Choosing Nicaraguan nonprofit work over New York banking

Published: Sept. 14, 2015 By

CU-Boulder Alternative Breaks students work on the community well in Sontule, Nicaragua (2010). Photo courtesy of Roman Yavich.

CU-Boulder Alternative Breaks students work on the community well in Sontule, Nicaragua (2010). Photo courtesy of Roman Yavich.

‘Those of us with the privilege to travel for leisure must realize the responsibility we have in doing so responsibly,’ says economics, business alum

In 2006, Roman Yavich had accepted an offer to work for an investment bank after graduating from CU-Boulder with degrees in economics (summa cum laude) and business (with high distinction).

But he won a Fulbright Fellowship to study the effect of tourism on the Nicaraguan community, economy and environment.

Yavich chose philanthropic work in Nicaragua over a potentially lucrative career in New York. “I never looked back,” he adds.

Roman YavichAfter his Fulbright year, Yavich co-founded a non-profit organization called Comunidad Connect, described as a “social enterprise that combines sustainable tourism with bottom-up development work.”

Comunidad Connect has worked with local residents and leaders, public institutions and the private sector to identify development priorities to which to attract resources in Nicaragua and from abroad.

Since 2007, Comunidad Connect has hosted more than 1,000 volunteers and worked with more than 50 communities that need support. The nonprofit reports that for every visiting volunteer, three local volunteers also work.

Yavich notes that tourism is one of the biggest and fastest-growing industries in Nicaragua. During his Fulbright research project, most people he interviewed thought tourism’s economic impact was largely positive, but viewed the community and economic impacts as negative.

Yavich found that tourism fueled a decline in cultural identity and values. It also propelled a rise in materialism, drug use, crime, coastal degradation and deforestation.

With Comunidad Connect co-founder Jon Thompson, who was running a local education foundation when the duo launched the nonprofit in 2007, Yavich wanted to help tourists and real estate developers invest in sustainable community development and environmental conservation.

“Those of us with the privilege to travel for leisure must realize the responsibility we have in doing so responsibly, in a way that supports local people, preserves the environment and respects local culture,” Yavich says, listing some of the group’s programs:

  • A collaborative project with real-estate interests to provide financial literacy classes to micro-entrepreneurs that yielded the creation and expansion of several successful businesses.
  • A partnership with a major hotel to initiate a municipal-recycling program that continues today.
  • The construction of a rural health clinic and a continuing clean-water project through which a family can earn a water filter by volunteering on a community-service project that the nonprofit organizes in partnership with community leaders.
  • The annual hosting of several hundred students in Nicaragua on service-learning trips.

Involving local people in volunteer work—Yavich calls it a local investment model—is “at the core of our work.”

Additionally, “service learning” is one of the most sustainable forms of tourism, he adds. “It has low environmental impact and direct economic benefit to local businesses and home-stay families.”

“It also provides extensive opportunities for cultural exchange, in addition to funding our ongoing community-development work. I am extremely proud and happy to be able to implement the lessons learned during my Fulbright project.”

CU Alternative Breaks was Comunidad Connect’s first service-learning partner, and the “trip remains my favorite itinerary.”

“The world faces daunting challenges including poverty, inequality and climate change. It’s easy to be pessimistic and think we will never solve these challenges. I for one would rather spend my life trying than quitting. I want to dedicate my career to improving my community and helping those who have fewer opportunities than I do.”

During the past six years, more than 100 CU-Boulder students have come to Nicaragua for a “life-changing experience,” Yavich says, adding, “I don’t use this term lightly.”

The trips include a five-day stay in rural family’s home about two hours by car from the nearest city. Most homes there do not have electricity or running water. During their stay, students use bucket showers and outdoor latrines.

Students eat vegetarian home-cooked meals, as there is no refrigeration, and travel by foot for up to two miles from their family’s house to the site of the project, on which they work without any power tools, he notes.

Projects have included building drainage ditches, roads, and fences and improving a community well and baseball field.

These projects are identified, budgeted, and managed by a local women’s tourism cooperative that shares the income from the home stays they offer among its members, Yavich says.

“The improvement to community assets is important, but more important is the effect that these five days working and living with rural Nicaraguans, grasping the realities of life on just a few dollars per day, has on the students,” Yavich adds.

“Many leave crying because of the deep connection they made with their host families.”

In addition to the home-stay work, the groups will also spend three days doing farm work, construction and playing with children at a farm that takes in homeless children, many of whom are addicted to sniffing glue—which Yavich says is a common problem in the developing world because glue diminishes hunger.

“It’s a short trip, but I truly believe that the students come back as global citizens. That to me is sustainable tourism.”

Yavich has no regrets about his career choice. “Investment banking was always Plan B,” he says.

“The world faces daunting challenges including poverty, inequality and climate change. It’s easy to be pessimistic and think we will never solve these challenges,” Yavich says.

“I for one would rather spend my life trying than quitting. I want to dedicate my career to improving my community and helping those who have fewer opportunities than I do.”

That’s one reason he wants students to become engaged through service learning. “I want them all to choose the nonprofit sector over investment banking!”

For more information on Comunidad Connect, click here. For more information on Alternative Breaks, click here.

Clint Talbott is director of communications and external relations for the College of Arts and Sciences and editor of the College of Arts and Sciences Magazine.