SPH Student Wins $100,000 to Educate Honduran Youth
Do Something! Award to nonprofit Educate2Envision
Will Ferrell, Ben Affleck, Olivia Munn…and Katia Gomez.
The School of Public Health student found herself in star-studded company late last August when she took top prize at the nationally televised VH1 Do Something! Awards, which honor young adults 25 and under for their social change projects. Gomez won a winged shoe trophy—and a $100,000 grant—for creating Educate2Envision (E2E), a nongovernmental organization that helps build schools and educate impoverished children in central Honduras.
“This is going to Honduras,” said Gomez (SPH’13) in accepting the award. “Things are going to improve for those girls, and they’re going to do something big too.”
Actor and director Affleck said he was honored to present the award. “While Katia was among a group of extremely impressive people, she stood out with both her work and her sense of self,” he said. “I was lucky to have the privilege of standing next to someone who is clearly going to make a lot of positive contributions to the world for many years.”
Gomez first went to Honduras in 2009 as an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, to volunteer during spring break. There she saw the effects of extreme poverty in a country where nearly half of the population is age 16 or younger and more than half of all Hondurans survive on the equivalent of $2 a day. Children in the region rarely get more than a few years of formal education. Many end up working in their family’s fields, or starting families as early as 14.
From a pilot program established on a shoestring budget, Educate2Envision has expanded to three remote communities, where Gomez and her coworkers have brought secondary education to more than 450 students.
BU Today spoke with the San Leandro, Calif., native about her inspiration and what the grant money will mean to her outreach work.
BU Today: What was your reaction when you heard your name called—by Ben Affleck, no less?
Gomez: If you’ve had the chance to see my expression on TV, that really says it all. I was completely shocked. And to add to that amazement, Ben Affleck pronounced my name correctly. It felt like an eternity from the time he opened the envelope until he said my name. It’s actually hard for me to remember what happened in the seconds after he read the winner because I felt so overwhelmed with emotion. I still get butterflies in my stomach when I watch the video clip and he’s about to name the winner, even though I know the answer.
What made you submit your work for consideration? What were your expectations?
I had won a $500 seed grant from Do Something early last year to help get us off the ground, and even that was a lot of money for us, so you can imagine how we felt applying for $100,000. I was optimistic about possibly making it to the semifinals, but going past that level seemed very unlikely, considering how small and low-budget we were. Luckily for us, the judges saw the impact we were making and gave us this priceless opportunity.
What was the award process like?
It began with over 1,000 applications from young people 25 and younger from both the United States and Canada. Around early June, they announced the 12 semifinalists hour by hour on Facebook. My picture was 11th out of the 12 to show up, so by 9 I had almost given up hope.
We were then flown out to New York for almost six hours of interviews with four different panels. It was pretty intimidating, but it gave the semifinalists awesome practice to really fine-tune what we wanted to say about our work. The final step was the announcement of the final five who would appear on VH1 and be granted $10,000. The Do Something team was really tricky and emailed each of us asking for additional information over Skype, but it turned out they were telling that we made it to the final round.
In your acceptance speech, you talked about your first volunteer visit to Honduras and the little girl who inspired you to create Educate2Envision.
Her name is Jenny, and when I left to head back home after my spring break trip, I felt this need to sponsor her through school. That was the only method I could think of to improve her well-being in some small way. I didn’t know why, at the time, she stuck in my mind so much, but I found out shortly after that her parents had been murdered when she was much younger and that she now lived with her grandmother, who had pulled Jenny out of school to work. The group working down there sent me a picture of Jenny in her new school uniform and backpack with a big smile on her face. Seeing that picture and hearing that story was the catalyst. I told myself I needed to find out if there were other kids like her who were having their futures stripped from them through no fault of their own. As a young person fortunate enough to have gotten to this level in my education, I felt a sense of responsibility to help those who could barely make it past sixth grade.”
What challenges did you face in getting Educate2Envision off the ground?
There were a few different challenges, the most obvious probably being that I knew absolutely nothing about starting a 501(c)(3) organization. I had to spend a ton of time borrowing books from the library about what I was getting myself into. Aside from all the paperwork, financially it was very difficult because we didn’t have any major connections with big donors—we relied on bake sales and small donations from family and friends. In the field, starting our first high school in Honduras required that we find a minimum of 10 sixth-grade graduates who would make up the entering class or else we wouldn’t be granted permission by the government. Even in a town of around 800, we struggled to find 10, but luckily pulled through in the end.
When did you realize your work was having a real impact?
I think, in particular, when a survey was handed out to the girls in high school asking what age they wanted to have their first child. Each girl increased her previous answer by nearly four years—all wanted to wait until around their mid-20s instead of 16, 17, which was the common answer before. Also, when I found out that primary school enrollment rates were doubling, showing me that because high schools now existed, parents were prioritizing education like never before.
How have your education and experiences at SPH helped your work?
I think it’s crucial to think critically about your next move before you implement it, and SPH does a good job of reminding its students of this. One of my favorite quotes comes from the essay collection In the River They Swim: “Many people have a heart for the poor, but there are few who have a mind for them.” To do this kind of work, you definitely need compassion, but you also need to train yourself to think in a structured way so that you are always keeping the needs of your community at the forefront. Many classes that I have taken thus far stress this, and it was a great help to me. I was also awarded a Santander Fellowship for my practicum this past summer, which enabled me to continue my fieldwork.
How does the grant change the scope of your mission, and what are your plans for the money?
This grant is a complete game changer for Educate2Envision. We have our sights set on investing in nearly 10,000 students to become first-generation high school students throughout Honduras. We are also working to create a mobile Girls Leadership unit that will travel and set up shop throughout hundreds of communities to propel our mission of decreasing teen pregnancy rates and nurturing confidence and self-worth in thousands of young girls. And next year we’re planning our first U.S. college campus tour to jumpstart Educate2Envision chapters nationwide.
You grew up in a single-parent home and credit your mother for instilling the values you practice today.
Well, my mom wasn’t able to reach the level of education she would have liked to, but instead had to enter the workforce earlier on. So from as early as I can remember, she reminded me how important it was to apply myself in school. She didn’t want me to struggle as we had financially when I was younger, and for her, the answer was education. I took that to heart—I wanted to make sure I could support her later in life with a good-paying job when I was ready to settle into a career.
She looked so proud of you at the awards show. What did she say to you after the show?
Oh yes, the cameras caught her sobbing with joy. She reminded me again of how proud she is of me and how she can’t wait to see what my next steps are with E2E.
Meaghan Agnew can be reached at email@example.com Comments