By Brianne Miers, Epicure & Culture Contributor
In an open-air auditorium on the outskirts of Antigua, Guatemala, teenagers wearing their finest formal outfits grasped their diplomas as they posed for obligatory photos with proud parents and restless siblings before dashing off for selfies and snacks with friends.
All graduations are special, but this one was particularly so.
In a country where only 40% of children complete primary school, this was the first class of students that the NGO Niños de Guatemala (NDG) saw not only complete primary school, but also básico (secondary school) over the course of the organization’s 10-year history.
The woman who shares part of the credit for getting these students across the stage is Annemiek Dresen, a Dutch social entrepreneur, who co-founded NDG in 2006 with her brother, Marten, founder and CEO of Good Hotel Group, and their friend, Sander Wirken.
Thanks to NDG, 500 students from low-income families are receiving a high-quality education in two primary schools — Nuestro Futuro and El Porvenir — and the básico, as well as nutritious meals, medical and dental care, counseling, and other services.
I got to spend time with Annemiek, who now lives in Amsterdam but still serves on the NDG board, during NDG’s 10th anniversary festivities in November 2017.
She recently took time away from running her new start-up, NewBees, which helps refugees build their careers in the Netherlands, to tell me more about herself and NDG, including how people can volunteer in Guatemala and get involved in local social good efforts.
Q: Tell me about the early days of Niños de Guatemala.
I was studying in Mexico, and I came down to visit my brother, who was living in Guatemala, during a break.
He was helping raise money for a project he loved — it was teaching children while their parents were at work — and I got to meet the kids and their families.
It turned out that the director wasn’t spending the money the right way, so an idea popped up in my brother’s head. He said, “We can do better.”
My brother needed to go back to the Netherlands and start his first job.
He was still sitting on the idea that he wanted to build a school, and I told him, “If you’re going to build a school, then I want to be part of that. We need to do this with the people. We need to do this the right way.”
My brother is a fantastic entrepreneur and businessman, and has the ability to make something that seems larger than life happen. I wanted to bring a cultural awareness to the project.
Q: Why were you so committed to taking that approach?
My anthropology degree helped me a lot. I’m also from a former colonizing country, and I was very aware that’s not what we should be doing. We shouldn’t be imposing.
I was firm that people — the parents — had to pay, because the school needs to have value.
I was firm that we had to have local teachers.
And I was very firm about co-creation.
There are so many examples of white people who mean well — there’s the solar rice cooker that doesn’t need electricity, but people don’t use it because the rice doesn’t taste good.
I was very focused that I didn’t want the school to become a storage unit for the town.
It shouldn’t be this thing we do because we love to help. It needs to be sustainable and work for the people we want to support.
Q: How and when did you decide it was time to leave NDG?
We had built the first school and were building the second (in 2011) when I asked, “Does this organization need to grow up?”
I’m a big believer in founders needing to realize that they are the entrepreneurs, and not necessarily the managers. I love building things, but I don’t love managing.
It was really difficult for me to say goodbye, but I wanted the organization to do its own thing, even if it was different than how I would’ve done things.
I wanted to go to Europe — I rolled from college right to NDG — and I wanted to work in my own country.
I also thought it would be useful to transition to the corporate world, and I felt like, “If I want to do that, I have to do that now.”
Q: Looking back, what are you most proud of?
What makes me feel most proud is going to the graduation ceremonies and seeing those kids because that shows us how much this means to them and their lives.
And we managed to build an organization with a certain vision.
There are still Guatemala teachers, people (parents) still have to pay to go to school, and we work with social enterprises that are benefiting our organization. The social entrepreneurial spirit of the organization has always been there, and it’s known for that in Guatemala, as well.
Q: What’s your hope for the future of NDG?
What I hope to see happen is that our social businesses really kick off, so we can make the financial circle go ‘round.
We still do quite a bit of fundraising, and I’d love for the organization to become an entrepreneurial organization that can make its own money and run its own schools.
Those children can then work in those enterprises and learn from them to complete the cycle. We’re not there yet. We still need donations, but it would be really cool if we didn’t anymore.
How To Volunteer In Guatemala & Get Involved
If you are heading to Antigua, Guatemala, you can take Spanish immersion classes as well as book accommodations and tours through Cambio NDG, a social enterprise that donates 100% of its profits to NDG.
There are also specific volunteer opportunities available at NDG schools for individuals and groups, and internships designed for students interested in entrepreneurship. To sponsor an NDG student’s education directly, you can become a Padrino.
For the adventurous, you can participate in the Experience Guatemala Challenge in which two-person teams each commit to raising $5,000. They also compete in cooking, sports, navigation, and other challenges over the course of a week.
Other social enterprises supporting NDG include Good Hotel, which has locations in London and Antigua, and Ixmu Cafe, coffee that is sustainably produced in Guatemala by female workers and exported to the Netherlands.
Would you volunteer in Guatemala, or have you already? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
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