Casa Chirilagua

A Little Salvadoran Village in Arlington

Casa Chirilagua | June 2015


In 2007, three young women moved into an apartment complex in the heart of Arlandria, a small neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia more commonly known to its latino immigrant community as 'Chirilagua.'

Chirilagua became home to Julia, Emily and Dawnielle as they set out on a new journey to explore what it truly means to be a community.     

Fresh out of college, these three friends settled into the Chirilagua neighborhood and were quickly introduced to the stories and wisdom of their new neighbors, many of whom were immigrant families from Central America.

Eventually Julia, Emily and Dawnielle decided to do more than listen—they began a reading club in their apartment. 

Through two years of relationship and listening, a pattern emerged: Countless parents expressed deep concern about their children’s academic progress. With limited resources, cultural and language barriers and little experience with the American education system, many parents struggled to help.

This fledging initiative eventually grew into an after school program, which then expanded into a full-scale non-profit that serves children, youth and families and invests in local leaders, working to build a community that is motivated, empowered and united.

What a beautiful picture of what being a community can look like!

Learning Together

In his photo essay, John Jacks captures the joy, cooperation, care, hope and love that characterize the Casa Chirilagua community.

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Together We Grow. More than a tagline, this slogan has become reality for the kids, families, workers, volunteers, and mentors at Casa Chirilagua.

A New Kind of Community

Tucked away in the northeast region of one of DC's closest suburbs is a small neighborhood called Arlandria (or Chirilagua, as it's known by locals). 

Little Chirilagua

When civil war broke out in El Salvador in the 1980′s, many families immigrated to the U.S. seeking safety including a group of people from a little Salvadoran village called ‘Chirilagua.’ As several of those individuals started their new lives in Alexandria they referred to their new home as “Little Chirilagua.” Today, the neighborhood is very diverse, but includes a significant remnant of immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and other parts of the world.

Discovering Challenges

Immigrant communities around the world face many of the same challenges: language barriers, limited resources, lack of education, and integration. They also confront many of the struggles common to working-class families.  

How will a single mom help her children with their homework when circumstances demand that she work extra hours? And how will a father help his child read when he is still in the process of learning English himself? 

One Casa Chirilagua intern describes her encounter with a young resident of Chirilagua:

One morning at Kid’s Club, Selena began to cry. We had been talking about brothers and sisters, and one of the little boys in Kids Club had been making fun of her. In an attempt to figure out what was going on, Selena and I went outside to talk, where she cried, “I don’t know if my baby brother has been born yet.” Helen has a step-brother on the way in Guatemala, but didn’t have any way of knowing if he had been born yet. I was caught off guard by her situation. There are many “broken” families in Chirilagua – broken because one family member is here in the United States and another is in his/her home country (El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua just to name a few), broken because there are few two-parent families in the neighborhood, broken because family members have passed away, and broken because of stress that infiltrates all aspects of life for immigrants in the United States. That morning, I saw the pain that this kind of brokenness can cause, as she tried to sort through what the word “family” meant to her.

These struggles are certainly not unique to the neighborhood of Chirilagua, but what is unique is the way this community is coming together to build a strong, stable, and brighter future.

Every Step

Children need tutors and reading assistance. Youth need role models and mentoring relationships. Families need support. Communities need leaders. 

And today, these needs are being met in the form of Casa Chirilagua.  

There is something for everyone.  Casa Chirilagua is building a new kind of community – one that sees a need and empowers the community to meet that need. 

​I love that they take us on field trips and help us with our homework.

Jose, Kids Club student

Kids find reading support, homework help and character building activities to help them thrive academically, socially and emotionally.  Middle schoolers acquire social and developmental support and active learning opportunities with peers that help them engage with the world around them through new interests and activities. Family activities create a safe environment for families within the community to grow together and access resources for parenting, professional and personal development.

Motivated, United and Empowered

Casa Chirilagua provides support for every step along the way – every stage of life – but perhaps the most truly unique aspect of the organization is the way that it empowers the community.

The programs and services Casa offers are not a product of an outside agenda; rather, they are the result of grassroots efforts – ideas from within the community itself.  

When there is a need within the neighborhood, local leaders come together to generate solutions. And because the need and solutions are generated within the community, there is shared ownership of the need. Local leaders are then motivated, united, and empowered to pursue change.

With this organic approach, Casa Chirilagua is building a neighborhood partnership, led by a group of individuals committed to learning together and encouraging one another as they seek to make a difference within their own community… to create a new kind of community.

Two Lives Changed

For those involved with Casa Chirilagua's mentoring program, the relationship is mutually beneficial – one that changes, stretches, and grows both mentor and mentee together.

One mentoring relationship. Two lives changed. 

BitterSweet’s Stephanie Ball sat down with one such pair to learn about their experience:  

The sound of children filled the air as I entered the building where Amy and Elena were going to meet me. I glanced down a busy corridor and saw a handful of people waiting on a bench, and one of them looked at me from the corner of her eye, with that very distinct and expectant look one gives when waiting to meet someone new. I had my 1-year old son in tow, so with him in one arm, I extended the other to shake Amy’s hand and introduced myself. 

Amy was looking for mentoring opportunities when she moved to DC from Pennsylvania, so she contacted Volunteers of America, who put her in touch with Casa Chirilagua. 

We were joined shortly after by Elena, a beautiful 12-year old girl and the daughter of a Salvadoran immigrant. She first heard of Casa Chirilagua from a cousin of hers who participated in their programs. 

Amy and Elena were brought together by Casa Chirilagua’s mentoring program and have been a mentor/mentee pair for about a year now. 

Mentor Mentee Web

When asked about their first impressions of each other, they both look at each other. Amy responds, “very shy,” and, with her glance down at the picnic bench and in a very sweet and quiet voice, Elena says she thought Ms. Amy was “nice.”

They’ve come a long way since then, and even though Amy admits that perhaps the biggest challenge for her was the first couple of months, when they both had to get to know each other and build “that trust,” she wanted to help Elena break out of her shyness. And she certainly has – through their relationship, Elena has gained noticeable confidence and is not as shy as she used to be. She feels much more comfortable around Ms. Amy and others.

Mid-interview we are interrupted by a group of three young boys, asking Elena if both Ms. Amy and I are her mentors. When informed that they were actually being interviewed for a publication, one of the boys tells her in a very excited tone: “You’ll be famous!” This is followed by a series of very serious questions regarding how much money she would win and whether she’d be on YouTube. 

They scatter away towards the playground in the glimmering afternoon sun, and I am struck by how comfortable and pleasant this place is; there are flowers and trees everywhere, and a beautiful and brightly painted white church building with clean and vibrant classrooms filled with natural light and smiling faces. It’s not hard to imagine how someone like Elena would be able to grow and blossom in an environment like this.

Although most of Casa Chirilagua’s activities take place in this picturesque location, Amy and Elena often meet in different places. A typical get-together for them involves Amy picking her up and catching up for about 15-20 minutes. They talk about how their weeks went. Then they read or do some kind of educational activity, and they work on any homework Elena may have. If she doesn’t have any, they might work on online educational activities and fill out accompanying worksheets. Often, they’ll go to a bookstore, and Amy lets Elena pick out a new book that they read together. So far, her favorite was a piece written by Frida Kahlo because she likes how Frida didn’t give up. 

Elena recalls the different places Ms. Amy has taken her to: museums, botanical gardens, hiking adventures and miniature golfing. But one of her favorite memories is the trip to the Barnum & Bailey Circus. It was the first time she’d ever been to the Circus, and it was even more special because she was able to share the experience with her younger sister and her mentor as well. 

Elena also remembers the time when Ms. Amy took her to meet her boyfriend, a bank manager. Amy and her boyfriend took the opportunity to teach Elena some financial basics and the importance of saving money; they showed her how she could one day save up to buy a home and even took her to see a big house that was for sale. Of course, they also made time to see a movie. 

Their relationship is a combination of fun and learning and most of all, growing.  

And this relationship is a two-way street.

Amy has learned a lot from Elena, including the differences between American and Salvadoran Holiday Celebrations; they celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, in the evening, for example. Then there are the elaborate “quinceañeras,” a very formal 15th Birthday Celebration typical in Latin American cultures.  She notes that they also seem to have a greater sense of family and community.

As a result of her mentoring relationship with Elena, Amy shares that she feels a greater sense of belonging now, that she’s more involved in her community. She feels like she understands her neighbors more, and Elena’s culture more. 

Amy has gained a deeper awareness of other people and their needs. This serves her well as she tries to navigate finding the balance between being a teacher and friend. 

“For me, the most rewarding part has been being able to make a difference, exposing her to new things and seeing positive growth,” says Amy. 

Casa Chirilagua Mentor Infographic

And Elena, even though she doesn’t exactly “like” reading, has found reading rewarding in the past year. She also senses a deeper level of respect, within her family and her community. 

Elena’s younger sister, who is 9, also participates in the mentoring program. She does experiments, goes running, and regularly visits the library with her mentor. “She is learning more,” Elena observes. While she may still be reserved when talking about herself, Elena is eager to share with me about the positive effects of mentoring she has seen in her sister’s life:

“Can I add something,” she politely interjects {and catches me off-guard with her un-shy clarification}, “What I mean by learning…once she didn’t have a mentor she wouldn’t want to read or do stuff, now when she goes to the library, she gets tons of books by herself and reads all the time. She even wants to learn things that I’m learning in school even though she doesn’t get them.” This has inspired Elena to do more herself. 

Although the official commitment to mentor is only for a year, Amy hopes they can continue their friendship and would love to be there when Elena graduates from high school. 

“I definitely recommend becoming a mentor, it is very rewarding. I didn’t think that I would be as touched by this as I am. Just knowing that someone is always counting on you, you have to be reliable and responsible for guiding this person in a positive direction.” 

And Elena? She would encourage her friends to do it because “being a mentee is fun, helpful, and you will learn more.”

*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

Mi Casa Es Su Casa

Casa Chirilagua's motto 'mi casa es su casa' encapsulates the mission and mindset of the Casa community: What's mine is yours. We are in together. Let's help one another.

Casa Chirilagua is a community of people “learning together to love their neighbors as themselves” in a diverse neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia.

Cultivating Relationships

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This kind of community is built on relationships. Casa Chirilagua remains involved in people’s lives for as long as they desire. It strives to be regularly involved in the lives of students and their families in a way that stretches beyond programming. Leaders and volunteers build relationships to encourage individuals to make constructive decisions as and connect them to existing resources in the community to assist them in their specific need.

Casa resides in and intentionally identifies with the Chirilagua neighborhood. As an integral part of the community, it is committed to helping fellow neighbors define the community’s needs and priorities through daily relationships in order to design creative, culturally-relevant, sustainable solutions. It also partners with many existing community organizations to pursue this goal.

Empowering the Next Generation

Through Kids Club, first through fifth grade students are provided an educational, after school program to help improve achievement and confidence.  What began as a handful of students and volunteers reading together after school in a girls’ apartment has since grown into an organized program that accommodates 40 students, two staff members, and 40 volunteers five days a week. 

Kids Club still offers daily reading support, but it now includes homework help and character building activities to help students hone their academic and social skills. Kids Club provides access to families, a bridge between our partners and neighborhood, and a space for the community to shape its youngest members.

Kids Club creates a safe, stable, and loving environment where children can receive the academic support they need and learn skills to build healthy relationships with one another. 

Investing in Youth

As middle school students attempt to figure out their social standing among peers, they explore their unique talents. Their behavioral and academic outcomes improve as they receive more opportunities to investigate these talents and plug into their community.

They teach me how to read and help with my homework when my parents cannot help.

Victoria, Kids Club student

Teens Club offers evening and weekend extracurricular opportunities that provide social and developmental support through group classes, experience and exposure field trips, and service learning projects. Through active learning opportunities with peers, students are given the opportunity to engage with the world surrounding them and try new interests and activities.

As adolescents mature and approach adulthood, they face decisions that impact their character and social development.  High school programming offers learning opportunities for students in the ninth through twelfth grade through a monthly class series led by professional role models. These classes help prepare teens for college and the workforce. 

Mentoring Matters

Mentoring is proven to decrease the risk factors associated with crime, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, poor school performance and gang affiliation.  It also builds confidence and self-esteem and helps kids recognize their potential.  It inspires them to learn, helps them overcome failure and teaches them that they are valued and important.  

Young people need a range of caring adults in their lives to be successful. Yet, as many as 1 in 5 youth—and even more of those living in poverty— lack this vital resource.

America’s Promise Alliance 2006

Casa Chirilagua’s community-based mentoring program matches students enrolled in other Casa Chirilagua programs with a caring adult. While each relationship forms uniquely, most pairs spend their time developing academic skills with special learning experiences interspersed. Along with boosting confidence by acquiring more academic skills, the individualized attention and companionship a child receives from a mentor increases a youth’s general sense of well-being.  

Mentors receive individualized attention from a student and the opportunity to experience their mentee’s growth and change. The goal: transform two lives through one mentor relationship.

Developing Local Leaders

Young adults who live in the Chirilagua community and attend college are offered part-time job experience, career development, professional mentoring and support for continuing education. These individuals who are passionate about building their community provide support at Kids Club as assistants, helping instill leadership qualities in students through activities that boost confidence or allow children to recognize their God-given gifts. 

All of Casa Chirilagua’s programs are leading toward this goal of helping to develop local leaders.  As children and teens benefit from the support and mentoring opportunities available to them, they are able to step into leadership roles and become uniquely qualified to serve their community.  

Assisting Families

Casa Chirilagua comes alongside families and offers support. It provides a space to engage in community dialogue, share experiences, and learn together. Classes in financial literacy and family strengthening help resource parents with the tools needed to care for and provide for a family.  Family dinners allow the opportunity to share accomplishments, connect with other families and celebrate community.  

Get Involved

Editor's Note

I first encountered Casa Chirilagua on a sunny afternoon visit to a local park with my then-two-year-old son. While I watched him hike wooden beams and crawl through tunnels, I also observed a group of kids, homework spread out on a picnic bench, laughing, working, talking and discussing their questions.

I later learned that this lively and very engaging cadre of elementary school students was an earlier iteration of Casa Chirilagua’s Kid’s Club.

What strikes me most, even now, is the nature of those relationships. As children studied and worked on homework, they also asked questions and seemed to enjoy themselves.

This picture gave me a glimpse into the way learning is perhaps meant to be – a group of kids and caring adults exploring, investigating and having fun together.

The more I’ve learned about Casa Chirilagua, the more I see the power of community. What happens when a neighborhood joins together to meet the needs of all those within its community? From youngest to oldest, from children to young adults to parents, everyone has needs, and everyone has the ability to meet someone’s need.

Casa is like a microcosm – a study in what society might look like if people were motivated and empowered to help build a stronger community.

“Siempre hay algo que se deja para el amor // There is always something left to love.” ~ Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The future for the community of Casa Chirilagua is bright, to be sure. A culture built on cooperation, unity and love is bringing hope and restoration to an entire neighborhood.

Amanda Sig

Amanda Lahr

Editor, BitterSweet Monthly

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