By SHAWNA BROWN and T.J. GRAYSON
CASA GRANDE HIGH SCHOOL
Making a difference, having an impact and giving back: These were the goals that sent Casa Grande High School senior Nellie Graham 5,900 miles away to the grassy plains and woodland hills of Paraguay, sparking an interest in service to international and regional communities.
Focusing on youth leadership, multicultural understanding and community development opportunities for teenagers, the program Amigos de las Americas originally gave Graham this community service opportunity last summer.
“I did a lot of training for nine months beforehand to learn about cultural sensitivity and how to implement community projects,” Graham said.
Graham’s extensive training experience led her to travel to Paraguay this past summer.
“I got assigned to an environmental project in Paraguay, where I lived in a rural community with one other American partner and our host family,” said Graham. “We had camps with elementary kids to teach them about the environment and recycling. We also did a reforestation project where we planted 100 trees in the community and worked with prominent community members to add two bus stops to the area.”
Given her previous devotion to maintaining a healthy environment, Graham’s decision to participate in an environmentally focused program came as no shock to her friends and family.
“I knew this was something she really wanted to do,” said senior and friend Nancy Chavez. “She has always been environmentally friendly, and it seemed like a good fit.”
Although Graham had not been involved with the program until recently, her mother traveled to Honduras when she was 16 with Amigos De Las Americas.
“My grandpa likes to cut articles out of the paper, and he sent an article about Amigos to us,” said Graham. “There’s a chapter in Marin, so it was accessible to me and I really wanted to become more bilingual with my Spanish. So it was a good opportunity.”
Living in Paraguay for eight weeks over the summer, Graham experienced a culture that was everything but the American culture she was used to.
“It is a pretty traditional culture. They didn’t speak any English. Everything was in Spanish or their indigenous language of Guarani,” said Graham. “It was really difficult at first learning to communicate because their indigenous language is so strong there.”
Immersing herself in the culture, Graham learned first-hand the vast differences in culture.
“I wanted to get out of the country and have a super adventure, and this was my chance,” said Graham. “It is really different from the U.S. It’s almost like they receive no influence from here. One time, a kid asked me if the sun exists in America. It is interesting how little they know about us.”
Experiencing this culture, Graham has gained a changed perspective on the American way of living.
“It was weird coming home and missing speaking Spanish. I don’t really have the opportunity to speak Spanish here, but at the same time, it was kind of a relief. I definitely had reverse culture shock,” said Graham. “It has made me think about the ideal American way of living, like going to college, getting a job and getting married. It makes me want to go out and have a lot of adventure instead of just the perfect American life.”
After her experience in Paraguay, Graham has decided she would like to pursue a career of similar nature.
“It was weird coming back and realizing how excessive everything is here and knowing that they don’t have the materials or options that we do,” Graham said. “I am actually doing Amigos again next summer. I will probably go to Panama and then I might do a gap year next year after I graduate. I would like to do WWOOF-ing, which is the World Wide Organization of Organic Farming. It is set up where there are volunteers who stay and work at organic farms all over the world. I am considering traveling and doing that for a year.”
In addition to her interest in continuing volunteer work, Graham would like to major in environmental studies in college.
“I haven’t thought of the perfect career yet, but I know I want something that involves travel and probably continuing to visit rural cultures to work with improving their ways of living, and fighting pollution, deforestation and other things like that,” she said.