“Hello, How are you?”
Thirty perfectly groomed & grinning uniformed Mexican girls stand up to greet me in their classroom at Corazon de Nina, a thriving family shelter. I’ve come to learn what’s new at the home and gain insight into the emotional and physical growth of the children. Fifty visitors are arriving for a presentation, breakfast and tour behind the scenes offered every Tuesday and Thursday at 9:30 AM. It’s easy to think the girls’ infectious energy and pride was always this way. What you don’t see are the hidden scars of their horrific pasts.
“Each of our 76 children arrives with a story…and it isn’t good,” says Melissa Canez, the passionate Founder and Director of Corazon de Nina, along with her husband, Juan Meza. A registered AC non- profit, Corazon de Nina is now a cultural complex of safe and loving spaces for turning lives around. Two buildings provide separate bedrooms for boys and girls, sensitively designed with unique “sleep nooks” on bunk beds with individual lights, security ledges and places to tuck stuffed animals.
The main house includes large kitchen and dining areas, workshop spaces for creative classes in art, woodworking, cooking, and sewing and education classrooms. Early grade students learn English in a Montessori styled curriculum focusing on individual needs and abilities. Children and staff work together to meet the rising costs of daily living. Boys operate a tortilleria making more than 100 tortillas for meals. Artistic clothing and quality items are made and sold in an onsite boutique.
Thanks to Chicago donors, Trudy and Phil B., transitional housing for boys over 20 is under construction that will offer two bedroom units with kitchenettes. “You can’t expect them to move successfully from living in a huge family to being on their own without support. Raising money for Corazon is the one place Trudy and I can return to every year and see progress,” says Phil touring me through the worksite.
“Like any mother, I cry when they leave, but am thrilled for their future,” Melissa says, sharing a few of her children’s success stories. (Note: Children’s names have been changed to protect their identities.) .
“Dalila came to us from a situation of abandonment and is now an architect living in California, married with one child.
Maria, a victim of extreme violence and sexual abuse, once illiterate, is now a high school graduate and has completed her first year of university in Social Work.
When Iliana, a victim of human trafficking arrived, she was unable to make eye contact or speak to anyone. She now expresses herself verbally and artistically, dances, laughs, sells her own creations and makes popcorn for the family on movie nights.
I’m in awe of Corazon’s growth.
“How did you get here?” I ask.
“It’s about faith, love, commitment and attracting a lot of angels,” Melissa smiles. “When I was 9, my mother took me to visit a Mexico City orphanage. I was shocked at the deplorable living conditions of the girls. As we drove home, I told her when I grew up I would have a children’s home filled with love and deep sense of family.” Melissa looks around and smiles. “Here I am, the proud mother of 36 girls and 40 boys from ages 4 to 27!”
In 2012, Melissa was living in Puerto Vallarta working with at -risk children in an established orphanage when government officials abruptly closed its doors. Thirteen girls, aged 9 – 21 had no place to go. DIF (the government agency overseeing special needs children) contacted Melissa telling her the girls wanted to go home with her.
“I had no home to offer them,” Melissa reflects. “No experience building and maintaining a shelter. I wanted to help, but had no idea how.” She takes a deep breath and continues. “I shared my dilemma with my mother who said, ‘This is your sign to follow your dreams. I’ll give you my house.”
Soon after, with Juan’s support, they began designing physical and psychological plans to hire staff, redesign the home as a family dorm and create a curriculum and environment meeting non-profit shelter requirements and their vision. “We would be a family, not an institution. Juan and I adopted our first thirteen daughters.”
Seven years later, Corazon de Nina is a sought after refuge for at risk children in the Banderas Bay area who qualify through mandatory psychological testing. “When they arrive on our doorstep, they are traumatized from abandonment, abuse, addictions, disabilities, lack of money and incarcerated parents,” Melissa pauses, her large blue eyes filling with tears. “Their heads and bodies are bowed carrying the weight of their lives. Many are afraid to speak.”
The core of their program centers on the guiding principles of L. I. F. E. “L – Love, the essential glue that bonds, fosters trust, heals wounds and grows joy. I– Integrity, of belief, words and action of our caregivers and children. F – Family, which is our anchor, our support and deepest connections to humanity. E – Education in which we equip children with self-confidence, hope and tools for a successful happy future.
“It’s about results and remembering their past,” Melissa continues.
“Diego arrived with three medications for bowel dysfunctions and anxiety. He didn’t eat or speak. Our professional staff slowly weaned him off everything and he’s now healthy, outgoing and med free. Angelica arrived unkempt, a broken spirit on anti-depressants, suffering from convulsions and mis-diagnosed epilepsy. After a professional treatment plan, she was taken off her drugs and is now a healthy teen. Jesus and his sisters and brothers were separated and sent to different shelters. One day he arrived at Corazon asking to ‘see his sister’. No girl staying with us claimed to have a brother. With the help of the courts, we realized Cristina was his missing sister and Jesus and Cristina are now growing up together in Corazon.”
She continues, “Alex and David were referred by friends and sent to me by their mother who was dying of cancer. She looked up at me from her bed when I visited, smiled, and said she could leave now. They would be safe with me.”
“Meet our goddaughter,” say John and Jane K., board members and avid volunteers, introducing me to a giggling teen. “We can’t do enough for Corazon,” John says. “We love supporting our goddaughter, introducing people like you to Corazon and working whenever we’re needed.”
“How can I help?” I ask as Melissa leaves to help serve breakfast to the tour guests.” “We need more people like you who believe in our work, support our G.E.M. (Give Every Month) program, and tell others,” she says. “It takes more every year to keep food on the table and lights on for this growing family.”
After a gourmet breakfast served by the children, the triumphant finale begins. Dressed in uniforms, moving with jubilance and self-pride, over seventy children walk through the dining area forming rows in front of our tables. They hold hands and begin singing their anthem of hope and appreciation with the strength of a 100-voice chorus:
“I love my life.
I am wonderful.
I am magical.
I am beautiful.
I love my life.”
There’s not a dry eye in the house.
How you can support Corazon:
1) Take a tour and meet the family.
2) Become a monthly GEM donor.
3) Volunteer your time and talent.
4) Contribute items on the shopping List like food, supplies, clothing, bedding.
5) Look on their website for dates to join in the fun at “Fun-raisers” like the annual Quinceañera February gala in February, cooking classes and seasonal events.