Guatemala is a captivating country rich with cultural heritage and breathtaking landscapes. However, it is also a country whose people have endured a brutal 36-year civil war.  The effects of war continue today, and the Casa Guatemala project aims to assist the most helpless of those affected – Guatemala’s children.

We spoke with Heather Graham, Casa Guatemala Project leader, about the project, its achievements, challenges, and goals.

VOLUNTEER WORK LATIN AMERICA: Can you briefly describe your project and its mission?

HEATHER: Casa Guatemala provides a safe, nurturing home, health care and education to Guatemala’s abused, abandoned, and malnourished children. It also provides an environment that allows its young adults to gain practical job skills through its various business operations.

Casa Guatemala – an interview with Heather Graham

VOLUNTEER WORK LATIN AMERICA: Tell me a little bit about yourself? How did you get involved with Casa Guatemala?

HEATHER: I first came to the project as a volunteer 10 years ago. I planned to volunteer for 3 months, but I ended up staying 3 years! Since those first 3 years, I have worked on and off with Casa Guatemala and about a year ago, I decided to work full-time as Casa Guatemala’s Project Leader.

VOLUNTEER WORK LATIN AMERICA: Can you tell me a bit more about Casa Guatemala’s projects?

HEATHER: Casa Guatemala has 3 main centers: Head offices in Rio Dulce; Orphanage, medical center, and school located 15 minutes away by boat; and our businesses – a day care center, Backpackers Hostel, a store, and a farm;

Children & School.
The orphanage is comprised mainly of older kids and groups of families, which typically have a lesser rate of adoption than younger, single children. We support these kids through high school, and we also serve a large number of indigenous children who live in extreme poverty. Casa Guatemala provides these students with room and board throughout the school year. In terms of education, we are lucky enough to offer pre-kindergarten through sixth grade on site.

Besides providing Casa Guatemala with a small source of revenue, the various businesses provide the children an opportunity to gain practical job skills. Above all else, though, it builds confidence and a sense of responsibility!

  • The farm uses sustainable agriculture techniques and is a food source for the students. Children working at the farm learn valuable agriculture skills that they then use to become successful farmers once they leave the orphanage.
  • The hotel and restaurant provide a plethora of job skills. Jobs range from housekeeping to reception, and students not only learn responsibility, but also valuable computer and customer service skills.

VOLUNTEER WORK LATIN AMERICA: Wow. You have a lot going on.

HEATHER: Yes, we do. We are very grateful for our volunteers. Without them, none of this would be possible.

Casa Guatemala – an interview with Heather Graham

VOLUNTEER WORK LATIN AMERICA: Speaking of volunteers, what role do they play and what can a volunteer expect if they volunteer with Casa Guatemala?

HEATHER: Volunteers are extremely important to the success of the projects and the growth of the students and children. We have two volunteer programs – a short (a.k.a. ‘vacation’ program) and a long program. For those interested in the short program, volunteers stay in the “Hotel Backpackers” and typically work in the school. Although activities vary depending on the skills and interests of each volunteer, volunteers may find themselves assisting with English class, arts and crafts, gym class, or help out in the library.

For volunteers interested in committing at least 3 months, we place them in more specific roles. These volunteers must be 24 years of age or older and must also have a basic knowledge of Spanish. Long-term volunteer projects vary greatly depending on volunteer’s skills and the needs of Casa Guatemala. For instance, a volunteer may be a “parent” in the children’s home where they oversee the day-to-day care. Or, for those with experience and interest in education, they may work as teachers in a variety of areas, including English, Math, etc. (Please note that those interested in a teaching position must be fluent in Spanish and commit at least one year.) Volunteers with a medical background may work in the clinic. Those with an agriculture background work on the farm. There are also special placements associated with music, arts and crafts, etc.  But again, it depends on the skills of the volunteer and the needs of Casa Guatemala.

VOLUNTEER WORK LATIN AMERICA: What advice do you have for future volunteers?

HEATHER: If you do not have Spanish skills, take a couple weeks of Spanish classes before traveling to Guatemala. It will allow you to build better relationships with the children and staff, and thus, it will heighten your volunteer experience.

* For more information about Casa Guatemala and other volunteer opportunities in Latin America, visit Volunteer Work Latinamerica

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