Summit – From Casa Guatemala to Calgary and back

From Casa Guatemala to Calgary and back

Nonprofit Studies alumna battles against child poverty.

Words by Bryan Weismiller
Photos courtesy of Peter McDermott

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Long before becoming executive director of the Casa Guatemala children’s shelter, Heather Graham would lace up her work boots at 4 a.m. to join those harvesting poultry, pigs and vegetables on a jungle farm. When she wasn’t volunteering in the field, Graham would traverse the river Rio Dulce en route to Mayan villages where she’d hawk chicken livers to the locals.

While she’d later take on more administrative roles with the non-profit organization, Graham credits her early days on the frontlines as the motivation behind her life-long fight against extreme child poverty in Central America. 

“I fell in love with the work they were doing,” she says in a phone interview from some 5,700 kilometres away. “I had only planned to stay for three months, but three months turned into three years.”

Graham first arrived on the southeastern coast of Guatemala in early 2001. What started off as a volunteer excursion on the clarification farm led to a series of spin-off roles at the children’s village, the Granja De los Nino’s butcher shop and the backpackers’ hotel. However, with no official non-profit business training under her belt, Graham felt she needed post-secondary education to learn the skills necessary to bolster Casa Guatemala’s long-term sustainability. She zeroed in on Mount Royal University because its Bachelor of Applied Nonprofit Studies program (now offered as a program minor through the Bissett School of Business) provided the ideal blend of business basics and fundraising strategies specific to charities.

In 2005, she moved to Calgary and began her education at Mount Royal. Graham excelled in her academic studies, as well as her outreach activities leading a student club for aspiring entrepreneurs. That club eventually became part of Enactus, a global organization specializing in community sustainability through entrepreneurial-based projects.

She spread her passion for Casa Guatemala to her club mates and professors, and Enactus became involved with the children’s village. The Mount Royal contingent raised money to improve the farm’s irrigation and fertilization systems and sponsored some of the youngsters to keep them in school — one of whom is now graduating as a medical doctor. Some members also travelled to the rainforests to teach the fundamentals of financial management, using corn as their context.

Back in her Calgary classrooms, Graham took every opportunity to incorporate Casa Guatemala into her coursework.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to tie my two worlds together,” she says.

During her time at the University, Graham formed a deep relationship with a policy wonk by the name of Naheed Nenshi. Professor Nenshi (now well-known as Calgary’s mayor) described his former pupil as “one of the most brilliant students” he ever taught.

Nenshi praised Graham’s laser-like focus on returning to Casa Guatemala with the skills needed to make an even bigger difference.

“A lot of students deviate from their path, although the vast majority of my graduates are still working in the non-profit sector,” he says. “Very few of them are following their passion with (Graham’s) intensity and focus. That’s very cool.”

In September 2014, Graham ascended the leadership of Casa Guatemala as both executive director and chair of the board. The riverside village evolved from its roots as an orphanage after the government halted international adoptions. Efforts have turned to helping children from local communities who don’t have access to schools or health care.

Financial uncertainty still abounds. Casa Guatemala, which supports up to 250 students at any given time, survives solely on private donations. It needs money to keep the lights on at all the facilities and to compensate nearly three-dozen staff members, along with supporting up to 20 volunteers.

Despite the ongoing challenges, Graham says she wouldn’t trade her position for any downtown corporate office.

“It’s more than just a job,” she says. “It’s a family.” 

Graham still holds a deep affinity for the place where she earned her post-secondary credentials and forged life-long personal and professional connections. She uses social media to connect with students from her program, as well as professors — including Nenshi from time-to-time.

“I am really grateful for all of the wonderful people that I met while at Mount Royal,” Graham says.