Big Plans for Small Children of Ecuador

Orphanage on its way to becoming a reality

by Liza Gutierrez
staff writer

It was less than a year that Nicki Lehrer first visited Ecuador, yet she is already well on her way to making sure some of the country’s neediest children have a new home.

The seeds of her mission began before she had even left the South American country. Seeing so many children without parents, she called her mother back in the United States and together they established Children of Guayaquil Inc. in December.

Since then, Lehrer, a 21-year-old student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has drawn support from her hometown and college community to help to accelerate the organization’s progress.

‘‘She has this incredible ability to work with people and inspire them and get things done,” her mother, Marilyn Lehrer, said. ‘‘And she’s fearless.”

Thomas S. Wootton High School and Fallsmead Elementary School, where Lehrer was once a student, held clothing drives along with local synagogues and churches. Her home is loaded with clothes, shoes, toys, school supplies, strollers, crayons, coloring books, puzzles and ‘‘really cute little backpacks,” she said, all on their way to the children of Ecuador.

‘‘We’ve got a couple thousand pounds of stuff,” Lehrer said. ‘‘It covered the basement and the family room, and migrated into my room.

‘‘Everybody’s been incredibly responsive and generous,” she added.

The haunting image of orphans keeps Lehrer motivated.

‘‘Every morning I wake up and I know that they are still without shelter, still without families, still without food,” she said.

On the fast track

Lehrer’s mission started when she first visited Ecuador last September to develop and implement an AIDS prevention program.

She had struck out on her own to help FINCA International, a nonprofit organization that provides financial services to poor communities worldwide.

She was stunned by the large number of orphans she saw around the country, especially in a poor town called Pascuales near the port city of Guayaquil, where many lost their parents to the disease.

Her nonprofit organization borne of that haunting image is accepting donations to help reach the estimated $15,000 it will cost to build the orphanage in Pascuales, where Lehrer hopes to house about two dozen children, she said.

Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin around December or January, and may be completed by February, she said.

‘‘I’ve done everything I can to make this move as quickly as possible,” she said.

A project like this might take three years in the United States, said Jan Wampler, an architect and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who will design the building and help oversee construction. He senses a tremendous amount of energy in Lehrer to propel this forward, he added.

‘‘That’s what gets buildings built — the people, their energy,” he said.

After seeking advice from the architecture department, Lehrer was connected with Wampler, an award-winning architect who has worked in more than 20 countries.

‘‘He turned right around and said, ‘I’ll do it,’” Lehrer said.

Wampler plans to select a team of the best architectural students to work with him in the fall, he said.

‘‘It’s rare that students work on projects that get built,” he said. ‘‘My goal is to make M.I.T. available to the people in the world that need it.”

More than an orphanage

Lehrer wants to build a structure that will serve numerous purposes, with space for a library, play area, educational room and medical center, she said.

‘‘It’s a whole community center that will benefit the entire town,” Lehrer said.

Her goal is to eventually start volunteer programs that will bring teachers, doctors, students or anyone to Pascuales who wants to learn about another culture while helping the people there.

‘‘I’ve got a whole laundry list of ideas,” Lehrer said, adding it is difficult to stay focused on the immediate task at hand because there are so many possibilities and opportunities for the future.

Lehrer is preparing for her return trip to Ecuador in August, where she will collect architectural specifications for Wampler and get feedback from residents about what they want and need.

‘‘It does no good to build something in another country unless the people are involved,” Wampler said.

Lehrer plans to have local furniture makers furnish rooms in the building so money can go into the local economy and help stimulate growth, she said.

‘‘It’s very hard to organize this, but its worth it,” Wampler said.

‘‘I’m really impressed by [Lehrer] and her commitment and sensitivity towards helping other people,” Wampler added. ‘‘This is what this country needs to do. Not have wars, but have ambassadors of peace.”

Copyright © 2006 The Gazette - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.



Nicki Lehrer of Rockville sits atop the mountain of supplies donated to the orphanage she is building in Ecuador. ‘‘We’ve got a couple thousand pounds of stuff. ... Everybody’s been incredibly responsive and generous,” she said.







Excerpted from July 26, 2006 issue of The Gazette, Maryland's Community Newspaper.

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