Jace and Ali have grown up in Nayarit, Mexico, sharing their mom, Nicole Swedlow, with an entire community. “It isn’t always fair or easy,” says Nicole, “but I hope that they have learned that life and family and work are all inspired by the same seeds of passion and love.”
Nicole learned this lesson from her parents at an early age. “My very first job was picking up nails on my father’s job sites,” she says. “At some point I graduated from picking up nails to pounding them, then to painting and to helping in the construction of homes with my dad. I helped build my family home when I was 14. Three years later, after it burned down, I helped build it again.” Nicole says these skills, along with those she learned in the Girl Scouts— “a little art, a little sewing, a little resource- fulness”—have been key to the success of Entreamigos, the nonprofit organization she founded in 2006.
More than 12 years ago, after completing college in the U.S., Nicole spent time traveling in Mexico. She eventually fell in love with the sleepy coastal town of San Francisco in the state of Nayarit. She says, “I didn’t come to Mexico to start a nonprofit. But I was living in this tiny town that needed and really wanted the opportunities of tourism, but didn’t seem quite prepared to make the most of it. There were serious economic and educational needs in the village, and people arriving in the community who had skills and resources to offer, yet the connection between the two wasn’t happening. It seemed like with just a little impulse or a little bridging, everyone’s best intentions could help San Francisco grow in a healthy, community- centered way.”
Nicole wrote what she refers to as a “mini- manifesto,” an idealistic plan for what San Francisco could be if everyone worked together. She explains what happened next: “A friend who is a former teacher offered to support me for a year so I could try to make my vision a reality. He told me, ‘If you don’t do it now, you will always wonder.’ That is how Entreamigos was born.”
The nonprofit began small—offering community art classes and establishing a store to sell locally made crafts. Other classes quickly followed because, Nicole says, “at Entreamigos we believe that everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn.”
In 2009, the Nayarit state government gave Entreamigos the rights to remodel an abandoned milk processing facility on the town’s main street. “The community came together to remodel the facility using a ‘green’ design, and it now serves many purposes,” Nicole says. “Approximately 150 kids use the facility each day for classes in technology, sports, circus, art, or just to read a book in the library or get help with homework. Adults come as well for classes, workshops, and conferences. In 2013, we offered more than 700 classes to the community. One of the hardest things for us to do now is to keep track of it all and to let people know about everything that is happening.”
Nicole explains that she learned a valuable lesson about scale and impact through the experience of Entreamigos’ scholarship program. “At one time in the early years we had 150 kids on scholarship,” she says, “but we really couldn’t keep track of them all. Today we have about 70 kids but we know everything about them, their families, and their challenges. We also know that every single one will be able to go to college if they choose to. That is a generational change that will be of true long- term value in our small community.”
Nicole’s decision to create her family’s life in Mexico was not an easy one. But, in her words, “If you believe in something with the whole of your heart then you have to jump in with two feet and go all the way to the deep end.”