As a board member for several arts and nonprofit organizations like Theatre Action Project and Liveable City, Ann Graham is a freelance producer of community-building events and a tireless promoter for the arts in all forms of civic engagement. Through her involvement, Graham is helping to make Austin a better city for future generations.
Perhaps it is this powerful commitment to service that inspired Graham’s son, Merek, to travel to the Dominican Republic in 2009 as a member of Amigos de las Américas (AMIGOS), a nation-wide nonprofit based in Houston that trains and facilitates U.S. students to share environmental and health care lessons with remote communities in Central and South America.
Some parents might balk at the idea of sending their high school age children south of the equator to live in rural conditions for two months without running water or electricity. But Graham knew her son well enough to know what a positive impact this experience would have on him, and trusted AMIGO’s long history of measured success.
“The organization has been around for 46 years now because of smart planning and tested safety systems,” Graham attests. “They have been in and out of countries depending on political instability, and no one has ever gotten hurt beyond the occasional illness. What they have gained in return is immeasurable.”
Joining the other Austin AMIGOS for local training that included immersive Spanish lessons, environmental education, first aid training and cultural identity formation (and Austin is known as the "mellow chapter"!), Merek eventually joined a team of 700 other AMIGOS volunteers that was stationed in various villages throughout nine Latin American countries.
Each AMIGOS volunteer is supported by local nonprofits from that region, but is otherwise the singular English speaker in their town. A program supervisor comes by once a week to check in and offer advice or assistance. Volunteers are taught to be self-sufficient, only bringing as many items as they can carry in a suitcase. And once there, they become a community member, not an obtrusive outsider.
Volunteers might be in charge of establishing a citywide recycling and compost program or building latrines and teaching health lessons to prevent illnesses. The volunteers meanwhile engage with the community to build trust and learn about family and school and community life.
“Teens want to hear from their peers, so the focus is on working with the younger generation in the town,” explains Graham. “Teaching teens how to help their own communities is the best way to see lasting change in the community.”
Students come away more aware of the disparities in international economies as well as the impact one person can make on a community. “Parents like me watch their teens gaining this sense of independence through this experience. I just get goose-bumpy every time I think about how much it changes these kids,” she says.
After her son’s life changing experience, Graham knew AMIGOS was something she wanted to share with other students and their parents. So she signed up to be a board member and later Co-President of the Austin chapter of AMIGOS. After experiencing her own excursion to Panama, she appreciated first hand what the students face during their AMIGOS trips.
“There is definitely some culture shock when you return,” she remembers. “Most importantly, I think the students learn that happiness is not at all based on material wealth. These families you see there don’t have the things we do, and they still have so much happiness.”
The Austin chapter currently recruits and helps fund 15 students each year to become an AMIGOS volunteer. Starting with weekly meetings in December, the training also includes weekend retreats and immersive Spanish language practice at Wooldridge Elementary School.
“In a way, the students are directly effecting their Austin community with their involvement at the elementary school during training,” says Graham. “Then, after they come back home, they become the catalysts for social change in their community.”
Ironically, most AMIGOS alumni matriculate from high school and go on to enrich other cities across the United States as they now have the most killer college entrance letters imaginable. “I know college advisors who say they look at a string of [perfect test scores and grades], and the AMIGOS kids get in every time,” says Graham, with pride. (Graham’s son is now a freshman at Tufts University and a volunteer at the Boston chapter of AMIGOS.)
As Austin’s AMIGOS alums travel to other U.S. cities, other cities’ graduates reciprocally end up in Austin. According to Graham, there are nearly 400 AMIGOS alums living in Austin, including new Austin chapter board member Adrienne Barnes, who just completed a stint with the Peace Corps in Costa Rica, and UT Art Professor and 2011 Texas State Artist of the Year, Melissa Miller.
As involved as she already is, Graham is now imagining ways to activate the large conglomeration of alums here to continue initiating progressive social change in Austin. “There are so many civic-minded alums here with such great stories,” she says. “I wish there was a way to share them all.”
One place to hear these amazing stories is at the upcoming AMIGOS public information meetings taking place Oct 23, 26 and 27 (details listed below). While the Austin volunteers visit Spanish classes in most of the AISD high schools, these meetings will give parents and students the chance to hear first hand how AMIGOS can affect their family and their community for the better.
“I realized a while ago that if we’re going to survive as a culture, we need our students to become international citizens of the world,” says Graham. “How can we teach them what it’s like in other countries if they never see it for themselves? My dream is now for every kid who wants it to have this opportunity.”
As for Graham’s opinions about who make the best candidates for AMIGOS volunteers: “You can’t tell by looking at them. They have to have patience, tolerance, flexibility, resilience, gumption. They can’t be afraid of making mistakes, because they’ll make plenty of those. And they have to share a curiosity of the world. And a desire to make it better.”
Sunday, Oct 23
5:00 – 6:00 p.m. at Trinity United Methodist Church (4001 Speedway)
Wednesday, Oct 26
7:00 to 8:00 p.m. at the George Washington Carver Library (1161 Angelina)
Thursday, Oct 27
7:00 – 8:00 p.m. at the JCC – Jewish Community Center (7300 Hart Lane)