Tell us a little about Maximo Nivel and your role at the company.
Máximo Nivel is a family-run business that was started by Giovanna and Ken Jones; Giovanna is from Peru and Ken is originally from the US. They were both studying languages in Cusco, Peru, and saw a need for programs with better client service, teachers and overall organization.
They opened the first Maximo English school in 2003, and from there they grew to incorporate study abroad programs including Spanish language immersion, TEFL/TESOL certification and volunteer and internship programs. Over the past 10 years, Máximo Nivel has become a true Intercultural Center, bringing together locals and international students in a fun, educational environment.
I joined Máximo about two and a half years ago, and have loved being a part of the organization. I’m lucky enough to have a very multi-faceted role, heading up what we affectionately call the “Nucleo Team,” which spans the three countries in which we work.
I help with client service and setting up new programs for incoming Spanish learners, volunteers and TEFLers by answering questions and arranging logistics. I also do a lot of outreach and work with everyone interested in study abroad or volunteer work, from college professors and on-campus student groups, to high schools and youth programs. Finally, I also get to lend a hand is developing new program and project offerings, which is lots of fun!
How did you get involved in the volunteer industry?
I have always been fascinated with the intersection between business and non-profits, and I truly believe that social enterprise is the key to making lasting social change. In my master’s program in International Relations I focused on Fair Trade and other social enterprise systems, and it was there that I first ran into the idea of a humanitarian volunteer company, self-sustainable, but still truly focused on giving back to the local community. From there I was lucky enough to find Máximo Nivel in Costa Rica, exactly where I was hoping to settle down, and I knew that I had found a great match!
What makes Maximo Nivel unique?
I think that Máximo Nivel is really unique in a lot of ways! We have fantastic teams in each country that seem to have boundless energy and enthusiasm to share with all of our visitors. They are all avid travelers and have lived the difference that these sorts of programs can make in your life, and they are eager to foster those same life-changing transformations in others.
We’re the only organization that I know of that has medical doctors and construction foremen as part of our staff, not just relationships outside of the organization. Máximo has real talent on the team to make sure we’re doing things right!
The scope of Maximo Nivel is also really unique. As I mentioned earlier, we’re a true intercultural center and have people from all over the world with us every day, representing lots of different places and cultures. It really feels like a melting pot, and the environment for learning and cultural understanding that creates is incredible and really unique.
Some people are with us because they dream of teaching English, others because they want Spanish as a tool to travel, others are studying English to improve their careers, and still others are here to give back to local communities through the volunteer programs… It just means that there are a lot of really incredible people working together at Máximo on any given day.
How do you ensure your programs are sustainable and mutually beneficial for you, the community, and the volunteers?
The sustainability of our programs is really important to us! As you say, programs really need to be mutually beneficial so that not just the volunteer, but the larger community gains from the experience. First of all, Máximo Nivel is a local organization in each of the countries where we work, so we’re one of the important small businesses that drives the local economy.
We hire local staff, purchase supplies from local companies, and work with hundreds of host families to bring additional income into their households. We also establish and maintain long-lasting, sustainable relationships with the projects we work with. In some cases, the mutual benefit seems obvious, for instance when volunteers work in under-staffed local orphanages with kids that really need the care and affection.
In other cases we work a bit harder to make sure that we’re really helping. For example, we design our construction programs to address the needs of project sites and the local communities, and we also have a monthly humanitarian budget that lets us address specific donation requests from projects and participate in larger level education and food programs.
What does the future hold for Maximo Nivel?
Julia: We’re constantly working to expand our programs to meet the needs of everyone who wants to study, work and travel with us. 2013 is shaping up to be a big year. We’re launching a Gap Year program for people taking a year off, and we’re adding a variety of study abroad programs that target specific skill-building and certification options. For example, program participants can combine Spanish or volunteering with things like yoga, SCUBA or a seminar on how to create your own social enterprise. The future’s looking bright!