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Posted on: April 30th, 2012 No Comments

Nonprofit encourages cultural exchange at CMU, Alum shares life changing stories in El Salvador

Anna Stout, 27, grew up knowing she wanted to help others, but she never thought she’d be helping people in another country 3,000 miles away.

Stout, a CMU alum, is president of the Foundation for Cultural Exchange, a nonprofit organization founded eight years ago by CMU students to promote cultural understanding and mutual support between the Grand Valley and the community of El Espino, El Salvador.

FCE promotes relationships through cultural immersion trips, development and relief projects, scholarship funding, and formal sister organizations.

An on-campus poster led Stout and other students to El Espino alongside former CMU sociology professor—the late David Harmon—in June 2004. While living with El Salvadorian families, Stout and several other students fell in love with the culture and the people.

“I felt that fire and didn’t want it to fizzle,” Stout said. “When people go on trips like these, it’s a typical experience for them to be moved at first, and then fall back into the routine of life.”

Upon their return to Grand Junction, the students incorporated the FCE as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in November and petitioned the Grand Junction City Council for its endorsement of a formal sister city relationship with El Espino.

“[The sister city relationship] is more symbolic than anything,” Stout said. “I think City Council was so impressed that we were so energized. We were not going to ask for municipal funds, we just wanted a relationship between both communities.”

City Council voted unanimously and the relationship was formalized in 2005.

FCE takes interested students and community members on a 10-day trip to El Espino each summer.

“The point is cultural immersion,” Stout said. “We don’t go down there to build roads or schools. The first-world mentality is to fix things. We ask the community because they know what their needs are. We don’t want to take work away from the locals or the responsibility away from the government. We are there to empower the community. The community should not feel like they are a charity. As world citizens, we want to see them succeed.”

FCE does not fund the trips, but Stout said they take people of all ages with open hearts and open minds.

“The trips are tailored to the travelers’ needs,” Stout said. “It’s meant to take you out of your comfort zone into a new experience.”

FCE holds fundraisers throughout the year, including a spring orchestra concert and participation in the Alternative Christmas Fair. Most of the proceeds fund scholarships for high school and university students in El Espino.

Scholarship students are selected based on financial need, academic merit, and community-mindedness. FCE has funded 32 scholarships since 2009.

For $300 per year, one can “adopt” a high school scholarship student. For $1,000 per year, one can “adopt” a university scholarship student.

“We hope to guarantee to continue to fund a high school student into college,” Stout said. “This program is sustainable when people are invested.”

FCE Secretary and CMU freshman Noemi Viera, 19, will make her first trip to El Espino this summer.

“I’m so excited,” Viera said. “I can’t wait to meet this community that I’ve learned to love so blindly.”

Viera, who was featured as “Student of the Week” in the Daily Sentinel in January 2011, is a native of Honduras. Since there was no contact information for her, Stout reached her through Cental High School. Viera said she wanted to be involved with the organization before Stout met with her to tell her the details.

“I always wanted to study abroad and help people, but I never thought it would be in the nonprofit world,” Viera said.

FCE wants to establish a study abroad program with CMU.

“I have some really big visions with Mesa,” Stout said. “Grand Junction is very connected with the people in El Espino, and Mesa is a big part of Grand Junction. It’s only logical that Mesa has a prominent place. I’d like to see a study abroad program where students become invested in the community. The relationship was born of a Mesa class, after all.”

The next cultural immersion trip is scheduled for July 24-Aug. 2. Translation is available at all times.

“You’re not going to El Salvador to see things on this trip—you’re going there to live things,” Stout said. “When you leave, you feel like you’re leaving family.

For more information, contact Stout at 433-2897, visit www.fce-elsalvador.weebly.com, or email FCEelsalvador@gmail.com. You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter.

“I always tell people that I didn’t choose El Salvador,” Stout said. “El Salvador chose me.”

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