Rockville woman looks to
build orphanage in Ecuador

by Liza Gutierrez
staff writer

Rockville’s Nicki Lehrer went to Ecuador intending to help prevent the spread of AIDS. But her mission took on a new dimension when she saw the faces of Ecuador’s impoverished children.

Lehrer, 20, was struck by the large number of orphans she saw living on the streets with no clothes or shoes, no food, no education and ‘‘covered from head to toe in dirt.”

‘‘This is not the type of thing that I could see and leave and forget about,” Lehrer said. ‘‘It’s not the type of thing that you can put out of your mind.”

By the time she left in January, Lehrer and her mother, Marilyn Lehrer, established Children of Guayaquil Inc., a nonprofit organization focused on building an orphanage and providing clothing for the children Nicki had met in the port city of Guayaquil.

Lehrer’s trip began in September when she took off on a solo mission to develop and implement an AIDS prevention program under the auspices of FINCA, which provides financial services to poor families worldwide.

‘‘I’ve always wanted to live in a Spanish-speaking country,” said Lehrer, a graduate of Wootton High School. ‘‘I have this obsession with the culture, the language, the people, the food, the music.”

FINCA was interested in expanding its programs to cover health issues, and Lehrer figured tackling this new program would be the perfect way to immerse herself in the culture while serving a purpose. She decided to take the semester off from studying aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She spent the first portion of her trip visiting as many towns as she could to learn more about Ecuador and its culture so she could apply it to the AIDS education program. Although she did go into some affluent areas, it was the areas rife with destitution that made her heart heavy.

Lehrer said she had seen poverty on television and in the media, ‘‘but I don’t think there’s any way to truly understand it until you live it.”

Lehrer recalled a conversation she had over ice cream with an 11-year-old girl she frequently saw asking for money on the street. The girl had a simple wish, Lehrer said: to read.

That child will be on the street corner until next week, until next year, Lehrer said. Then she’ll have children, and they will be on the same street corner.

‘‘It’s a vicious cycle that repeats itself from generation to generation,” Lehrer said.

A group of women from Pascuales, a poor village outside Guayaquil, took Lehrer to meet orphaned children so she could see what their life is like. Many of their parents died from AIDS, and the children don’t know whether they have the disease because there are no resources for testing or even treatment, Lehrer said.

The women were willing to volunteer and care for the children, but needed housing for them.

That spurred Lehrer to action.

In October, she told her mother she wants to clothe the children of Guayaquil and build an orphanage in Pascuales.

When she telephoned her mother about what she was seeing, ‘‘she was in tears,” Marilyn Lehrer said. ‘‘It touched her so much that I couldn’t help but support her.”

Pascuales had a plot of land set aside for an orphanage. Building it may cost $15,000, but that’s a rough estimate, Lehrer said.

While Marilyn Lehrer got the paperwork for their nonprofit organization rolling from Rockville, her daughter launched an e-mail campaign from Ecuador.

By the first week in December, Children of Guayaquil Inc. was up and running.

‘‘There were a lot of people who jumped on the bandwagon and got just as excited as I was,” Nicki Lehrer said.

When she returned home in January, Lehrer had a list of people ready to give clothing and donations.

Members of FEDEE-Filial, a support network for Ecuadorians who live outside their homeland, donated clothing and are committed to promoting the Lehrers’ efforts, said Albina Delozier of Burtonsville, president of the Washington area chapter.

Nicki Lehrer hopes to send her first shipment of clothing by March while continuing to raise money for the orphanage.

‘‘The things that I saw there left a lasting image in my mind,” Lehrer said, looking forward to the day when she can return to the village and say, ‘‘We’re is here.”

Copyright © 2006 The Gazette - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.



Nicki Lehrer of Rockville bonds with her godson, Antonio, whose poverty-stricken mother she befriended in Ecuador. Lehrer was moved by the poverty of children she saw in Ecuador to launch a nonprofit dedicated to clothing them and building an orphanage.




Excerpted from February 2, 2006 issue of The Gazette, Maryland's Community Newspaper.

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