A tale of two Xelas (or Shaylas): Idaho teen reconnects with Guatemalan homeland through service

The link between the Guatemalan city of Quetzaltenango and Shayla Dunn, a 17-year-old Latter-day Saint from Idaho Falls, Idaho, is not readily apparent.

But take a closer look.

For local residents, Quetzaltenango is commonly known by its Mayan name: Xelajú, or Xela (pronounced, in anglicized form, Shayla). But the connection between Xela, the city, and Shayla, the Spider-Man loving American teenager, goes far beyond homonyms.

And now —  after participating in a recent two-week humanitarian construction project in the city she is named for — Shayla Dunn’s link to Xela has been strengthened in ways she never imagined.

First, some Dunn family background.

In the 1980s, Shayla’s adopted father, James Dunn, served a full-time mission to Quetzaltenango. He returned home to the United States with a deep, spiritual love for all things Guatemala — including the country’s culture, its languages, its people and, yes, the city of “Xela.”

“Having lived there, the name Xela was always neat to me — so I always wanted to have a daughter named Shayla,” said Dunn. 

James Dunn and his wife, Tammy, had three sons and made several return trips to his mission country. They dreamed of adopting a child from Guatemala. Happy news arrived in October of 2003. A newborn Guatemalan girl was available for adoption.

“We were told the baby had just been born and that we could name her,” Dunn added. “We said, ‘Her name is Shayla.’ That’s the name on her birth certificate.”

The Dunns traveled to Guatemala and picked up Baby Shayla, bringing her to a new home in Idaho almost 5,000 miles away from her native land. 

But the Dunns were determined that their daughter remain linked to her homeland.

“We’ve tried to incorporate Shayla’s Guatemalan heritage into our family however we could,” said James Dunn. “We have Guatemalan clothing and cook Guatemalan food and frequently talk to our daughter about Guatemala.”

Shayla also began studying Spanish as a kindergartener through a bilingual program offered at her school. She grew up practicing the language with her dad and volunteered as a Spanish translator at the Boise Zoo.

But until recently she had never actually visited the land of her birth. The Dunns were waiting for an ideal time to when she could best appreciate the experience.

Then a couple of years ago the family learned about a nonprofit organization that organizes humanitarian building projects for youth in international locales to help meet a specific need for a particular community.

The humanitarian building organization is not affiliated with the Church, although guiding Latter-day Saint principles and practices such as prayer, scripture study and church attendance are key elements of each project.

Counted among the organization’s offerings this year was a service project to Quetzaltenango. Shayla wanted in.

“I was excited to go to Guatemala, but also a little nervous,” she told the Church News after completing her service project last month. “I wanted to learn more about my culture and enjoy the food. But mostly, I was excited to go back and serve.”

Idaho teen Shayla Dunn at the site of a humanitarian building project in Quetzaltenango (or Xela), Guatemala. Shayla was born in Guatemala.
Idaho teen Shayla Dunn at the site of a humanitarian building project in Quetzaltenango (or Xela), Guatemala. Shayla was born in Guatemala. Credit: Provided by Jordan Murray

Shayla’s original plans to join a humanitarian building project in Quetzaltenango last year was waylaid by the pandemic. She was thrilled when things opened up in 2021 for a trip prior to her senior year of high school.

Shayla and 18 other youth took part in a project to build an addition to a Quetzaltenango-area health clinic that primarily serves children. Her days started early with scripture study and breakfast. Then she pulled on a hard hat (emblazoned with Spider-Man stickers) and got to work — assembling scaffolding, laying brick, hauling cinder blocks, mixing cement and whatever else the task required.

And, no, Shayla didn’t arrive in Xela with any construction experience.

“I was learning on the job, I had no idea how to do anything,” she said, laughing. “But I learned quickly.”

Time away from the job site was spent in devotionals, testimony meetings, scripture studies and family home evenings. Shayla’s group also enjoyed touristy excursions — visiting cultural sites, kayaking and hiking.

Most importantly, Shayla connected with, in her words, “my people.” 

Long after the callouses on her hands have smoothed, Shayla will remember the faces and smiles of the people she served. Some of the young mothers she met at the health clinic were about her age. She spoke to them in Spanish  — and tried to pick up a few words in the indigenous languages that were likely spoken by her own ancestors. 

Many of the mothers knew poverty and hardship. Shayla was grateful to be lifting their burdens a bit. And she’s grateful for a name that helped her make instant friends.

“When I told people my name was Shayla, their faces would glow,” she said. “I would explain that I was born in Guatemala and that this was my first time back since being adopted.”

“Welcome back,” they answered. “We are so glad you are here.”