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Everyday Heroes: Jon Thompson

Comunidad Connect

With a few good friends, a surfboard and a bit of money, Atlanta native Jon Thompson set off on an unplanned road trip that changed his life.

The 1998 adventure was supposed to be a spontaneous trek for fun, but after six months of traveling through Mexico and central America, Thompson found himself in a small town of San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua that captured his heart.

“This town really spoke to me,” said the Decatur resident. “It became my second home.”

Credit: Photo Cour

Credit: Photo Cour

After several months there where he honed his Spanish fluency, Thompson returned to Atlanta and began teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) classes at DeKalb Tech. But during the summers, he was drawn back to Nicaragua.

“From what I saw there and in my classrooms, people needed more than the ABC’s,” said Thompson. “They wanted help with life issues. They knew someone who went to jail or got hurt, or they needed help registering for school. I realized they needed advocacy.”

Thompson headed back to school and earned a master’s in social work from Georgia State in 2002. “That’s where I harnessed the legacy of service I’d learned from my parents and started to create something that resembled a career,” he said.

In 2005, Thompson relocated to Nicaragua and launched Comunidad Connect, a nonprofit designed to connect those in need with resources.

“When I began to meet people in their homes, my jaw dropped,” he said. “Some folks don’t even have a roof over their heads. There are sick people they don’t know how to care for. I saw a need to be the bridge between the people with resources and the people with needs.”

The concept expanded a few years later when Thompson saw that people interested in volunteer tourism could also make an impact. He launched a partnership with Emory University to bring groups of students and faculty to San Juan del Sur with the goal he described as doing more than just getting dirty, taking a selfie and going home.

“We wanted them to join something that was going on year round rather than going dormant when they weren’t around,” he said. “The idea grew into programs around environmental awareness, conservation, clean water access and youth sports.”

Through those partnerships, the nonprofit has delivered more than 8,000 meals, worked with about 10,000 young athletes, distributed water filters and opened a clinic that serves about 4,000 people a year. Nursing students from colleges around the country have been recruited to volunteer. Programs for those who need ongoing care have been established. And in 2018, Thompson expanded the organization’s reach into the Dominican Republic.

“As a small, nimble [nonprofit organization], we can work with community partners to ensure what we’re doing is in conjunction with health ministries so what we’re doing is community-led,” he said. “If not, it’s not going to last.”

In 2015, Thompson and his wife, Arelis, moved to Decatur and have developed similar partnerships in local communities.

“We’ve been intentional about being more relevant to Atlanta and have begun to do more to bring people together. In late September, we did Salsa on the Square in Decatur to celebrate Hispanic Heritage month. We’ve found partners in Decatur and Avondale Estates to work on issues in these areas. Every day, I’m trying to grow the community here so they can be ready when we say the food bank needs our support, and we can get a few thousand people to work with us around initiatives already going good work.”

While establishing a nonprofit was never part of his life plan, Thompson said it couldn’t have happened without that eye-opening road trip.

“It made me more aware of opportunities,” he said. “Now when I speak with young people, I remind them that it all starts with getting out of their comfort zone. That trip helped me to repurpose who I was and redefined who I wanted to be. If young people aren’t afraid to put themselves in uncomfortable situations, they’ll grow exponentially. And we believe the more our community grows, the more our ability to make a difference grows with it.”

HOW TO HELP

For more information on Comunidad Connect, please visit https://comunidadconnect.org/.

To donate to Comunidad Connect, please click here.


WE’RE STRONGER TOGETHER: A SPECIAL PROJECT

This place we call home is filled with ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary feats. Their selfless acts make this region so special – and they bring out the best in all of us. With the holidays upon us, we wanted to share their inspiring stories, celebrate their accomplishments, and offer ways that you can help.

Just as the 55 people we’re profiling can’t do it alone, nor can we. That’s why we worked closely with our partners to bring you this collection of uplifting stories.

We hope they leave you feeling inspired and ready to tackle the busy new year that lies ahead. We hope they make you feel more connected to your community or to your neighbors.

And maybe, just maybe, they will motivate you to come up with your own small way to make a big difference in the lives of others.

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