“Without Donna, I probably would be in jail now,” says Oscar Arnulfo Romero, “or, more likely, dead.”
The 20-something man from Granada, Nicaragua, is not exaggerating. In his teenage years, he had shared a gang lifestyle including alcohol and drugs with his three older brothers. One of those brothers is in jail now. The other two are dead.
After the drug-induced suicide of one of his brothers, Mr. Romero decided he wanted out. He went to Donna Tabor, and she gave him an opportunity. “I’m studying for a degree in psychology now,” he says.
In 1996, at an age when most people ponder retiring into a quieter life, Ms. Tabor quit her job as a producer for a Pittsburgh television station and joined the Peace Corps. “I hoped they’d send me to El Salvador, where I already had been volunteering for Building New Hope, a grass-roots organization from Pittsburgh,” she says. But instead she was sent to teach at a high school in Granada.
“I really don’t know why,” Tabor says, “but I’m one of those [people] who can’t walk past a person in need without doing something to help.” In Granada, this meant she couldn’t just ignore the many children living on the streets.
She began to give them food and helped them with medical emergencies.
“Street kids latch on to you very easily when you just show a little bit of interest in them,” Tabor says. In no time, the children were no longer nameless bodies sleeping in parks and doorways. Instead, they were Flique, Jose, Moises, Jesus, and Michel Angel. For these youths, Tabor was no longer just another gringa; she was Donna, and they could always knock on her door.
Nicaragua is, after Haiti, the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Revolution and civil war ruined the economy in the latter half of the 20th century. Today, 46 percent of Nicaraguans live below the poverty level, surviving on less than $2 a day.
“Many see those street kids just as thieves and drug users,” Tabor says. “I always see the softer, better side of them.”
She took a genuine interest in their lives. One day, she grabbed her sleeping bag and slept with the children in the park, just to see what their nights were like.
“I found out they barely slept at all. They sniffed glue and socialized with each other through most of the night,” she says.
When hurricane Mitch hit Granada in 1998, every room in Tabor’s house was filled with children.
“It was too dangerous for them to be outside, but they were also afraid to sleep inside a house,” Tabor says. “They asked me to leave the doors open and all the lights on.”
When her two-year contract with the Peace Corps ran out, Tabor became her own one-woman charity helping street kids.
“In 1998 I started workshops for children in the patio of my house,” she recalls. “Some Nicaraguans came to help, and we taught them reading and writing and math.”
That was just one thing. Tabor also gave shelter, food, and love, and took kids to hospitals and rehab centers. She also raised money to bring children to the United States for medical procedures that couldn’t be done in Nicaragua. During that time, she herself lived on Social Security.
“Donna is a very passionate, charismatic, and also a very funny person,” says Therese Tardio, a member of the board of Building New Hope. “She cares a lot about social justice, and she has identified many new projects in Nicaragua that our organization now supports.” In 2008 Tabor was honored by the US Center for Citizen Diplomacy: She gave the $5,000 award to Building New Hope.
The work is challenging. Some street kids never escape their downward spiral.
“Once they are used to the street and the drugs,” she says, “they don’t see a future for themselves anymore, no matter what you offer them.”
In 2004, Tabor started Café Chavalos, a restaurant and culinary workshop that employed four former street kids. It would become an ingenious and successful social experiment.
“I told Oscar, Orlando, Juan Carlos, and Moises they could work in the restaurant if they went to school and stayed away from the street and the drugs,” Tabor says.
The young men did. During the day, they were in school and Tabor did the food shopping. In the evening, the boys learned how to cut onions, make a curry sauce, fold a napkin, wash dishes, and wait on guests.
“Café Chavalos was open for about three years,” Tabor says, “and all four guys are now in a much better place. Oscar goes to the university. Orlando is a trainer in an upscale spa. Juan Carlos is a minister in some sort of church. And Moises is finishing high school.”
Café Chavalos closed when it was too hard to find a new crew after the original four moved on.
Along with continuing her interest in street youths Tabor has started Casa Lupita, a free animal clinic, where veterinarians volunteer their time to help animals from the streets and pets of the poor.
“It’s mostly cats and dogs, but we’ve also had horses, pigs, and monkeys,” she says. “Since there were way too many strays living in the streets, we have a very intensive program to sterilize cats and dogs.”
How to take action
Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that help children and youths:
• Half the Sky Foundation enriches the lives of orphaned children in China by providing programs designed to offer loving, family-like care to children of all ages and abilities. Take action: Help a teen in Half the Sky’s youth services program.
• Let Kids Be Kids Inc. brings people together who are solving the challenges we all face today. Take action: Donate food, blankets, socks, gloves, and hand warmers to the homeless in and around Seattle.