A heart for street kids
MIT junior plans Ecuador orphanage

by Paula Amann
News Editor

Nicki Lehrer is haunted by the faces of children she met on the streets of Ecuador. "You hear about poverty and see pictures on TV, but I don't think there's any way to understand it until you live it, until you are a part of it," said Lehrer, 21, "until you take the 11-year-old girl begging on the street out for ice cream and she tells you she wishes she could read."

That memory of a Quito youngster who could not afford school fees and uniforms came out of the Rockville resident's recent stint as a volunteer AIDS prevention coordinator for FINCA International (Foundation for International Community Assistance), a nonprofit that promotes community microfinancing in Ecuador and 21 other countries.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology junior just returned Jan. 9 from more than four months working on this project in the South American nation.

Looming among the mental images she brought home are those of "children on the street with no shoes, no clothing, no food, no education; many of them didn't even have teeth," Lehrer recalled. "They were just covered from head to foot in dirt."

In response, Lehrer has launched a nonprofit, Children of Guayaquil ([email protected]), to help young people like these through material aid and an eventual orphanage in a nearby town.

She cites the values of her Jewish heritage ‹ "watching out for your neighbors, helping those less fortunate" ‹ as part of the impetus behind her project.

Focused on the southwest port city of Quayaquil and environs, the new 501-C3 is in the throes of a clothing drive that has resulted in "piles and piles collected in the basement" of her parents' Rockville home.

Long-term, Lehrer aims to begin an orphanage for street kids in nearby Pascuales, which has a plot of land set aside for this purpose by town leaders but lacks the money to build there.

A 14-year student of classical guitar with three CDs to her credit, she points to music as an impetus for her interest in Latin America.

"I've always had kind of an obsession with the Spanish language, the people, the food, the culture," explained Lehrer, whose more than 100 performance venues have ranged from the streets of the District's Georgetown neighborhood to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to the MIT chapel.

With an additional bent for science and math, the young woman has a 1998 patent on "The Gripper," a book cover with handles that she designed at age 11.

Lehrer is pursuing studies in aerospace engineering and Spanish at MIT, while spending summers as an intern with the Seattle-born, Chicago-based Boeing Company, which manufactures a host of aerospace vehicles.

She says she is active with Hillel on campus and enjoyed sharing Chanukah with her mother, Marilyn, and older sister Jesse, 25, who visited her at her South American volunteer post last month.

"My mom makes a mean potato latke, which I was treated to when she visited me in Ecuador," Lehrer said.

As for October's High Holidays, the young Rockvillean ruefully spent them alone. Due to apparent security concerns, finding Quito's low-profile synagogue takes a personal contact, she said.





Excerpted from the January 26, 2006 issue of Washington Jewish Week.

A permalink to the article can be found here.