Do you walk to work each morning? Imagine stepping over and around children sprawled out across the sidewalk, hungry, homeless and unconscious from sniffing toxic glue. What do you do?
This question plagued the minds of nine merchant women working in Leon, Nicaragua’s largest market, in September of 1989.
Nicaragua’s Civil War officially ended in 1979 with the expulsion of the brutal Somoza dictatorship and a victorious Sandinista regime. Having cost the lives of roughly 50,000 men and women soldiers (the exact number is unknown), the war left in its wake a generation of children on the street — some orphans, others abandoned, and many victims of violence and sexual exploitation. Without the prospect of education or work, they were left hungry, desperate to steal their next meal from the very market stalls managed by the women merchants.
Emergence of Las Tías
None of the women had benefited from formal higher education, yet they felt compelled to intervene. Led by the so-called “Market Mayor,” Leonza Corina Alvarez, the women called themselves Las Tías (“the aunts”). At first, they scrapped together the resources to feed and provide basic necessities for the children. However, their longer-term vision was to create a sustainable mechanism for delivering economic and emotional support. Drawing upon the skills and experiences learned in peddling clothes, basic grains, dairy products, fruit juices and other popular goods, they developed vocational training programs designed to prepare these youth for future economic livelihood.
Originally turning toward relatively easy-to-learn work like piñata making and car washing, the vocational programs have since evolved to encompass a range of more reliable professions. Today, the Las Tías center is home to a leather workshop, sewing school, barber shop, carpentry workshop and computer-training center. Recently, Las Tías was granted a license to offer technical training which gives more formal legitimacy to the students’ expertise in a society where technical titles are critical to marketability.
To enhance their capacity to maximize impact, several women of Las Tías pushed to further their own limited education by enrolling in courses at technical schools and even completing programs at the local university. They also hired social workers to more effectively address the psychological challenges experienced by their students.
Of last year’s group of 80 students who benefitted from Las Tías’ vocational training, only three have moved on to earn scholarships to attend the local public university. This low rate of continued education underscores the significance of the vocational training which is designed to empower youth with skills to create a sustainable livelihood.
More than 25 years after its inception, Las Tías is still far too under-equipped to adequately address all the challenges experienced by youth in Leon. To date, Las Tías has served 850 adolescents and 1,060 children, yet extreme poverty and child labor affects more than 167,000 youth across Nicaragua. Recognizing its own limited capacity for impact at scale, Las Tías has pursued partnerships with both local and international organizations to implement a variety of projects impacting the community.
Recognizing that challenges affecting local youth begin earlier than 14, Las Tias built another nearby facility to house programs for younger children ages 6 through 13. They even spawned another NGO called Niño’s de 14 to build quality houses and generate employment opportunities for families living in a nearby impoverished community just outside of town.
Las Tías’ influence on other local organizations is undeniable. Many local churches, historically lacking in social programs and youth education, in particular, are finally beginning to offer similar types of programs. Through its inspiring success, Las Tías has managed to attract the attention of several international organizations. One Houston-based nonprofit, Amigos de las Americas, facilitates internships and gap-year placements that have provided much-needed assistance to a range of projects with Las Tías.
Partnership with Spark Ventures
Over the past several years, Las Tías has built a deep partnership with Spark Ventures, a Chicago-based nonprofit committed to offering assistance in forms ranging from funding to volunteers and business strategy. Perhaps most interestingly, Spark is building profit-generating social enterprises designed to fund the operations and ambitions of Las Tías as it prepares for a sustainable and bright future.
In 2014, Spark Ventures and Las Tías formed a joint-venture in order to launch an agribusiness, growing cacao and supporting honeybee apiaries among other crops. The profits from this business will liberate Las Tías from a 25-year history of depending on the traditional dollar-in, dollar-out philanthropic model, freeing its staff to allocate resources and direct energy toward what they do best.
Additionally, Spark Ventures is pioneering a concept they call ‘impact travel.’ Spark goes beyond facilitating opportunities for traditional skills-based volunteering to design experiences where people can engage more deeply with both Las Tías and Hope Ministries, Spark’s partner in Zambia. An impact travel experience with Spark might include extended time with local leaders like Corina, volunteering with children, and engaging with the culture, history and the natural beauty of the country.
Las Tías believes that a more secure childhood and adolescence should be a basic universal right: “We believe that providing safe spaces where children can learn and experience the challenges of growing up is a crucial step for the advancement of our society.”
After spending a couple of days visiting with founder, Leonza Corina Alvarez and Director, Magno Berbis, the key to Las Tías’ success was clear. They aren’t just charitable business people. They have demonstrated a willingness to step into the lives of local children as family. As we parted ways, Corina left me with warm words that would both welcome and ensure my eventual return: “Remember, you have family here, you have friends here. What more do you need in life?”
To learn more about Spark Venture’s business-driven philanthropy model and opportunities to support Las Tías, click here.
Image credits: Las Tías & Spark Ventures