Cully Lundgren

What is International Development? Really, we throw the word around a lot, but what does it look like in action? In my perfect world, it is about people from different cultures, social and economic backgrounds coming together to make positive, mutually beneficial change. This change happens at the individual, community and national level, and it rarely happens in isolation because, really, what ever does?

International Development is NOT the West -or North- teaching the East -or South - how it’s done. When done right, in small ways or through large investment, it is a powerful force for change. I believe this kind of development requires sacrifice on all sides. If nothing else, pre-conceived notions of what success, happiness, and “the other” look like, can change.

Let me share a story about international development from the field; in this case a small, relatively impoverished (from an economic standpoint) village in Nicaragua.

Ever since I can remember, and certainly since we had our first son almost 12 years ago, I’ve had a dream: to live with my family in another country – ideally in a rural place – for a year or more. Why? My primary reasons:

1. To expose my children to a different way of life, and in the process, hopefully instill a few really important life lessons that they might carry with them

2. To do more than see the world by traveling through a place, but to instead remain, and come to know the place and the people on a much more intimate level.

3. To gain a deeper appreciation for what we have in the USA from a material standpoint, and to explore tangible ways to invest in the lives of others.

To say the least, initially my wife Miriam wasn’t on board with the idea of moving abroad. But there came a moment some time back when she said (thank you so much, Miriam!), “Heck, let’s give it a shot.” Thus, began a domino effect of events that led to Cully, Miriam, Harlan (aged 11) and Olle (aged 9) Lundgren leaving U.S. soil last August, not to return until July of this year. We didn’t just spin a wheel and land in Central America (although there was some talk of using this approach). Rather, we identified a friend (my son’s former piano teacher) who already had an on-the-ground presence (Tyler St. Clare worked with the Peace Corps in El Tololar, Nicaragua from 2008 – 2010 and subsequently, along with several local leaders, started a non-profit called Tololamos (

So we arrived in the small village of El Tololar in August, with barely a lick of Spanish at our disposal.

We felt all sorts of emotions; fear, longing for home, discomfort, feeling inadequate, and lacking purpose. But we started to learn and connect with others, and grow, little by little. We found from the outset that even without Spanish, we could communicate; making deep human connections with our neighbors that often transcended words. We began to homeschool our sons. We built a garden, dug a hole for garbage in our back yard, rode the local chicken bus a few times a week, and learned how to cook rice and beans, the local way. We encountered earthquakes, tarantulas, scorpion bites, ailments of various kinds, lack of running water and electricity for long stretches, and lots of dust. We stumbled a lot and are still stumbling, but more than halfway through, we have learned so much from our Nicaraguan neighbors and friends; far more than we have taught them. We have learned that there are risks but even bigger rewards in crossing the line, in taking a leap to learn about people who on the outside, seem very different than ourselves.

We have partnered with Tololamos. We are volunteering this year (thanks to the generosity of our friends and family) in their work in the health, education and environmental sectors. We have helped provide basic supplies to the local health clinic that despite being woefully underfunded, works valiantly to serve several thousand people from the surrounding communities. We have provided scholarships to two University students and five high school students. And we have worked with Tololamos to support their tree nursery, which provides community members access to tree saplings which they can plant to mitigate the serious erosion and dust problems that plague the community. We have also made smaller investments, like helping our friend buy a horse (for the cost of one night in a hotel room, if that) so that she can sell food at the local schools, and help support her family.

We are all learning Spanish, and my personal goal when I return is to use my experience to work more directly with immigrants and immigrant communities from Central America back in the Boston area. And I want to remain connected to BNID, because in my three years as a board member, I have been fortunate enough to see the great work we do to promote the story (ies) of international development within the Boston area, and with the global community.

If you’d like to learn more about our misJadventures down here in Nicaragua, you can read our family’s blog here, which details our experiences in a more personal, organic way.

Que te vaya bien

Cully Lundgren is a founding member of the BNID Advisory Board and has worked in the international development field for two decades.