About Project Esperanza

When I was a freshman at Virginia Tech, I applied for a scholarship that, if awarded, would pay for my following three years of college, and would also require that I lead a service project for the rest of my college career. I grew very excited as I wrote out a plan for a service project which included public school students fund raising to sponsor children in developing countries. The plan also included the students participating in activities such as going a week without watching TV for example, in order to learn about the different lives the kids they are sponsoring lead. I was heartbroken when my application was not even considered, both because I would not receive the scholarship and because I would not have the chance to execute the project. My dad consoled me and said, "You will do this. If not through this scholarship you will do this in some other way." That quote might not be verbatim but it was something along those lines.

I soon read The Purpose Driven Life by Pastor Rick Warren and I ate it up. I have never been a big reader... I am a day dreamer and lose my attention..but throughout this time in my life I was pretty obsessed with reading Christian books and then also read social movement books, as well as books having to do with race issues, etc. It was as though I was granted an attention span to do it for this time period. Some of these books include:

Celebration of the Disciplines by Richard Foster
Connecting by Dr. Larry Crabb
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
& Walking with the Wind by John Lewis

I also read the Bible all the way through for the first time, and was surprised to find that all of those little stories I knew of growing up were connected into one big, beautiful story. In one of the last chapters of The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren says, "Go on a mission trip." He commands it to those who haven't done so yet. I had never been out of the country and knew that that command was one that I needed to follow. 

I began talking to friends and others felt the need to visit a third world country as well, so we began thinking about that. My sister received an e-mail through her university about an organization that led volunteers to volunteer with an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. She forwarded it to me. My friend at a different university received the same e-mail and also forwarded it to me. So a few friends and I fundraised by writing support letters and planned to go in January 2005. 

At a restaurant in Blacksburg with the best random roommate never, Alexis Wells (now Carpenter). She is also a Project Esperanza volunteer, advocate, board member, and supporter since day 1.

Five of us went on this trip together to the town of Esperanza. We didn't, I don't think, make a profound impact in the one week we were there, as our communication skills were limited and we found that we were part of a group of volunteers that come and go, doing activities with the kids at an orphanage, but the lack of consistency there is perhaps not what was best for the kids. However, it did make a profound impact in that it spurred on the creation of Project Esperanza. 

I absolutely fell in love with the mission of creating positive change in this place and in utilizing the abundant blessings of resources, knowledge, etc. that we possess in the U.S. to do this. I was also in love with the idea of the blessings that we Americans and expats receive from the community here as well, as not all resources are tangible or tied to economic wealth. I was specifically affected by visiting areas called bateyes where, historically, Haitian sugar cane workers lived and by learning about their situation. We also observed the Haitian boys in the orphanage, learning about the additional difficulties they face because of their nationality and race.

10 of us fundraised together again and returned in June 2005. This time I stayed for two weeks. Kristin Preve (now Kristin Donohue) also came this time. We had met through a creative writing class and also through our church. We also both took a class through our church which was described as "seminary integrated into college". It entailed daily readings in the Bible and others books as well as monthly intensives where we had visiting speakers. This was part of me getting filled up before I was sent out. It was during this time that Kristin and I sat around with others and dreamed of our missions. I grew excited with pre-Project Esperanza ideas and saw everyone around me as potential partners. Through trial and error, I soon learned that not everyone would be a partner, and some would even be neigh-sayers, but this just helped to find who would partner. 

Kristin and I took the leap, with the support of one encouraging pastor, and began a student organization called Project Esperanza in the fall of 2005. I was a Junior working on my vet school application, planning to skip my Senior year and go straight to the VT vet school, and Kristin was a Sophomore working on an English degree. We presented the organization to our church, classmates, and friends, and began meeting weekly. 

Kristin and I playing musical chairs with the original group of street kids, summer 2006.
We planned on returning to the town of Esperanza with the same organization, but with the hopes of serving the Haitian community in general. It was a broad plan and we just got started by fund raising on campus and inviting others to join us. I stayed in touch with the couple who was on the ground. I also sent in my vet school application and was invited to the final interview step. 

After hearing a leadership speaker named Tim Elmore talk about the difference between a flood and a river, floods being a stagnant and ineffective body of water and a river being a focused and powerful body of water, and his advice that a leader should be a focused river, not an unfocused flood, I wrote to the vet school to let them know I was taking myself out of the application process. During the whole talk, I was practically falling out of my seat with excitement over the idea of Project Esperanza, making comments in Kristin's ear throughout the talk, and declared this decision as soon as the speaker's talk ended.  

Throughout the year, the orphanage we had volunteered at was actually shut down and our team leaders moved to Puerto Plata and rented a house. So we planned on joining them there and starting from scratch. This was actually better because we were initially planning on trying to do something (reach out to the bateyes) that was outside of the original organization's work (serve at an orphanage). 31 of us traveled to Puerto Plata that summer (2006) over the span of two months. From the day we were picked up at the airport, the couple on the ground had two Haitian shoe shine boys with them who they had employed to help with yard work and other odds and ends. Kristin and I began tutoring them during our lunch break and were introduced to a whole new world. 

Going to soccer practice, July 2008. Photo taken by Sam Dean.
We were also sent by the couple on the ground to conduct a street census to obtain information on the hundreds of other shoe shine, street vending boys on the streets. This is where our eyes were opened to need and what would be the heart of our efforts and our organization. This began a situation that I could never again remove myself from, where education-less, family-less, hopeless boys began coming to our door by the dozen. I had found my calling. I had been led to it and pushed into it actually.

We continued to bring volunteer groups to Puerto Plata, taking on a lot very quickly and executing serious fund raising in the US to keep up with it all. We became an incorporated organization in the US in the fall of 2006. I became the executive director. I had never sought out such a leadership position but had shared ideas and visions, invited others to come along, and followed my motherly instincts. 

I lived off of Project Esperanza, spiritually speaking. Every day was completely full of Project Esperanza. And I had never felt more alive. I had had similar moments of such full life: holding and caring for baby lambs, playing in great basketball games, but those were moments and this was constant. I began facing adversaries like never before as well...feeling led to do things that no one would really understand or do themselves but every fiber of my being called me to do. Project Esperanza got its non-profit status in the US in June 2007 and in the Dominican Republic shortly after.  

Now Project Esperanza runs several ongoing programs. I have a motherly love and protection over each of them, but also enjoy allowing others to lead and grow, which I think is part of good parenting. To learn more about all that the organization does, the best way to do that is to thoroughly read through the website

Ilayas and I with great friend EM: board member, supports in every way, and brings her middle schoolers each summer!

Mom, AKA Gabby AKA PE's financial manager visiting.

Wevli and I with Crystal Fox: great friend, sponsor coordinator, DR social butterfly. 

Addressing campers at Circle Time at English camp. My son Ilayas is in blue on the left.