Empowerment through Education – the story of Peruvian Hearts and how this NGO is inspiring the next generation of young, female Peruvian leaders
Today, it is no secret that the Peruvian education system has failed to provide quality education to the majority of children and young adults in Peru. As a whole, Peruvian students have consistently underperformed in different student assessments. For example, when Peru participated in the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an assessment that measures the educational skills of 15-year-olds worldwide, Peru came in at 63rd out of 69 countries.
Many of these students will not get the chance to study at a university either. In 2017, the Statistics of Educational Quality (ESCALE) of the Peruvian Ministry of Education reported that only 3 out of 10 students aged 15 and over successfully pursue an education after finishing high school. In other words, only 16% of Peru’s population accesses higher education.
Although these facts can sound discouraging, these kinds of issues inspired the creation of one special, education-focused organization: Peruvian Hearts. Founded in 2003, Peruvian Hearts is a nonprofit based in Golden, Colorado and also headquartered in Cuzco. The group works to encourage social, economic, and political change through the education and empowerment of young women.
Currently, this incredible organization provides scholarships and mentorship to 32 Peruvian Hearts Scholars. The NGO’s mission to end poverty and gender inequality as it relates to education first began with its founder, Ana Dodson, and now serves as a source of inspiration for many young women in the Cuzco region.
They bring “scholarships, academic advising, psychological help and mentorship with a focus on values and ethics to create real professional leaders with principles and humanity.” This is their story. This is their impact.
Ana Dodson: The story of Peruvian Hearts’ founder
Born in Cuzco, Ana Dodson is a Peruvian native who was adopted as an infant in 1992. Growing up in Colorado, she returned to Peru for the first time when she was 11 years old, and the trip proved to be a key moment in her life.
During the 2003 summer, Ana and her mother visited the Hogar de Niñas near Anta, “a small orphanage in the hills outside Cuzco.” The location was not on the pair’s list of scheduled orphanages to visit, but Ana desired to visit the small and remote Hogar because it’s near where she was born. The visit was extremely impactful. In preparation for her visit, Ana “had collected teddy bears and Spanish children’s books to bring to the kids at the orphanages.”
As Ana recalled, “when we went to the hogar, I gave the children the books and teddy bears. They greatly appreciated the gifts, but our presence clearly had a larger impact than the items we brought with us. We soon learned that the orphanage had never had visitors before, and I imagined what it must be like to live as those girls did.”
Before Ana and her mother left, another young girl named Yenivel embraced Ana, began to cry, and proclaimed that Ana would never forget about them. Yenivel’s words and circumstances inspired Ana. She realized that she, too, could have been in Yenivel’s place. In a Peruvian orphanage, she reflected on her own life and came to an important conclusion:
“There were so many things in my life that I had been taking for granted; I was truly, incredibly lucky. I was blessed with a wonderful, loving family that always supported me, and I had amazing educational opportunities. I wanted these same advantages for the girls in Peru. They needed more than books and bears, and I believed that if I tried, I might be able to really help them.”
Thus, upon her return to the US, Ana created Peruvian Hearts. Inspired by the girls she met, Ana hoped she could enable them to embrace an education, “believe in their own power, and dream of a life beyond the conditions into which they were born.” Establishing the organization at age 11, Ana received a lot of national attention, accolades and opportunities.
In 2007, she was selected as a CNN Hero (see video above); in 2008, she was named one of People Magazine’s Heroes Among Us; at age 17, she spoke at the UN headquarters in New York on the International Day of Peace. Then, at age 18, she received a caring award and was inducted into the Caring Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C..
Today, Ana holds an undergraduate degree in Anthropology from Colorado College, a Masters degree in Education from the University of Colorado, and is a current PhD candidate studying Educational Psychology. She continues to work as a member of her organization’s board to make a difference in the lives of other Peruvian women who aspire to attend a college or university.
What they do: “Changing the world, one heart at a time”
So, how exactly do the members of Peruvian Hearts assist their students in obtaining a college education? The group explains it best: “We don’t just give scholarships to girls for education…we focus on enabling our scholars to become strong, independent, and confident leaders who will go out into the world and pay it forward.”
Clearly, Peruvian Hearts values self-confidence in their scholars. As a result, each young lady participating in the program has a wonderful support system to help with different areas of their life:
- Psychosocial support: each scholar works directly with the program’s psychologist “to overcome obstacles, improve self-esteem, and become strong women leaders.”
- Access to healthcare: every scholar receives regular medical checkups and exams. Moreover, any medical expenses that arise during a scholar’s time in the program are covered by the NGO.
- Mentorship: every scholar has access to the program’s director and academic advisor. What’s more, many have been paired one-to-one with US and Peru-based mentors to “guide and support them during this period of transition and personal transformation.”
Helping their scholars focus on personal growth and character development is an important step in preparing them for a college education. Given that Peruvian Hearts supports “disadvantaged girls from families of extremely limited economic resources,” another important component of this preparation is financial support.
To address this need, scholars are offered complete educational scholarships to attend public and private universities in Cuzco, Lima, and Colorado. There are currently two kinds of awards:
- Empower Sponsorship: valued at $3,500, this award “provides one Peruvian Hearts scholar with an entire year of college or university education and covers all associated academic expenses including tuition, registration fees, books, supplies, and uniform.”
- Dream Sponsorship: valued at $7,000, this award not only covers an entire year’s worth of the college or university expenses listed above, but also room and board and “all living expenses, such as food, rent, transportation, and health care costs.”
All together, Peruvian Hearts provides these resources to young women who want to continue their education and become working professionals who can change the world.
Who they support: Scholar Stories
There are many promising female, Peruvian students in the Cuzco region, but Peruvian Hearts does not give out these resources to everybody. To be selected as a scholar, interested candidates must first take a psychological exam and an aptitude test. Ultimately, applicants selected to participate in these programs “demonstrate extraordinary character and empathy towards others, show the potential to become strong and confident leaders, demonstrate a high level of academic excellence and come from families of extremely low economic resources.”
To understand what the organization looks for in their students, there’s no better source than some of the scholars themselves. First, meet Maribel, a Peruvian Hearts scholar who got the opportunity to attend the Catholic University or the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. Maribel has just started a job at Price, Waterhouse, Coopers in Lima. She has come far and is a wonderful example of the promise of Peruvian Hearts.
Next, meet Alexandra, a Peruvian Hearts scholar who dreams of creating her own NGO one day.
Finally, meet scholar Aldeyny as she shares stories about her family and living situation.
Indeed, each of these young women not only fit the mold of what you would expect from a Peruvian Hearts Scholar, but also strive to go beyond the NGO’s expectations to improve the lives of other Peruvian citizens.
Inspiring others: A Mural in their Honor
The organization’s work and scholar stories have caught the attention of people around the world, like artist Kelsey Montague. According to a Forbes article published in February, a beautiful mural was painted for Peruvian Hearts in January by artist Montague.
In regards to the NGO, Montague expressed her admiration for the group and the “young, brilliant women” they support. “By picking these super stars in all sorts of professional fields,” Montague explains, “Peruvian Hearts is equipping these women with the skills they need to change their communities and ultimately fix some of the root causes of poverty in their country.”
Sponsored by United Airlines, Montague painted a mural in Cuzco filled with meaningful, hidden images like “a condor, llama, the national flower of Peru, and a butterfly.” To represent the scholars, pencils, books and shooting stars are scattered throughout as well. Finally, 32 hearts can be found on both halves of the mural: 32 hearts to represent Peruvian Hearts’ current scholars, and another 32 hearts to represent the next or future women scholars. To describe her work, Montague says, “the hearts appear to be bursting from a person’s hands when they stand in the middle, and, to me, that really represents the power of love, kindness, and support in the growth of these brilliant young women. It really represents what the organization Peruvian Hearts is doing in Peru.”
Located in the La Florida neighborhood in Cuzco, the mural is now a wonderful, explosive work of art that inspires a community and recognizes the talents of Peru’s future women leaders.
An Important lesson learned
As the organization continues to grow and support students in Cuzco, it can be easy to forget that Ana Dodson founded Peruvian Hearts when she was just a young girl. Why does this matter? This NGO’s inception and continued success proves that anyone, even a young child with a dream, is capable of creating great change in our world.
Every good act begins with a desire to try, and that’s an important lesson that Ana learned from creating Peruvian Hearts. It’s a message we should all embrace to further improve not only our circumstances, but the circumstances of those around us.
“Peruvian Hearts has taught me that no situation, however discouraging, is beyond hope. I know that I can’t change the world in a day, and I know that I cannot do this by myself, but I believe that kids and adults, working together, really can make a difference. I want to show other young people how easy it is to get involved, and I want to inspire them to reach out and help others less fortunate than themselves. I believe that every person has the ability to help make the world a better place.” – Ana Dodson.
To continue learning more about Peruvian Hearts and how to support their mission, check out the links below!
Fundraiser to support scholars and their families during the pandemic: https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/phfamilies?fbclid=IwAR02oECqjnyB93CWUFhd64FSHN1KBAlp3rFnL6naL8Dc_Y3nPC-ucxxT5hI
Dana Carreno | Johns Hopkins University
My name is Dana Carreno and I’m a rising junior studying Molecular and Cellular Biology at Johns Hopkins University. Born in New Jersey and now living in North Carolina, I’m the daughter of two Peruvian immigrant parents. As an undergrad, I enjoy applying my skills to new public health and healthcare opportunities, particularly those focused on promoting diversity in the workplace, and improving minority access to health and educational resources. For this reason, I’m interested in working with Latina Republic to research non-profit organizations working to eliminate health and education inequalities in Peru and neighboring countries. I’m excited to learn more about Latina Republic’s work and to contribute to the formation of new partnerships with individuals and groups in Latin America.