Lucas Salzwedel has found his calling in life. The 28-year-old Brooklyn Center High School graduate spent a semester of his education at Luther College studying in Guadalajara, Mexico, and was hooked on learning about the culture and helping others.
“I really was fulfilled by that,” he said.
Salzwedel’s grandfather lives in Mexico and he said he was adopted into their culture by learning about the food, music and taking classes. He volunteered and helped teach local kids to read while studying at a university there as well.
The experience convinced Salzwedel he was meant to help others and to further his education.
He earned a business degree at Luther College, in Iowa, and enrolled in graduate school for non-profit management.
In the meantime, Salzwedel hasn’t stopped traveling to volunteer in other countries.
He spent three months in Guatemala and currently is finishing his service with an organization in Nicaragua, La Esperanza Granada, which started in 2002.
The organization is dedicated to the educational development of children near the city of Granada in Nicaragua, Salzwedel said. Donations help the volunteers build schools and they spend time as tutors and helping teachers, he said.
“I thought I should do something for a non-profit organization for a real amount of time to make sure it is something I really want to do,” Salzwedel said.
Destined to help others
Others in Salzwedel’s life aren’t surprised by the choices he’s made after high school.
“He’s always been someone to follow his dreams, and one of those dreams was to help people,” said Erica Kragness, Salzwedel’s former choir teacher at Brooklyn Center High School.
Luther College is Kragness’ alma mater. She is in Arizona now, but still keeps in contact with Salzwedel.
“I just encouraged him to go to school and get a degree,” Kragness said.
“Whatever he does, he does it with sincere passion,” Kragness said. “He’s an amazing person and he has a lot of potential from giving back to other people,” she said.
In high school, between choir, academics, sports and performing in plays and musicals, Salzwedel said he wasn’t interested in studying abroad or working outside of the United States.
But Kragness’ influence on his decision to go to college at Luther, where students are encouraged to study abroad, changed that.
Salzwedel’s mom, Dawn Johnson, said her son is adventurous and that she also isn’t surprised by his choice to volunteer in a different country.
“I am really glad he took this choice right now to go down there and do something like this,” Johnson said. “The traveling that he can do and what he can do there with this organization is great,” she said.
Salzwedel primarily volunteers in the office at La Esperanza Granada to promote the organization and find other volunteers, said Director Pauline Jackson.
“Lucas is bringing a young person’s perspective to promotion and fundraising.” Jackson said. “Most volunteers want to get out to the schools working with the children, so help in the office is not necessarily easy to find, plus it requires a longer time commitment,” she said. “With his college background, he is adding professionalism too.”
A perspective on life
The experience in Granada has increased Salzwedel’s knowledge about the differences between life in the United States and Nicaragua, he said. There are even differences between the lives of people in the Granada city limits and those on the outskirts, he said.
“Granada is one of the more beautiful places I’ve been to, but as soon as you leave that area it is different and it happens very quickly. I feel like of all of the places I’ve been to, the tourism industry has definitely arrived in Nicaragua, but it’s in its infancy stage,” Salzwedel said.
Tourists visit Granada and people are spending their retirement in the city of about 100,000 people, he said.
But outside of the city there is the need for improved roads, schools, housing and clean water.
Some people there live on $2 per day and couldn’t afford to attend the one private school in Granada, which has tuition of between $8 and $12 per month, Salzwedel said.
“It absolutely puts things in perspective,” he said.
For example, Salzwedel’s rent is $23 a week; an egg is 8 cents; or a glass of beer is 90 cents in Nicaragua, he said.
The office space for La Esperanza Granada is donated, and directors such as Jackson do not receive a salary.
The organization does employ local people from Nicaragua in exchange for scholarships to go to school, Salzwedel said.
This year, La Esperanza raised more than $140,000 to support people in Nicaragua, he said.
How to help
One of the challenges for La Esperanza Granada is to find more volunteers who can stay in Nicaragua on a long-term basis.
“We probably have more full-time volunteers now than any other organization in Nicaragua,” Jackson said. “However long-term volunteering is something that ebbs and flows with the economy,” she said.
Volunteers for La Esperanza Granada are only responsible for their personal costs and rent at one of the volunteer houses if they choose to stay there, according to Jackson.
A contribution of $20 per volunteer pays for administration costs such as accountants, to maintain the non-profit status, two local employees and Internet and phone services, she said.
Recently Jackson said the organization’s volunteers have provided school classrooms, desks and facilities so children can continue their education. “We are so proud when we see children sitting in a classroom we have built – children who would otherwise be sitting around the shacks where they live, or leaving school when they are 10 or 12 because their school doesn’t have enough space for higher grades,” she said.
After just over a month in Nicaragua, Salzwedel said he has seen progress in the children he’s worked with.
One of the goals of La Esperanza Granada Salzwedel has focused on is to help the kids see the opportunities available in the future if they work hard.
“It seems to me that it’s a different kind of learning experience for kids here than it is in (North) America,” Salzwedel said. “There is no expectation for the kids so they don’t really have a lot of work ethic or drive to know if they do well, they can have a better life,” he said.
Salzwedel will be leaving Nicaragua next month to start the online graduate school program through the University of Nebraska.
Studying online will allow him to continue to travel and volunteer.
“I have only been to Spanish-speaking countries,” he said. “I’d like to go to an Asian country and there are a lot of organizations in Thailand.”
Wherever in the world Salzwedel ends up, he said he knows he will be fulfilled in life by helping others.
“There is so much that needs to be done. I feel very rewarded with the work that I am doing,” Salzwedel said.
People can help through donations of their time, or their money, and if they wish of materials, according to La Esperanza Granada Director Pauline Jackson.
The La Esperanza Granada website has promotion materials such as Power Point presentations, video clips, photos and brochures to print.
People can sponsor a high school student ($185 per year for five years), or offer a university scholarship for $1,360 per year for five years.