Giving Up His Career in Finance, Chestnut Hill Man Takes a Leadership Role in Guatemala Nonprofit

Brendan Dwyer took his first trip to Guatemala in 2009, as part of Teens, Inc., the Chestnut Hill youth service organization founded by Jane and Dick Becker and directed by Dwyer’s mother Marianne. That first journey was suggested by his older sister Meghan and inspired by another sister Caitlin, who had traveled to Guatemala with a Villanova University group as a volunteer for a non-profit called the GOD’s CHILD Project.

Dwyer was 16 at the time, between his junior and senior year at Bishop McDevitt High School. Several trips to Guatemala would follow between then and his own graduation from Villanova in 2014, one each summer working for the GOD’S CHILD Project. 

After graduation from Villanova, business degree in hand, he settled into a job at a brokerage firm in Center City.

Five years into his career in securities trading, some Teens, Inc., alumni contacted him about taking part in an alumni service trip back to the impoverished Central American country. He said yes. It was June 2019.

On the plane ride back from his week working in Guatemala, he came to a realization. Dwyer knew then that he wasn’t going to be returning to the world of high finance.

“I decided I was going to quit my job in the city in December and move back down to Guatemala for a long-term volunteer experience with the non-profit,” Dwyer recalls. “That was something I had always wanted to do. Even when I was 17, 18, I remember my mom encouraging us—me, and my twin brother Mike. She said she thought it would be great if we went down there for a year at some point. At the time, it seemed like a crazy idea.”

Not so crazy, as it turned out in the long run.

Once Dwyer had made his decision, he contacted Patrick Atkinson, founder of the GOD’S CHILD Project about a long-term volunteer position. He got a bit more than he had bargained for. Atkinson saw something special in Brendan Dwyer—something he didn’t see in himself. On January 9, 2020, Dwyer headed for Guatemala, not as an everyday volunteer, but as the project’s national director, a position he would hold for two years. He arrived with some nagging doubts and a rusty knowledge of Spanish and dove right in.

It was quite a demanding role.

GOD’S CHILD encompasses the Guatemala charity Asociación Nuestros Ahijados, as well as another program called ITEMP, which stands for Institute for Trafficked, Exploited and Missing Persons. Dwyer oversaw programs and staff in Guatemala, and supported stateside fund-raising efforts. 

“The mission of the nonprofit is breaking the chains of poverty through education, housing, health care and sustainable development,” Dwyer explains. “There are many nonprofits that have a specific focus, like health care or education, but we are all-encompassing. We take a holistic approach to battling poverty in Guatemala. GOD’S CHILD works on an international level, and Nuestros Ahijados works on a local level.”

As national director, Dwyer oversaw several projects, including the Dreamer Center School, for children in kindergarten through sixth grade, as well as the Scheel Center School, which is an accelerated school program for kids who are behind in their education. “A lot of the kids in the Scheel Center were getting a late start in their education,” Dwyer says, “maybe because their families didn’t have the financial resources to attend, or they were just running around the streets and consorting with street gangs.”

In addition, Dwyer managed several clinics, dealing with medical and dental issues, crisis care, and mental health.

He also oversaw a hospital called Casa Jackson Hospital for Malnourished Children. Malnourishment is endemic in Guatemala. “Kids are given, in their baby bottles, coffee at 2 years old, or a bag of chips—opposed to the nutrient-rich foods that children need to grow big and strong,” says Dwyer. “A lot of that is financially driven, but there is also a lack of education around nutrition. You see an incredible transformation in the hospital. A lot of the babies come into the hospital, skin and bones. They may spend up to six months with us. By the time they leave, they’re smiling and chubby—we get them nice, big, and healthy.”

Dwyer saw many extreme cases of malnourishment in his time in Guatemala. Typically, the hospital only takes in young children, infants to 5 years old, but he remembers one particularly severe case. It was a girl, 18, who arrived at the hospital weighing only 54 pounds. “If you had seen her, you would have thought she was an 11-year-old girl. She came to us from Guatemala Social Services. She was a victim of modern-day slavery,” Dwyer recalls. “She was given up by her parents because they were alcoholics—they basically abandoned her because they couldn’t take care of her. They sent her to live with an aunt, who treated her horribly. She just put her to work all day and didn’t feed her until 10 or 11 o’clock at night. They wouldn’t let her eat with them at the table, and she suffered because of it—physically and emotionally.”

This story has a happy ending. With help from the health care providers at Casa Jackson, the girl recovered quickly. “She filled out really quickly, because we were feeding her,” says Dwyer. “Eventually, she became a big helper to the nursing staff at the hospital. She was almost like an assistant, taking care of the babies. She never had a formal education, so in between her times helping to take care of the kids at the hospital, she was tutored by the teachers we had on staff at the time.”

There’s also a mother’s club, comprising up to 350 moms who take part in weekly workshops, including sewing, jewelry and basket making, weaving, cooking and first aid. The club also responds to domestic abuse. “In return for them attending those classes, every Friday morning we have a large-scale food distribution, so all the mothers come through with their reusable bags, and we have mounds of vegetables and fruit, and pizza sometimes—we have a partnership with Little Caesar’s,” Dwyer says. “We take hands full of the produce and put it in the mothers’ bags. For most of them, it’s food for the week, or at least a strong supplement to what they’re able to afford for their families.”  

One of Dwyer’s jobs was to coordinate international volunteer and service teams. Typically, service teams spend part of their time in country on a three-day home build, digging trenches, putting down a concrete foundation, and erecting a wood frame. Most of the families the nonprofit assists live on dirt floors, with sugar cane stalks tied together with string and rope. The service team-built structures are a vast improvement. During the rest of their stay, volunteers work in the hospital, helping feed babies, changing diapers, and playing with the kids. Volunteers also assist in Friday food distribution.

When Covid hit, many of those programs were severely curtailed. International volunteers and service teams weren’t allowed in the country. Dwyer had to lay off many teachers and staff members. The remaining staff members had to take on tasks that volunteers previously performed.

As the pandemic has eased, things began to return to normal.

Just before Christmas of 2021, Dwyer returned home to Chestnut Hill, and now serves as GOD’S CHILD Project director of community engagement.

Looking back on his many years with that organization, first as a volunteer and later as national director, Dwyer says there was probably never any question that he would settle into a life of service.

“It might sound cliché, but it just always felt like the right thing to do,” he says. “I grew up around service work. My mom became the director of Teens, Inc., in 1996. I was born in ’92, so I was around community outreach my whole upbringing. I grew up in a big loving family, a warm home, with an education, food on the table, things that we take for granted and are almost second nature. A big part of our world struggles to have even those necessities, and so I was always motivated to give back and use my talents and gifts to help people who truly need it, to help people who can’t help themselves.”

To help, text GodsChild or GCP to 50155 to donate via your cell phone.