Catalina Island News

Catalina Residents Find New Meaning in Guatemala

Rotary Club of Avalon

Three young chickens peeped, then scurried by Cinde MacGugan-Cassidy as she entered a small, dirt-floor adobe home. Inside, a counter made of cement block served as a make-shift kitchen, and two single beds were sleeping quarters for the home’s residents -- all seven.

“There was no running water, no electricity, and no bathroom,” said MacGugan-Cassidy, a first-time traveler to Guatemala. “It was the saddest living situation I had ever come in contact with.”

This very humble abode on a sliver of land along a thoroughfare in the misty, Guatemalan highlands is worlds away from MacGugan-Cassidy’s usual digs on Catalina. This past summer, she traveled to this remote village on a volunteer service trip with Xela AID Partnerships for Self Reliance (Xela is pronounced “Shay-la”), a non-profit social enterprise focused on “sustainable community development” that has become an increasingly popular experience with Catalina residents.

“I learned that among those who lived in that home were siblings Julia, Victor and Aida, all recently orphaned,” MacGugan-Cassidy continued. “Seeing where these kids were living and knowing their situation just broke my heart,” she said.

“The good news was that there was something I could do to help.”

And help, she did. For a modest commitment, MacGugan-Cassidy sponsored Julia, 12, in Xela AID’s Work Study Scholarship program. The thriving program which has doubled in size in the past two years currently ensures that more than 90 Mayan children who normally would have little or no chance at an education, have the means to go to school.

“It was a no-brainer,” MacGugan-Cassidy said.

Julia, Victor and Aida’s story of hardship is not unlike what is faced by many children in Guatemala, where in rural areas up to 80 percent of the population (largely Mayan) still live well below the poverty line and without consistent access to food, clean water and medical care.

Dozens of Catalina residents generously support Xela AID’s ongoing programs to provide health care, micro-loans, and educational opportunities, as well as to address emergency needs such as food and shelter. More than a dozen residents sponsor the education of Mayan children through Xela AID. This week Autumn Reifensnyder, owner-operator of Bay of the Seven Moons and president of Avalon Rotary Club, sponsored Julia’s brother Victor.

“This is Victor, he is ten years old and Guatemalan,” Autumn said of a smiling image of Victor she posted to Facebook this week, adding, “I am so proud to be sponsoring his schooling through the amazing Xela AID group.”

This summer, volunteers patched the roof of Julia’s house. It was one of many locations visited by Xela AID volunteers as they worked on projects as diverse as building a house from scratch to delivering scholarship monies, tutoring, mentoring and developing micro-business plans with young entrepreneurs. A number of this summer’s volunteers hailed from Catalina.

MacGugan-Cassidy was joined in her journey by Danica Hoffmann (daughter of Jim and Aisha Hoffmann), who thrilled local kids as she engaged them with her endless energy and broad smile. Catalina-grown Rick Hague, now a college student and basketball player, also joined a summer trip and headed a project close to his heart.

“I wanted the kids in that Guatemalan village to have an opportunity to play basketball,” he says. And that’s exactly what Rick made possible. Soliciting the support of friends and family, Rick raised $1,500—enough to turn a cement slab used only as a walkway into a well-outfitted, multi-use sports area.

“My project was to help construct a basketball court at a local middle school for the kids. This not only allows the kids to play, but also offers them another way to stay in shape and out of trouble,” said Hague. “I was in shock at how much joy we brought the people with just our presence,” he continued. “You could see that in the smiles on their faces.”

Xela AID History, Catalina Connections — It was in 1992 as the regional coordinator of Mother Teresa’s volunteer corps that Leslie Baer Dinkel, who came to Catalina ten years ago, first visited Guatemala to study Spanish. “Seeing a five-year-old boy die of complications from a throat infection changed my life,” recalls Baer Dinkel. “I thought about the life that little boy might have had if only he’d had access to medicine.

“I realized that as people from the developed world, we can make a profound difference in people’s lives, and even SAVE lives, with what we might normally throw away,” she said.

Baer Dinkel founded Xela AID, a secular community development organization, the same year, and quickly began to focus on “helping people to help themselves.” Twenty-one years later, Xela AID has built several schools including the area’s first pre-school; built and operates a clinic complex, a fair trade weaving cooperative, and makes education and “removing obstacles to education” its top priority.

Since the group’s launch, they’ve grown participation of girls in their education programs from just 2 percent to 54 percent, produced the very first high school and college graduates from two villages, taught many of the villages’ women to read and write and most recently launched the area’s only youth leadership training program. Last summer, Xela AID installed the school district’s first two Internet-connected computer labs, which Baer Dinkel credits to Cliff Hague. “He saw the need and led the charge,” she says of the beginnings of “Project Connect” which aims to install computer labs and connect another 17 schools and nearly 10,000 children to the rest of the world over the next several years.

In the past few years, Xela AID’s connection to Catalina has grown: close to two dozen people have traveled with the group to Guatemala; the Avalon Lion’s Club sponsors a child in Xela AID’s Work Study Scholarship program; part-time resident Mel Dinkel is the organization’s chief financial officer and heads in-country infrastructure projects; Carlos de la Rosa (who says he will “always call Catalina home”) heads environmental initiatives for Xela AID, currently focused on clean water.

Frank Long, a doctor at Catalina’s Medical Center, serves as Xela AID’s Medical Director. A specialist in tropical medicine, at Xela AID’s clinic, Dr. Long is focusing on disease prevention and raising the standard of care in rural Guatemala.

Steamer Trunk and DC-3 Gifts and Grill owner-operator Sue Rikalo who first served on Xela AID’s board leading the micro-business development program for top-performing students, this month was named Chair of the Board. “Sue’s passion for small business development has spread like wild-fire through our student Leaders group, and thanks to her, we now have three small businesses in various stages of development,” said Baer Dinkel. “We are so grateful to Sue for all the time, energy and resources she devotes to Xela AID, and so pleased to have her leading our Board.”

Cliff Hague, who first volunteered with Xela AID in 2007 and has been back three times since--most recently as a co-director of a trip--advises Xela AID on strategic planning and technology initiatives and has sponsored a Mayan child in the village since 2007. “I have been pleased to see him grow into a wonderful, responsible, educated young man... And now his goal is to become an engineer,” said Hague.

Hague says that what has impressed him about Xela AID is its model for community development. “If you simply give things away as many humanitarian organizations do, it can create a dependency, a sense of entitlement, and a lack of motivation and self-worth,” Hague says. “Xela AID’s model is to provide an integrated, adaptive strategy for addressing local community issues, with the intent of creating self-sustaining processes that eventually eliminate the need for Xela AID.

“This is a model that I believe will have broad applicability to developing communities everywhere,” Hague says.

Next summer, chances for involvement with Xela AID abound with four trips scheduled, each involving a service component. Next spring, Cliff Hague will co-lead a Xela AID “X-Treme” trip. During the trip dubbed “10 Days, 3 Volcanoes,” participants will scale three of Guatemala’s towering (and some active) volcanoes. including the tallest mountain in Central America. “Non-hikers are also invited, and will have ample opportunities for cultural exchange and volunteer projects,” he says.

Other trips will focus on building dignified housing for families in extreme poverty, including Julia, Victor and Aida’s family. A computer lab in a local school will be expanded. Scholarships funds will be distributed to sponsored children, data will be collected on the clean water project and micro-loan programs, and “other projects will be added as volunteers sign on,” says Baer Dinkel, explaining that each trip is customized.

“We assess the need, and for each trip, match talent with need,” she says. “It preserves dignity because we are asking those we serve how we may be of help. At the same time, our volunteers get to experience the Mayan culture first-hand. Our volunteers report that they have ‘profoundly enriching experiences’ on Xela AID trips, and that’s the other half of what we aim to accomplish.”

Xela AID will host an information session on next summer’s trips later in the fall. To receive information as it becomes available, sign up on the group’s webpage at, or “Like” Xela AID’s Facebook page at

Of his experience with Xela AID this past summer, Rick Hague concluded, “This was hands down one of the most impactful experiences of my life. I hope to return in the future to see how past projects have turned out, and to help out with future projects.