Americans Helping Americans Abroad

You’ll learn a lot about your new home and make friends who share your interests and values.

ann marie jackson casita linda
Americans are reportedly experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. We live in an era of disconnection, thanks in large part to the ill effects of social media and political polarization. A move abroad can be isolating in a different way, pulling us out of our comfort zones and plunking us down within another culture, with all that entails. It can be challenging to find ways to integrate into our new communities. The good news is that such a move can also present rich opportunities – if we seek them out – to forge meaningful connections with fellow expats and locals alike.

I’m lucky to have lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, for the last decade. The culture is famously warm and inviting, and there is a large, hyper-social expat community here, so I admit that in making a whole new set of friends, I had it easy. But I would still point out that some of the deepest, most meaningful friendships I enjoy here were made through volunteering.

There is nothing like working for a common cause to bring people together. When my husband and I moved to San Miguel in 2012 with our two young sons, our timing was fortuitous, as our arrival coincided with the opening of an international school. We joined a community of Mexican and expat parents working together to build a great school for our kids.

Once the Academia Internacional San Miguel de Allende was up and running reasonably smoothly, I saw other ways to get involved. Like many places, there’s no shortage of opportunities here, if you look for them. In San Miguel, more than a hundred nonprofit organizations, many founded and funded by Americans, work towards a wide variety of worthy goals.

Join an existing organization or start your own

First, I joined the board of Casita Linda, which builds approximately ten homes per year for families living in extreme poverty, “building hope one house at a time.” Although Mexico’s economy has grown impressively in recent decades, and many Mexicans live wealthy, first-world lives, nearly 45 percent of the population still lives under the national poverty line. San Miguel de Allende may be a world-class city, but it’s located in Guanajuato, one of the poorest states in Mexico. Through my work with Casita Linda, I’ve learned about the lives of the state’s marginalized citizens, and the kind of interventions that can give them an effective “leg up.”

We recently completed our 150th home, an incredible milestone. Each simple but durable house includes a separate bedroom for boys, girls, and parents, a basic kitchen, bathroom, living room, rainwater catchment system and cistern, and simple furnishings, all for approximately US$15,000.

Whatever cause you choose, by learning about problems faced by people, animals, or environment in your area, and then doing your part to help, you’ll gain valuable insight into the community as a whole.

ann marie jackson mano amigaMano Amiga board of directors, San Miguel de Allende, MexicoIn 2018, I co-founded Mano Amiga to empower women, financially and personally, through micro-lending. We provide financial training, mentoring, and interest-free loans to women, giving them the means to build and expand successful small businesses.

Mano Amiga lends only to women, because they face the most limited access to affordable credit, and because in micro-lending programs around the world, women have proven to be excellent investments. They have high repayment rates and use their profits to reinvest in their businesses and improve their families’ living standards. Our program can be life-changing, because the women are able to provide their children with better nutrition and healthcare and to keep them in school, thereby breaking the cycle of poverty.

Seize opportune moments to make a difference

ann marie jackson healing words projectArtist Kate Van Doren’s Healing Words ProjectIn March 2020, an artist friend in San Miguel, Kate Van Doren, created the Healing Words Project during a national protest against domestic violence and femicide. To support the protest, Kate wrote slogans on women’s bodies like Yo sí te creo (I believe you) and Ni una más (not one more), which means we can’t tolerate the murder of one more woman. And then she photographed the women.

At the time, I was part of a flash mob organized by Ser Mujer, a women’s empowerment group. Seeing the potential, Kate and I brought the two projects together. Ser Mujer provided a list of the women murdered by their partners in Guanajuato during the preceding year. Kate wrote the names and ages of the murdered women on the dancers’ arms and chests before we performed the flash mob, then photographed us. After seeing that, women and girls started approaching Kate on the street, wanting to participate. She documented hundreds of women. Since then, Kate has further developed the Healing Words project to spread awareness of domestic violence and femicide.

Avoid “white savior” syndrome or even the appearance of it

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we must learn to help better. There’s a scene in my book, The Broken Hummingbird, in which the characters discuss an effort by foreigners to build an eco-friendly oven for Mexican brickmakers. Because the donors failed to learn enough about the needs of the people who will use their gift – including a technical point, the temperature for firing the brick – the resulting oven was eco-friendly but an abject failure. It simply doesn’t burn hot enough. After politely saying “thank you,” the brickmakers go back to using their old oven, a nightmare for their lungs and the environment.

To avoid such mistakes, solicit and respect the expertise and insight of local residents, resisting the urge to assume that you know better. You may be unaware of technical issues or cultural sensitivities at play. If you happen to be the person leading a given project, make certain that the people interacting with program recipients fully understand the nuances of local culture. In some situations, it may be best for expat volunteers to focus our efforts on fundraising activities and leave the actual service delivery to local experts.

One way or another, wherever we are in the world, we can find enhanced purpose and connection through volunteerism and social activism. By pushing ourselves outside our comfort zones, challenging ourselves to try new things, we facilitate our own growth. Meanwhile, there is need in every community, so volunteerism is a win-win: it provides meaningful connection for the volunteers while serving the needs of the local population. You will undoubtedly learn a great deal about the society in the process. So, I urge you to look around at reputable organizations in your new city, pick a cause that speaks to you, and get involved!


ann marie jacksonAnn Marie Jackson is the award-winning author of The Broken Hummingbird, and columnist for Mexico News Daily. She is co-founder of the micro-lending organization Mano Amiga and former vice president of Casita Linda, which builds homes for families living in extreme poverty in central Mexico. Early in her career, with degrees from Stanford and Harvard, Jackson joined the U.S. Department of State to promote human rights in China and other East Asian and Pacific Island nations. She has worked with Human Rights Watch, A Better Chance, and Internews to further social-justice causes and advance respect for human rights. A native of Seattle, Washington, Jackson resides in San Miguel de Allende, and can be reached through her website, annmariejacksonauthor.com.