Be adaptable and flexible… as my great aunt used to say, “the world is upside down, so we need to learn to walk on our hands”.

For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Celina de Sola.

Celina de Sola is co-founder of and president of programs at Glasswing. Her work focuses on designing and implementing innovative, community-based initiatives that bring together institutions and people for joint action.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

Over the last 25+ years working in this field, I’ve had the privilege of meeting so many people who have changed my life; people who embodied so much strength, courage, and generosity. There are so many teachers, nurses, and community leaders who have taught me what locally-driven development is all about. But not all of the people who I have learned from were adults.

Back in 2003, I met Fatima, a 10-year old girl, at a refugee camp in Bahai, Chad. She had fled Sudan with nothing but the clothes she was wearing, and I would see her huge smile every day that I arrived at the camp. Neither of us spoke each other’s language, but we managed to communicate and we would spend much of the day together. The day before I was leaving to go back home, I saw her, and she was wearing a necklace made of plastic beads. “What a beautiful necklace,” I said, pointing at it. Right after I said that — almost on impulse — she pulled her necklace off, over her head, and put it on me. I was overwhelmed and felt like taking it off and giving it right back to her, knowing how much that necklace meant to her — how it was probably her only accessory having had to walk for weeks in the desert, fleeing brutal genocide in her home village. It was like slow motion — all of the thoughts that went through my head. But as I looked at her huge smile and knowing eyes, I said thank you, and hugged her so tightly, telling her I’d keep it forever and never forget her. How could I ever know that this 10-year old child — with so much wisdom, and in one stirring moment — would teach me so much about dignity, courage, generosity, love, and hope. She (at 10) taught me (in my mid 20s) that everyone — even in the most adverse contexts — wants to contribute in some way, bringing hope or joy to someone else. Fatima’s lesson continues to be present in how we work at Glasswing now — drawing from the strengths of people and communities to help each other cope and heal. I think of Fatima often, and wonder how and where she is. I have kept my promise — I always have my necklace with me, and I will never forget her.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.

I would say that three of the skills I try to work on strengthening as much as possible are the following:

Being curious has led me to ask a lot of questions. This has helped me to understand better what people’s priorities are, rather than assuming I know what’s best for them. For example, even though we look at ‘evidence-base’ or research best practices, these may be different from what a family or a community knows is best for them. I’ll give you an example — a few years ago, we started doing work with youth and character strengths, so we came up with a list of the ones that the research and our experience told us were most important. Separately and simultaneously, my colleagues decided to ask some of our students to pick the strengths they felt were priority, and — although they picked mostly the same as the ones we had selected — we were missing the one that they felt was most important: hope. To me, this is a perfect example of why we need to ask questions. Had we not asked, we would not have known how important it was to include hope as a foundational character strength to help students build.

I have learned to be ok with being in high-stress situations, with complexity, uncertainty, and tension. This has been helpful when working in emergency or conflict contexts, where decisions have to be made very quickly and under significant stress (i.e. if and how to get relief materials into very high-risk areas without exposing our teams to danger). When tragedy has struck, I immediately switch into problem-solving mode, even though my heart may be broken. Although the tears and sadness may come later that evening, in the moment, I am usually able to focus on how to address the crisis at hand.

I also aspire to keep my integrity intact, regardless of who I’m with, and what is going on. It is important for me that what I believe, say, and do remain aligned. I strive to be open and honest, which usually helps foster trust and goodwill. This work that many of us do is so much about strong, trustful relationships, and these take time, care, and transparency (like the Glasswing butterfly’s wings).

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started Glasswing International?

There are so many. But one thing we keep learning is that we have to remember to approach our work with a broad lense and a lot of flexibility. We’re constantly learning that addressing social justice isn’t a linear process, with a clear focus on one single issue, but rather a complicated web of intersecting issues. We are constantly challenged to step into complexity and nuance with humility, realizing that most of the time we won’t have the answers, and we won’t get it all right; we just have to be ok with learning and adapting as we go.

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?

We want to keep kids away from violence, and enable them to thrive — by believing in them, providing safe spaces and opportunities, and ensuring they have access to caring adults.

Our work with schools and communities over the past 15 years has shown us that we can’t achieve the educational or economic outcomes we seek, without ensuring safety and well-being. We want to help build trauma-informed communities that can mitigate the impacts of stress, violence, and trauma. This is why we are so thrilled to have the opportunity to provide over 100,000 teachers, healthcare workers, and police officers with the knowledge and tools they need to understand and manage stress and trauma — in themselves and the communities they serve.

This year, The Audacious Project selected us as a 2021–2022 grantee, and we received $42 million to expand access to mental health support at a community level in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Over the next five years, the project will expand access to trauma-informed care to more than 9 million Central Americans in violence-affected communities.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

What makes me passionate is that when we look at addressing some of the impacts of violence — such as stress and trauma — science now shows that healing actually lies in people and in the power of relationships. It lies in understanding how extreme adversity affects us (and those around us) so we can stop defining and judging people by their behaviors, without recognizing that our behaviors may actually be the result of something that has happened to us; leading to fear, sadness, or anxiety, and resulting in problematic behaviors and relationships. For thousands of years, we have practiced healing in so many different ways and cultural contexts. What is most exciting to me is that we can draw from generations of wisdom coupled with what science also reinforces, to improve our quality of life and that of those we interact with.

Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?

C is 17 years old and lives in a community with extreme rates of poverty, crime and violence. He has faced stigma and discrimination his entire life, and was mistreated by the police and put in prison for simply being a youth from a community with heightened risks. He then lost his father who was his only caretaker and his only buffer to persistent threats and harm. Due to years of traumatic experiences, C could not trust others or build the relationships that we know could help him heal and thrive. We recruited C to join our Economic Opportunities and Entrepreneurship Program, and he finished the program in two years. He became one of our leaders and now volunteers supporting his peers. With his diploma in Entrepreneurship and newly acquired confidence and abilities, he now runs the bakery he inherited from his father. C believes that the most critical part of his learning and development was accessing emotional support and building his own abilities, as these helped him better navigate community violence and other adversity. As he told us, “thanks to these programs, I’ve been able to move forward, and today I am a totally different person, with goals, higher self-esteem, and motivation.”

K´s story, 17 years-old:

“Six months ago, I felt distanced from any happiness and opportunities, following the monotonous routine of a person with depression, destructive habits and masochistic thoughts. Honestly, it did not occur to me that it was possible to leave the great emotional abyss that hindered me to think properly. I remember perfectly that in one of these moments of conflict, my mother received a message from Glasswing’s ‘Healing Wounds’ (Sanando Heridas) program. It was an invitation to be part of a program “Jóvenes Constructores”. I hesitated a lot due to lack of strength and hope. However, in a moment of wanting to keep going, I decided to enroll. After 3 months of challenges, learning, and achievements, I learned that it is OK to fall, but you have to get up. Jóvenes Constructores helped me identify reasons to get out of bed, giving colors to my aspirations and giving hope to my dreams. For my efforts, I now have my business called ‘Postres Mordiditas’; Happiness in every bite! I feel very motivated, focused, and eager to put into practice everything I learned during the program. This drawing is a chrysalis in which I identify myself in my life: The first image represents my former self, afraid to open my wings and fly around the world. The second image represents my current self, after expanding my wings through the learning and knowledge I acquired in these three months in JC. I learned to know myself and to fight for my dreams.”

We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?

At Glasswing, our mission is to address the root causes and consequences of poverty and violence. The first thing people can do is volunteer their time. Our work is powered by thousands of volunteers who serve as positive role models for children and young people. The second thing people can do is spread awareness. Young people in Latin America, particularly Central America, face a lot of stigma and social exclusion. But — like any other child or adolescent — they just want opportunities to learn, access to safe spaces to do fun things with friends, and have people around them who see their potential and support them in realizing it. We can all help change that narrative — shifting from youth being seen as a liability, to the powerful asset that they are. The third thing people can do is provide financial support. Your contributions are transformative for the children, youth, and communities we work with. Just think, a monthly donation of $10 can ensure one student can spend time each week at a safe space, in an after-school program, year-round!

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.

1 . Rely on local expertise, wisdom, and strengths to set the priorities, often we assume we know what communities needs are; ask about their priorities and interests; include them in the research, design, implementation and evaluation of interventions.

2 . Collaborate and build partnerships; focus on collective efforts that include a lot of different actors

  • We work across sectors — with government, civil society, businesses, and communities.
  • We build a diverse and dynamic volunteer infrastructure that includes students who were once in our programs, parents from communities, other community members, teachers, corporate employees, civil servants, and more. It builds social cohesion, resulting in safer and more engaged communities.

3. Help build a community of social innovators; bring together a diverse and passionate team of peers and colleagues to grow collective knowledge, create, and share the weight of this work so we can all continue to move forward. Multidisciplinary team; someone’s educational level is less important than their curiosity and creativity.

4. Be adaptable and flexible… as my great aunt used to say, “the world is upside down, so we need to learn to walk on our hands”.

5. Find a self-care ritual (and encourage your team to do the same). Find something you love, and make it part of your routine. I love animals, and each year I treat myself to a wildlife trip where I see animals in their natural habitat. This is deeply energizing and restoring, and gives me joy.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

The pandemic was challenging but taught us how to quickly pivot, be agile and rapidly respond to changing needs. We transitioned our in-person programs to a virtual format, launching En Casa Con Glasswing (At Home with Glasswing), an online learning platform that continues to reach thousands of children and youth across Central America and Mexico. In fact, many of our students run programs for their younger peers, both virtually and in-person.

Another shift is that — although we always had mental health access as a priority in our programming — now the need for it has become more evident to the general population, and the stigma around it has decreased (although this still needs to improve much more). This has opened a lot more opportunities for us to train people, particularly government personnel, like teachers, who are in desperate need of self-care and mental health support. So for us, the definition of success is being flexible, agile, and creative, galvanizing a community response to ride out the crisis and come out much improved on the other side. It means equipping both our team and community members with new skills, and ensuring that we maintain deep and long-term relationships that can enable us to do our work in the most impactful way.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

The setbacks can shred your heart to pieces — especially when lives are lost to violence in communities. But I can’t tell you how full my heart gets when kids not only realize how awesome they are, but also how much they can do to build their own communities.

I am also so inspired by the thousands of Glasswing volunteers — teachers, parents, students, corporate employees, community members — who dedicate time and energy weekly, year-round, to change lives.

Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit, Glasswing?

I would love my middle school English teacher, Mrs. Donna Stone, to know how much she changed my life, by getting me involved in community service. Mrs. Stone helped me develop agency and a vision of service leadership that has stuck with me since and no doubt influenced the career path I chose. Since I was very young, my mother — through her own example working in child protection — also nurtured in me the important belief that if there is injustice, I should do something about it (rather than feeling guilty and impotent). Although Ms. Stone most likely doesn’t know about our work at Glasswing, my mother has been thoroughly involved since Day one.

You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?

Readers can visit our website and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.