Q&A: Victoria Cavanaugh, Founder and director of Nuestro Ahora

In 2005, inspired by the story of martyr Jean Donovan, college student Victoria Cavanaugh traveled to Central America, where she found her calling among the orphans of El Salvador. Recognizing the vital role education plays in securing the uncertain future of the kids, she founded Nuestro Ahora, an academic program that offers the children a chance not just to survive, but to pursue their dreams. Cavanaugh recently spoke with Catholic Digest about the program.

How did you first get involved in caring for children in El Salvador?
When I was in junior high, I watched a documentary in religion class about Jean Donovan, who was one of the four church women murdered in El Salvador back in 1980. I think she had a very comfortable and nice life, but she said that there was something missing. Only by going to El Salvador did she find that, and she found it particularly in working with the children. [Later], when I was in university, I eventually went to study abroad for a semester in El Salvador, and that sort of turned into two semesters, and now four years.

What compelled you to return?
After spending two days a week in the orphanage during the first semester as part of my studies, I felt it was too soon to leave. I went down in August (2005), and by December I felt like I was just getting to the point of starting to know the kids, so it was really hard to think about walking away. I was looking to have a more long-term connection; I thought that would make it more meaningful. So I decided to stay another semester, and then after that I moved into the orphanage, and then it became almost impossible to leave — in a good way.

What were your expectations going to El Salvador, and how did that compare to your actual experience?
I wanted to get a sense of what Jean Donovan was talking about. And why, even when she knew her life was in danger, she decided to return again and again. I think I found or understood on some level what she was talking about, in being there and being with the kids. I think the faith of the people here, even in such modern times, is really incredible. Very strong. They’re very open about faith in just about everything. I mean, there are phrases from the Bible on the side of buses; people are constantly talking about faith.

How did this experience affect you, especially spiritually?

It made my faith more concrete. In the States we have many more luxuries and there’s a risk of taking things for granted. But in El Salvador I’m much more aware of what I have, not [just] material things but also relationships. And so there’s a level of gratitude, which I think leads to faith.

What inspired you to found your organization?

The organization Nuestro Ahora (“Our Time”) is really about encouraging these youths, as they get older in the orphanages, to realize that they have the opportunity to do something right now. I think oftentimes the younger kids in the orphanages have these dreams, but as they grow up, they’re sort of taught not to dream, and that there’s only a certain set of options available to them. So out of that need grew the concept for the scholarship program. Our emphasis is on providing education so that the students have the resources they need to be able to carry out their dreams and whatever it is they hope for their future, so that in turn they can go back and help their communities.

Did you have to go through any special language training?

The kids really taught me Spanish, much more than I ever learned in the classroom. It’s been a great and humbling experience.

  Cavanaugh with current and incoming students from
Nuestro Ahora’s university prep program, El Caminito

What are some of the unique spiritual needs of the children you serve?
When I heard the word “orphan,” I automatically had this idea of kids who don’t have biological parents or living parents, but in El Salvador that’s not necessarily the case. A great number (of children) are there because they can’t be with their families. It might be because of severe economic reasons, violence within the families, abuse, or it could be because of the gang violence near where the family lives, or because the family lives too far from the city. The kids usually know that they do have families but they can’t be with them. I think that affects them tremendously, that there’s a hunger for that love and for someone to care about them.

How do you help them cope with these challenges?

One of our main emphases is education, and so we started sending them to school so that they can learn what they need to learn to be able to get a job. The students who are in university are living in communities, and really it’s supposed to be a family for them. We eat dinner every night, they take turns shopping for groceries, cooking together, learning together, studying together. There’s a sense that we’re in this together.

That sense of positive community is another focus of the scholarship program, and there’s also a strong focus on service. The students don’t work or they aren’t allowed to work; instead they spend four hours a week volunteering, usually at local schools, the orphanage, or (in the community by) serving as role models for younger kids. So to tie those three pieces together — the academics, the focus on community, and service — I think there’s faith and reflection involved with all of those.

What is the hardest part of your job? The most rewarding?

There are over 1,000 kids in residence at the 15 orphanages that we work with. There’s a dream to see each one of those children succeed, to continue studying, to be able to grow up and go out in the community and be stable, and even contribute, giving back to the community. But sometimes, the concept of success for each one of those kids might be different. And it’s really hard when we have a student who [even though] they have the opportunity to study, turns it down. And we’re not able to make that connection or reach them in that moment, and it’s hard to have faith that things will work out and will be OK. Seeing students have to leave for whatever reason is the hardest.

In return, the greatest joy or gift of being there is the dinner every night with the students, and just seeing that they’re going to study, and that they’re coming home and telling these great stories about where they’re volunteering. Just knowing that it’s an actual reality and no longer a dream.

What’s the most inspiring moment you’ve experienced through your work?

When I see the students go back to [visit] the orphanages where they grew up, or see an older student in the scholarship program explaining something to one of the younger kids, be it homework or playing soccer. It’s really neat to see that student who was thought of perhaps as a victim by a lot of people, being empowered, taking control, and being an example to the younger kids. So seeing it come full circle is really rewarding and inspiring to see in such little time.  CD

Photos courtesy of Nuestro Ahora

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