#childsafety | From energy consulting to ‘creating purpose’ for orphaned and vulnerable children

After volunteering at orphanages in Baja California for several years, Nicholas Sandoval realized that more needed to be done for the children there, beyond the donations of food, clothes and toys.

“We need to tailor our assistance around empowering them for life after the orphanage, so they can be productive citizens,” he says. “In November 2014, I decided to work on establishing a nonprofit to tailor assistance around empowering orphans for life after the home.”

So he founded Create Purpose, a nonprofit working with orphaned and vulnerable children in Tijuana by partnering with orphanages, municipalities, volunteers and others, providing programming to give the children hard and soft skills that will be useful once they leave the orphanage.

Sandoval, 37, lives in Tijuana with his wife, Edith, and had a career as an energy consultant working with companies to reduce their carbon footprint, including companies like Whole Foods and Neutrogena. He took some time to talk about his work with Create Purpose, the programming they provide children, and his hope for the kids he works with once they become adults.

Q: Why was founding Create Purpose something you wanted to do?

A: The purpose of our organization is to improve the standard concerning how we serve orphaned children. After volunteering for years in Baja orphanages, I realized that the majority of children living there were not equipped with the appropriate tools to live a productive or “normal” life. They struggle academically, behaviorally, and in other areas of life. Most of the time, people who visit orphanages have good intentions, but lack context. They don’t understand that once they leave, the toys and the clothes and the fresh paint on the walls have little to no long-term impact. It feels good to visit and to give them stuff; I get it. I did it for years. And, yes, there are daily needs these children encounter. However, in my experience, many orphanages have an abundance of donations of food, clothes and stuff. What is lacking is the sustained support and commitment to programs that help develop the appropriate tools for life after the home.

“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. But if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

Q: When your website mentions “orphans and vulnerable children,” what’s the difference between these two groups? How do you define “vulnerable children” differently from “orphans”?

A: “Orphans and Vulnerable Children” is the title used throughout academia, so we try to align ourselves with that term as often as possible. Though all of the children living in orphanages are considered vulnerable, the majority of children in Baja California aren’t technically orphaned and do have one or both parents living. The main reasons that children end up in orphanages, at least in Tijuana, are because of the disappearance of parents, child abuse and incarceration of parents.

Q: How did you get started volunteering and donating to centers for orphans and other vulnerable children?

A: My first visit was to an Ensenada orphanage in 2008 with a church group. Once I saw the children, I knew that I had to help. I had volunteered in many vulnerable populations before, but that first trip to an orphanage changed my life. These children are starting life with every disadvantage imaginable: no family; no support system; 50 children fighting for the attention of a couple of caretakers; malnourished; traumatized from the abandonment, abuse, or neglect of their parents. Through no fault of their own, they ended up in this desperate situation. I knew I had to help. … Over the years, it became obvious that just keeping the children fed and the lights on wasn’t enough; I wanted to do more. As I started hearing the stories of children running away or getting pregnant, leaving the home at 18 with nowhere to go and no abilities to ensure their success, I knew that what I was doing just wasn’t enough and there was so much more that needed to be done.

What I love about Tijuana …

My favorite part of moving here has been the incredible binational feel. I love that whether you’re in Tijuana, San Ysidro or San Diego, you’re local. This binational region is one-of-a-kind. How cool it is to have the contrast of Puerto Nuevo lobsters and House of Blues concerts in one evening?

Q: Why do you think these children at the border have been overlooked?

A: The conversations in the border region are centered on immigration, violence and drug trafficking. This is the focus of media and policy-makers. The children are invisible in many respects. When was the last time we thought about how children were being cared for in any troubled part of the world? There are few advocating for this group of children’s rights or demanding that resources be allocated to their plight.

In terms of caring for children in this chaos, often times it’s just the staff that care for the children and the scattered support they receive from a few individuals or organizations. We forget that these children will inevitably be adults. Without the appropriate life skills to be productive citizens, they will eventually end up in one of the aforementioned situations.

Q: What kinds of programming do you offer the children you work with?

A: Our hands-on learning programs with the children are in technology and garden-based learning. Our caretaker training is currently in nutrition and food safety with training in child care currently being developed.

Q: What was your approach in creating these particular programs? Why were these the areas you wanted to focus on?

A: We started with our garden-based learning program due to the consistent malnutrition we found across orphanages. We use the garden as a classroom where children learn nutrition, agriculture, gastronomy, biology and more. Studies show that these activities help to regulate behavior, an important area of improvement for children living in orphanages.

We added our technology program after several orphanage directors expressed interest in the area. There is a significant lack of access to technology within orphanages and we want to change that. It is our intention to create a pathway to higher education and employment. Tijuana has a growing technology industry, and we want to position our children to be ready to take advantage of the growing opportunity in the region.

After a few years working with the children, we added our caretaker workshops because of the influence that caretakers have on the children. We will continue to develop both pathways toward the development of our children as both are vital to their empowerment.

Q: How does your organization work?

A: To implement Create Purpose programs, it requires partnerships with several stakeholders: orphanages, universities, governments, volunteers and more.

Orphanages agree to do their best job possible to ensure that a child never misses a class, and we agree to deliver a consistent, high-quality learning program to the children. In our garden-based learning program, orphanage leadership agrees that they will take on the responsibility of caring for and maintaining the garden after an agreed-upon transition period. Create Purpose staff and volunteers, along with orphanage staff and children, work to set up and construct the garden. It’s beautiful when you see this teamwork in action. Before, during, and after the building of the garden, local experts in permaculture and education help facilitate the learning program within the home. In our technology program, due to the lack of hardware and less than average internet capabilities in orphanages, orphanage staff transport the children to a couple of our community partners at MindHub and BitCenter.

Q: What have you found that the children you work with respond to most strongly, in terms of the programming/resources you provide?

A: The consistency of our program. The children know that Create Purpose will be there every week and that they can count on us. That goes a long way when these children are accustomed to the inconsistency of the people in their lives.

Q: When you say “we are committed to the development of orphans and vulnerable children and the communities in which they live,” what do you have in mind in terms of their development? How are you hoping that they develop?

A: Ideally, we want our children to grow up and be leaders in their communities and advocate for the rights of orphans and vulnerable children. If the majority can become productive members of society, maintain gainful employment, and be decent humans, then we’ve done our job.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: Breathe.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: “How to Train Your Dragon” is my favorite movie.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: A hike, a round of golf, a DJ on a rooftop lounge, and a relaxing weekend in a comfortable hotel room with a great view of the ocean.

To suggest someone for the One-on-One series, contact Lisa Deaderick at lisa.deaderick@sduniontribune.com.


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