It is impossible to capture all that Donna was and did in this brief summary, but hopefully it can provide a glimpse of this remarkable woman. All who knew her agreed that Donna was a force of nature and truly one of a kind.
Donna was a respected producer for Pittsburgh broadcast media and the proud mother of two grown daughters when she discovered Building New Hope in its earliest days. She participated in BNH’s second brigade to El Salvador (1993) where BNH was helping returning war refugees rebuild their community, which they named Nueva Esperanza or New Hope.
She was deeply touched by the people there and their needs, and on her return to Pittsburgh, became a core member of the group, using her many contacts in the Pittsburgh area to generate numerous fund-raising events with local bands, TV producers, and influential local celebrities. She frequently went back to El Salvador and became official godmother to more than one newborn in the community. She even arranged for a used school bus from the US to go to El Salvador when the community requested one, and of course, filled it with supplies.
All of this rekindled a youthful interest in joining the Peace Corps. They placed her in Granada, Nicaragua, instead of her requested El Salvador. When she finished her time there, she stayed, opened a guest house, called “Another Night in Paradise,” and became BNH’s volunteer field director. She also became – as several of the youth she helped lovingly called her – “Queen of the Calzada”, a busy street in the heart of Granada. Her time there coincided with the transformation of the city and its economy into a major tourist destination. Her vision helped connect the needs of the local community with opportunities in a rapidly changing city.
In her home, Donna displayed a quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small
group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing
that ever has.” It was a quote she often shared when speaking to groups and in her written communication. Donna lived that truth. She was a force of nature. Where she saw a need, she found a way to address it, believing she could make change happen.
Were there children in the poor barrio near where she lived who were failing in Nicaraguan public schools and whom many had given up on? She “borrowed” a friend’s building and with that friend and two Nicaraguan teachers started “Quinta los Chavalos,” the Kid’s Place. At first la Quinta provided not just schooling but a home to kids who needed a safe place to stay and not be on the street. Over time it evolved into a day school where neighborhood youth could receive supplemental instruction for the half-day they were not in public school and the support that helped them to succeed in their education.
Were there kids not attending school, because they had to help their parents sell in the market? She took books to the market and read to kids during slow times. Out of that grew Escuelita Yo Puedo (the Little "I Can" School), drawing youth from several different neighborhoods around Granada. Donna, volunteers and Nicaraguan teachers taught English, engaged parents in their children’s education, and connected these students to Granada’s famous Poetry Festival – their award-winning participation in this festival was a source of great pride for her.
Both of these supplemental schools have given hundreds of Nicaraguan youth a chance to experience childhood. To read a fun book. To take a field trip. To really understand math, to do art and learn about music … and computers.
Were there young men hanging in the central square sniffing glue? And did they connect with the chef at her guest house? She started a cafe where they could learn all aspects of restaurant work--serving, cooking, even management. That was Café Chavalos, which was written up in major international tourist guides, and the focus of a documentary film. This was after she grabbed her sleeping bag and slept in the park to better understand what the children she had tutored and taken care of were experiencing at night.
Was there an oversupply of coffee globally in the early 2000s that devastated Nicaragua’s coffee growers, causing starvation the area? She shepherded a partnership with the El Porvenir coffee cooperative that was about to lose their land. Twenty years later, gourmet organic bird-friendly New Hope coffee is still a hot item. And fifty families are happy to have been able to stay independent, on their own land, and send some of their children to college.
Were there diseased animals roaming the streets of Granada presenting a public health hazard? With other Granada residents and international vet brigades, she started a spay/neuter/veterinary clinic, Casa Lupita, named after the first animal she cared for -- a dog named Lupita. Countless volunteers collaborated over the years, and the clinic also became an important training ground for Nicaraguan veterinary students to complete practicums, critical to their education. It still operates, today under the leadership of one of these vets, and the difference it has made in the public health of the city is visible.
She was instrumental in the founding of a music program in nearby rural public schools (Rhythm in the Barrios); many who visited Granada will remember the RIB director and a steady stream of volunteers biking to schools with instruments in tow to teach children who had never had a music class before. Donna delighted in the concerts the kids gave with their new-found skills and in the joy music brought to them.
She was also a crucial member of the team that founded the first lending library in Granada. Puedo Leer Library (“I can read” library) is its own nonprofit, continuing today with multiple programs encouraging a love of reading (www.puedoleerlibrary.org).
And in between these things, she somehow managed find the time and resources to bring several children to the U.S. for surgeries they could not obtain in Nicaragua!
But perhaps more important than these formal projects, Donna’s contributions consisted of thousands of smaller acts of kindness. One had only to be in her house for an hour or two to get a sense of her dedication. People quite literally knocked on her door at all hours of the day and night – and she would rise to give kids a sandwich, or a family a ride to the health clinic, or help a farmer find medicine for his animals, regardless of the time or what else she was doing. When she walked or drove through town, you would hear people call out “Donna”, “Donna” - kids she had tutored when they had been in detention centers years prior, or families she had helped in the wake of a hurricane. “No” was not a word in Donna’s vocabulary if she thought someone needed help.
Her passion and genuine caring were contagious and she was able to bring many others into the effort, when they thought they were just taking a trip to Nicaragua and staying at a guest house! Over time, “Another Night in Paradise” became known as the place to go if you had some time to donate and a desire to make a difference. One of the many who knew her there nominated her to become one of six honored in 2008 at the National Summit for Citizen Diplomacy in DC. She gave the $5000 award to Building New Hope.
Donna had – as those close to her know – little patience for bureaucracy or slow processes. She was a woman of action, and her impatience was born from her heart’s desire to change things for the better and to stand up for those in need. All of these things she did with a sense of style and visual beauty—at the schools, the café, the guest house -- and with her characteristic sharp wit, love of laughter, and of sharing a meal with friends.
Donna, Building New Hope is part of your legacy. Even more, your legacy is the many Central American children (and adults) whose lives you touched, as they had touched yours so many years ago. We mourn your loss, but celebrate the beauty of your life. You will be sorely missed, but never forgotten.