on the faces of the locals. I hope to return in the future to see how past projects have turned out and to help out with future projects.
Having done a great deal of volunteer work both in the US and outside I'm always skeptical of organizations that operate in other countries; handing out charity so that we can feel better instead of actually helping the communities lift themselves out of their situations. I can assure you that all of my reservations were blown apart with the first 24 hours spend with the amazing people of Xela AID!
To start, how often do you go to an orientation for a trip like this at the home of the organization's founder? Within the first day or so in Guatemala it was clear that Xela AID has had an amazing impact on the community they've been working in for the last 15 years or so and I really respected that they are openly NOT a charity. Their goal is to develop self reliance and leadership WITHIN the community and build real, permanent, and lasting change. The greatest accomplishment, in my opinion, is the development of their Leaders of The Future program; a group of 15-20 teenagers who started with the program when they were toddlers and now virtually run the whole thing with the help of the locally based Director and others.
I could go on and on but if you're reading I would highly encourage you to do everything you can to support this amazing organization and everyone involved.
I first volunteered with Xela Aid in 2007, and have been back three additional times. I was a co-director on my most recent trip in July 2013. I've sponsored a Mayan child in the village since 2007, and have been pleased to see him grow into a wonderful, responsible, educated young man...though I still can't believe his schedule. Up at 6:30 every morning to climb the local mountains to collect firewood for his family (father disappeared years ago, mother ill, the only boy living at home with seven sisters), then to high school most of the day, then computer lab, then study, then field farm work, then helping out at home, then repeat that every day...and make time to work with the Xela Aid volunteers virtually every day they're in the village. And now his goal is to become an engineer.
What has inspired me about Xela Aid, in addition to my sponsored child, is its model for third world community development. If you simply give things away as many humanitarian organizations do, they are not valued and the process is not sustainable. Trying to solve one or two community development issues at a time, as most NGO's try to do, can adversely affect others. Educating children without creating local economic opportunities means the educated kids leave the village. Childhood vaccinations without family planning education can result in a population explosion that makes everything more difficult. Providing free health care with visiting foreign nationals can create a dependency, a sense of entitlement, and a lack of trust in local health care providers.
Xela Aid's model is to provide an integrated, adaptive strategy for addressing local community issues, with the intent of creating self-sustaining processes that eventually eliminate the need for Xela Aid. Some of our students are now city mayors, school principals, teachers, nurses, and business people, with more on the way. Our medical facilities are staffed with local health care professionals. Xela Aid's youth leadership program is transformational, and should be cloned in every developing community around the world. There is so much going on there that needs to be documented and shared with other organizations...and I see that as an important goal of Xela Aid going forward. This is a model that I believe will have broad applicability to developing communities everywhere.
I have been on three trips to Guatemala with Xela Aid and have enjoyed all three of them. During the trips we had the opportunity to meet the people in the small town of San Martin Chiquito and do projects together to benefit the community. On this last trip in July 2013 I spent two days at the local elementary school working with 5th grade students. It was a great experience and I would recommend these trips to anyone who wants to gain knowledge of a Latin American culture, learn the language, and generally have a great time in the process.
I learned about Xela Aid while traveling with Direct Relief International to the region of San Martin Chiquito 6 years ago. I was so impressed with the impact this organization makes on this small, impoverished community that I traveled back to the area with a group of Xela Aid volunteers the next year, and have returned with them at least once a year since then. I have recently joined the Board of Directors. This organization's focus on the overall health of the entire community is far-reaching, sustainable, and respectful of the local traditions. Xela Aid is recognized by the community of San Martin Chiquito, and leaders in the country of Guatemala, to be an organization worthy of respect. We are greeted enthusiastically every time we arrive. This is an organization that deserves time, attention, and money by all who care about impoverished communities and the continuation of local traditions.
Briefly, I am a Family Doctor who also has a Masters in Public Health and Tropical Medicine. I have gone on at least two dozen volunteer medical missions in my 20 years of practice and have seen the proverbial "give a man a fish and he eats only for a day", "spit in the ocean", "band aide care" given by most short term volunteer organizations, until I experienced a trip with Xela Aid in Guatemala. The greatest difference was Xela Aid has consistency in listening to the community they serve, then help THEM make their own changes. Xela Aid provides a consistent base of support in knowledge, trust, financial and friendships that have endured over twenty years and through a civil war. There is now a highly successful school scholarship program and a local clinic manned by a local doctor year round with a laboratory and pharmacy. It has branched into micro loans and youth entrepreneur mentoring programs creating new businesses by the next generation of "movers and shakers" in the political world of Guatemala.
A year ago I signed up for a volunteer vacation to a Mayan community in Guatemala and was so impressed with how effective and personal Xela-Aid is that I agreed to join the board as the Chair of the Micro-business and Leadership programs. I have stepped into a world that is vastly different from the one I know - where 15 year old students work at dawn in the fields so that they can afford to attend secondary school, and who seek an education so that they can help their parents and siblings. In spite of this, they find time to give back to their communities in significant ways. They are an amazing group of people and my life is so much richer for having gotten to know them and having the opportunity to be of help.