Tamale Fundraising Success!

#TeamBLV catches up with Sofia Perez, a young woman that has been fundraising in order to cover the expense to participate in our service program in Cuba. Sofia and her entire family cooked, sold,  and delivered 200 dozen tamales – that’s quite a feat!

The scoop from Sofia below:

BLV: What is your known cultural heritage? 
SP: My entire family is Mexican and I am Mexican as well. My mom was born in California but both her parent were born in Mexico and my dad was was born in Baja California, Mexico. My first language was Spanish, at home my mom and dad speak Spanish, and at all family gatherings Spanish is usually the language being spoken.
BLV: Do you consider yourself multicultural?
SP: I would consider myself very multicultural, especially considering my environment. Going to a school where the majority of the population is caucasian, it is easier to blend in and ignore my background, but I do my best to avoid that. Like I said earlier, my first language was Spanish. I am fluent in both English and Spanish, but I tend to feel slightly insecure with my Spanish skills, just because there was a period of time where I did not speak Spanish as frequently as I do now. All of my family trips are usually to Mexico and I love them. Since  I was a little girl, my family and I visit my dad’s family in Baja California. The last two trips to Mexico have been to Quintana Roo and Guanajuato. Both trips were amazing experiences but Guanajuato allowed me to see more culture because it was less touristy. I come from a family of immigrants. My dad immigrated when he was 18, my grandma and her siblings immigrated when they were teenagers between the ages of 13-18, my grandpa immigrated when he was 18, and the list goes on and on. My family is the biggest reason I choose to embrace my culture, everything they’ve worked for and achieved motivates me to remain true to my background.
BLV: What about the global service learning program in Cuba interested you?
SP: I’ve always wanted to go abroad to do something like a service trip or study abroad. When I was told about the program in Cuba, I was instantly on board. One of my biggest goals is to be able help my community, for example when I go to Mexico and I see the living conditions and just the way of life in Mexico, I’m humbled but I always leave wishing I could have done something bigger to help.
This service program in Cuba is the perfect opportunity for me to help and it allows me the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone with this experience.
BLV: Where did you get your fundraising idea? Who helped? Give us the scoop on everything!
About 4 years ago my family and I did a similar fundraiser for my dad’s coworker. His coworker has a son with a chronic lung disorder and they were trying to raise money to fly him to Pennsylvania and my dad volunteered my grandma to sell her tamales. So when my family found out that I was going to Cuba, we collaborated and decided to do another tamale fundraiser like we did in the past. I would like credit mostly my mom and grandma and dad for everything.
My family that wasn’t able to help with the making of the tamales donated money to buy the supplies, my grandma offered to do everything at her house so we could use her newly renovated kitchen.
My dad works at Enloe Hospital in the surgical department, his department alone ordered half of our total order of tamales, which is an estimated amount of 80 dozen. The rest of the orders were placed by family, friends, teachers, neighbors, coworkers…you name it.
The actual process of making tamales is quite rigorous and time consuming. On Friday morning my grandma began to cook the meat, so it would cool down by the time we needed it and so we could use the broth to make the masa. Friday night we started to actually make the masa, clean the tamale husks, and make the chilé sauce, this was all done by my mom, my Yaya (grandma), my Tia Ceci, and my Tia Lili. Friday night we made about 6 dozen. Saturday, we spent the entire day making tamales from 9am to midnight. Saturday we were given a little more help, my Yaya’s neighbor Kathleen and two of my Yaya’s comadres. Saturday we made about 130 dozen. Sunday, we took it a little slower and made an additional 50 dozen.
My Yaya was the “leader”, we used her recipe, she made the salsa and masa. My mom and tia’s spread and filled the tamales. I would make masa with my Yaya and I packed all of them into the bags. We delivered them throughout the week to everyone who ordered the tamales.
BLV: Were you surprised by the results of your tamale drive?
SP: Yes! I was very surprised. Not only with the amount of people that ordered tamales ordered, but how much people loved them. The following week my family was overwhelmed with messages asking to order more tamales.
BLV: Would you be interested in sharing tamale making with your host family in Cuba?
SP: Yes I would love to share tamale making with my host family. I think that will be a perfect way to bond and create a connection with my host family!


#TeamBLV catches up with Marysol Perez, the proud mother of 14 year old Sofia, a program participant that has been fundraising in order to cover the expense to participate in our service program in Cuba. Marysol and the entire family made and sold 200 dozen tamales – that’s quite a feat! We sat down and asked to get the scoop on their recent fundraising success!


BLV: Tell us about the fundraiser and how you assisted with the project.


MP: This time of year is actually the perfect time for making tamales; because the weather is cooler and the holidays are upon us. This project was made possible by the help and tremendous support of  family and friends; we are a very tight knit traditional Mexican family. So when Sofia let the family know she was participating in a service trip to Cuba with BLV and needed to raise funds for the trip in March the family all jumped in and said “TAMALIZA”! Our goal was to sell 50-75 dozens, at least cover 50% of the cost of the service trip, we were not expecting the turnout we had.

We knew we had a very busy schedule coming up with Sofia; school, social events, athletics, vacations, etc.  We decided that the weekend of November 9-11 would be best, since we were all available and it was a 3-day weekend, when I say  all available I am referring to; my mom, my two aunts, my husband, Sofia and I. My sister was out of town that weekend but she contributed towards the purchase of supplies. My mom also contributed towards supplies and provided her kitchen and command central; her home is our family hub anyways, she also enlisted the help of her two girlfriends and neighbor;  my cousin that lives two hours away surprised us and showed up to help.

We are actually quite organized when it comes to the tamale making process, this isn’t our first rodeo with the mass production of them; four years ago my husband volunteered our family to make tamales as a fundraiser to benefit a coworkers chronically ill child; we made 150 dozens that time, but in the span of 2 weekends.

In our family tamale making is no joke!

In our family you earn the task you are allowed to do, in the tamale making process.  My mom, known in the family as “Yaya” is our leader when it comes to the Mexican kitchen and your tasks is assigned by her; she being the leader does it ALL. So in the tamale making process my aunt Lili and I are in charge of spreading the masa on the corn husks, my aunt Cecilia fills the tamales with the meat and Sofia wraps the tamales. Sofia was also in charge of cleaning and soaking the corn husks, as well as packaging the dozens. No one was left without a task.

We used my mom’s stove as well as a Camp Chef 3 burner outdoor stove to cook the tamales, had about 7 huge steamers going at different times, one of them was a triple decker and held about 8 dozens per level, that was our favorite steamer!


BLV: How much masa does it take to make 200 dozen tamales?


MP: Ahhh- the masa…If you know anything about tamales, you know that the masa is the most important part of the tamale, you have to get the masa right! This is an estimate based on the bags of masa flour and supplies,  to give you a glimpse of the process; we purchased about 20 5lb bags = 100 lbs of just masa flour (unprepared) once you prep it, with the stock, fat, salt, baking powder etc. I would say 250 lbs of masa was prepared for our tamales.


BLV: Did people pre-order? How did you deliver the tamales?


MP: Yes all orders were pre-ordered, though we kept on receiving orders as we were making them. To be honest I was quite nervous because I felt I didn’t announce the fundraiser to friends and family with a lot of time; I believe I personally gave my contacts a 2 day notice. My mom, aunt, and cousin also shared fundraiser details with their contacts. Sofia emailed teachers (past and present), and told friends, one of the teachers she emailed took it upon herself and told Sofia she would forward her email to the staff at the Junior High. The staff there was very supportive and delighted to hear Sofia was embarking on this journey.

I’ve got to give credit to my husband Daniel, he actually spearheaded the fundraiser for us. He works at the local hospital; in the surgery department and started spreading the word; they had been waiting for this day! One of his coworkers really stepped in and assisted him in taking orders; his department alone placed 80+ dozens of tamales. The first day he texted me I’ve got 48 orders, then another 9 and then another 12 and so on.

We delivered tamales starting Sunday, my husband picked up a huge batch – his departments orders, and texted people he knew that he could deliver in that moment if needed. We had tamales stored in multiple refrigerators… five (5) to be exact. Our orders came as far north as Red Bluff, CA and down to the Central Valley in Merced, CA a span of 245 miles.

Sofia and I spent Monday, November 11th delivering tamales to local friends in Chico. We also took 2 trips to my husbands workplace; delivering the a.m. crew order and then in the evening to deliver the p.m. crew order. The next day I delivered to my workplace and to the middle school.

The whole experience was very gratifying, we were overwhelmed with the amount of support we received from everyone that supported the Tamale Fundraiser. The most rewarding part was the experience of togetherness; family and culture that Sofia gained from participating in her fundraiser, she was in it the whole time. I am still receiving messages from people saying how much they enjoyed the tamales, that they were the best they ever tasted. They tell me they could tell they were made with love… which they were!


BLV: Would you share your tamale recipes with us to share publicly? You will be given credit.


MP: I would have to ask the family matriarch for that one – my mother; she has never kept a recipe for anything, takes after my grandmother, it’s sacrilegious to use recipes, in the Mojica-Barajas household.


BLV: What do you hope that Sofia will gain from this global service learning program?

I just want her to experience the world and appreciate other cultures.She is our wanderlust, she has the travel bug, loves visiting new places and meeting new people.  Both my husband and I want her to learn, appreciate and most importantly respect other cultures. I also believe it will be an excellent opportunity for her to challenge herself and use her Spanish speaking abilities. Spanish was Sofia’s first language growing up until kindergarten, she lost her confidence in speaking it along the way. Being in a Spanish speaking country by herself, will push her to use her Spanish.



Teaching & Traveling

  1. Tell us a bit about your background. (Ex: where you’re from, how long you taught or did another career and where, your age if you want, your travel background, where you are now and what you’re doing, etc.)

My name is Stacie Freeman.  I am an Associate Professor of Sociology at Bethel University (BU) in Tennessee, the Director of BU Global Studies, and the Co-Executive Director of Bright Light Volunteers (BLV).  In that capacity, I teach Global Service Learning and Citizenship courses to both college and high school students.  Through these six-week courses, students learn via online coursework, cultural immersion, and reflection activities. In-country, they volunteer alongside our international partners on community-led service projects, for which they earn the President’s Volunteer Service Award and three hours of college credit.  So, five weeks “in the classroom” and one week “in-country” is our formula.  I have been organizing and leading local, national, and international service programs since 2007.  I have led 25 student groups and visited over 30 countries (through work and with family).

  1. Explain one (or more) interesting travels you have undertaken (or are currently undertaking) during your time outside of your regular home-country classroom/job. (Where did you go, what did you do, for how long, and how was it?)

I recently returned from Thailand with a group of students from Chico, CA.  Our service there was focused on education (we taught basic English in Hill Tribe schools) and elephant rescue.  Thailand is one of my favorite places to learn and serve.  The rich culture, beautiful scenery, and kind people make it an ideal location for students and educators.  We began our two week journey in Chiang Mai where we explored temples in the company of a former Buddhist Monk.  So, not only did we enjoy the beautiful architecture of the wats and pagodas, we learned a tremendous amount about Buddhism and its cultural impact in Thailand, an excellent supplement to the coursework offered online.  While in Chiang Mai, we also explored night markets, art museums, and even visited the local women’s prison for a massage via a government sponsored social program.  The idea is that the women learn a marketable skill so that when they’re released they can support themselves and their children. The program is innovative AND successful. The prison / government has even opened spas in Chiang Mai to create jobs, post-release. Pretty cool!  Other culturally immersive activities included cooking lessons, a homestay in the countryside, a bike ride through the rice paddies, and trekking through Doi Inthanon National Park.  Our second week in Thailand was totally dedicated to service.  For this arm of the program, we drove several hours into the hills of Thailand and spent the week living and working among the oldest Hill Tribes in Thailand, the Karen and the Hmong.  We taught English in the local primary schools and served on an elephant rescue project.  Essentially, the Hmong and Karen people, due to economic necessity, had been renting their elephants to the logging industry, circuses, and tourism.  In these environments, the elephants were horribly mistreated.  Through an innovative rescue program, the elephants have been returned to their owners and are now freely roaming the jungle.  It is a beautiful thing to see and experience.  As volunteers in the project, we fed the elephants, helped in the garden (where nutritious food is grown to feed the elephants and their mahouts), and assisted with paving a road to ease the delivery of volunteers and supplies to the project.  At the end of our time with the Hill Tribe people, the local Shaman came to our village and blessed our group with a prayer of thanks for our help and protection for our return home. Incredible!!!

  1. How do you find your travel opportunities? (Ex: website, friend, group.)

As the Director of Global Studies, I have multiple connections to agencies and organizations offering travel opportunities to students and educators.  My inbox stays full.  However, I began working with Bright Light Volunteers (BLV) in 2016.  While I have worked with other orgs since then, most of my programs are currently organized by BLV.

  1. How did you find the money to fund your travel? (Ex: savings, scholarships, grants, fundraising, etc.)

I plan my programs one year in advance.  This gives students and their families time to fundraise.  Some of my students secure part-time employment to pay for the experience, others request funding from clubs like Rotary and Lions.  A few have had success securing scholarships through orgs like SYTA as well.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

  1. Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful, interesting, or funny.

This summer, I had the opportunity to meet Lek Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park (ENP).  She is a tiny but MIGHTY woman.  She rescued her first elephant 20 or so years ago.  Today, there are over 80 elephants being cared for at ENP.  In addition to the rescued herd, she and her staff care for over 500 dogs and cats at the park.  This enormous project started with one woman on one mission.  Today,  her voice and hard work for the voiceless, abused animals she rescues is heard around the world.  In her presence, I was reminded that no matter how big the world’s problems, we ALL have the power to leave this place better than we found it.

  1. How have your travels impacted you as a teacher (if you went back to teaching) or in your current career, and how have your travels impacted you as a person?

My travel informs everything I do.  Experiencing other people, from other places has improved my understanding of my role as a global citizen and my responsibility for developing solutions to global social problems.  I see this in my students as well.  On post-service surveys, 100% of my students report that the experience has contributed positively to their appreciation for and understanding of other people and cultures and that their awareness of global social problems and solutions has been improved.  They also report having a better understanding of their role as global citizens and of the interconnection between the US and other countries and cultures. As an educator, reading those surveys has been highly impactful and on hard days, keeps me going.

  1. What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching? (Either general inspirational words and/or specific sites, organizations, strategies, or links which are useful.)

Be persistent!  If your administration is hesitant or resistant, take baby steps.  I started by volunteering with students close to home, in our local community.  Then, I began organizing service programs across our state.  My next move was to organize service projects across the country.  Finally, seven years in, my proposal to travel with students to Costa Rica was approved.   Sometimes, it takes time.  Don’t give up!  “Water cuts through rock not because of its strength but because of its persistence.”

Elephant refuge in Thailand

Elephant refuge in Thailand where our program participants partake in various service initiatives!


GoAbroad Staff Interview

What inspired you to work for Bright Light Volunteers?

I volunteered abroad with my children beginning when they were 5 and 7-years-old. Witnessing the way that service and travel has influenced them during their development was inspiring. I want to help all youth be able to participate in international travel and service and believe that has the power to make the world a brighter place for all!

Bright Light Volunteers participants
On-site with a volunteer during a school build in a very rural and remote part of Albania.

Describe a typical day at work.

Even though the job sounds like it is all adventure and traveling, most of the work for Bright Light Volunteers staff happens on the ground here in the U.S. There are always emails and inquiries to handle, data entry, post program interviews, insurance procurement for groups, and the HUGE amount of other logistical work that goes on in the background in order to run these sorts of programs in host communities around the world.

Why do you do what you do?

I have a heart that calls me to be of service and I have a genuine concern about the divisiveness, inequality, and cross-cultural hatred that I see in the world. I believe that through travel, education, and service that we can cultivate more peace, compassion, and tolerance in the world.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of the job—hands down—is working on the ground with a student group and host community as a stateside BLV rep. Being able to help lead the program and group and witness the changes in perception and openness that they experience gives me the joy and energy needed to continue to further our organizational mission.

How do you use your education and international background in your current role?

As a graduate Magna Cum Laude of Southern Methodist University, I pursued international studies and cultural anthropology with a focus on Latin America. Having an educational background, as well as my previous international experience, gave me the perfect tools for my trade.

What are some current projects you are working on?

One big project at the moment is finalizing our new website! In our work, things change a lot and we needed to migrate to a platform that allows us to maintain and update our website at the click of a button.

Bright Light Volunteers participant
On-site with a high school group from California helping with the construction of several different community projects.

What advice would you tell your pre-travel self?

Don’t be scared of wandering because it is when wandering that one finds the opportunity to discover oneself. Speak the local language even if you can’t speak fluently…how will you ever speak fluidly if you don’t practice with those who know it best!

What makes Bright Light Volunteers special?

A large part of what makes Bright Light Volunteers special and unique is the manner in which we have formally combined a unique educational component into our global service learning programs.

Why should someone choose your organization over competitors?

Students that participate in our program receive three hours of transferable college credit through our educational partner Bethel University. They also receive a Certificate of Global Citizenship and the bronze level of the Presidential Service Award. We offer very comprehensive and fun programming that changes lives.

What hopes do you have for the future of Bright Light Volunteers?

I hope that we will continue to be able to bring in funding for our student scholarship program. Travel and service change students’ lives. Through our scholarship program we are helping to fund programs for students attending Title 1 schools.

Are there any developments with your organization that you would like to share with us?

We were recently a finalist in GoAbroad’s 2019 Innovation Awards for “Innovation in Diversity” and I was able to attend the event in D.C. We didn’t win in that category, but it was inspiring to be in a room full of people who feel as passionately about the power of travel to transform!

Bright Light Volunteers participants
With a teacher leading a group to help put in a playground at the children’s center we work with in Quito, Ecuador.

What makes your organization easy to market to potential participants?

The opportunity for dual enrollment college credit for high school students is a really great opportunity that differentiates our programs from the crowd.

What is the mission of Bright Light Volunteers and how do you continue to work toward it?

The mission of Bright Light Volunteers is to make the world a brighter place by providing educational service opportunities that foster the development of global leaders and citizens.

What do you hope participants take away from your programs?

I hope participants leave the program with a newfound sense of belonging and purpose. I hope it inspires them to create and partake in service initiatives in their home communities and that they, in turn, teach peace and tolerance to others…like a ripple effect of love and compassion.

If you could participate on one of your organization’s programs, where would you go and what would you do?

I still haven’t been able to participate in our newest Costa Rica program!!! We are working with several small community groups there that are doing really interesting work in upcycling trash collected on the beaches to help community members create art to sell to tourists and supplement their income while bringing awareness to the global garbage crisis.

What questions do participants often ask you, and how do you typically respond?

Is it safe? My response: We can’t guarantee safety (no one can) but our team has done and continues to do an incredible job mitigating any possible security/safety concerns. We use safe, contracted, and licensed drivers, we typically operate in small host communities, and we have trained program leaders with the group every step of the way.

Catherine Greenberg
Taking in the view while scouting out our program in Quito, Ecuador.

Why is it important for people to travel abroad and experience new cultures?

Mark Twain said it best: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness. In order to be able to cultivate peace in the world we must have a broader experience of what it means to be human in the world.”

What does meaningful travel mean to you?

I think all travel is meaningful. Any time someone tiptoes out of their cultural comfort zone it is a cause for celebration. It is difficult for people to be intolerant of others or for hatred to consume hearts when, by experience, one sees oneself reflected in others. We are a global community and travel only facilitates our ability to connect with one another.

What hopes do you have for the future of international education?

I hope that in the future international education is made an available option for all students, regardless of the financial barrier to participation. Unequal access to these sorts of educational programs creates a deeper divide in our communities at home and abroad. We are a global society and a global society demands for global citizenship education.

Our programs use a methodology called global-service learning, which combines international community service with experiential learning. This approach creates culturally aware global leaders and citizens who understand their place in the world and their ability to effect change both at home and abroad. 

Bright Light Volunteers puts education and global citizenship at the heart of its mission to make the world a brighter place. We have partnered with an accredited university to achieve our mission and sustain our core values, which makes our nonprofit a one-of-a-kind organization. In partnership with Bethel University (of McKenzie, Tennessee)we offer opportunities specifically designed to prepare students to become the global thinkers and leaders of tomorrow. 

Our programs use a methodology called global-service learning, which combines international community service with experiential learning. This approach creates culturally aware global leaders and citizens who understand their place in the world and their ability to effect change both at home and abroad. 

Students will travel, learn, serve, and lead through each of our programs; each one provides transformative, culturally immersive, experiences abroad. 

Since our partnership has developed, participants now have the opportunity to enroll in a six-week online course in Global Service Learning and Citizenship (GSLC) through Bethel University. With guidance from UNESCO global citizenship education, the GSLC course equips students with the knowledge and functional skills necessary to become culturally competent. Students gain exposure to the history and culture of the host country, preparing them for the experience of cultural immersion and exchange.  

We then provide opportunities to serve by working side-by-side with local partners on community-led service projects abroad, allowing students to develop a deeper understanding of the host country and culture. Students can expect to serve between 20 and 80 hours, depending on the length and location of the program.  


Dallas Teen Inspires Change in the World via Education, Travel, and Service


Alexis Soria is a young woman on a mission and she’s got a lot of supporters cheering her on along the way. Last month, Alexis participated in a comprehensive global service learning program in Costa Rica, thanks to generous grants and support that came in from multiple sources after Alexis was awarded a Bright Light Volunteers scholarship sponsored by DFW’s Hispanic 100 – a nonprot organization that promotes Hispanic women’s leadership roles in the private and public sector.

After receiving the H-100 scholarship, Alexis was awarded additional support in the form of a Road Scholarship from the Student Youth Travel Association (SYTA) as well as support from Si Se Puede, an organization that provides advice to students to work for academic success, encourage volunteering, and help students grow into leadership positions.

Alma Garcia, Board Member of Bright Light Volunteers says, “The fact that several nonprots jumped in and helped leverage a small scholarship from H100 into being able to completely fund this opportunity for Alexis is powerful and will, no doubt, have ripple effects throughout our community.”

Alexis, now a Junior at DISD’s Irma Lerma Rangel School Young Women’s Leadership School, isn’t new to this sort of experience. Last year, thanks in part to private sponsorships, Alexis served in the highlands of the Sacred Valley in Peru where she spent time teaching, aiding in the construction of water filtration system, and immersing herself in the people and culture of Peru.

Alexis Soria while volunteering at an animal refuge in Costa Rica with Bright Light Volunteers.

“International education allows me to stretch and grow.”

Recently we got to sit down and debrief with Alexis after she returned home from her latest global service learning experience in Costa Rica and asked her some questions to get a sense of how these experiences have shaped her life and future ambitions:

BLV: What has the opportunity to serve, learn, and lead meant for you?

AS: To serve means that I take a part of my community into another country and plant a seed there. To learn means learning about other cultures and nding ways we can help. We don’t know the struggles other cultures have until we engage with them. To lead means bringing what I learn in other countries to my local community; international education allows me to stretch and grow.

BLV: Has this experience changed you in any way?
AS: Yes … it has changed me in different ways. I learned that we have a lot of commodities living in the U.S. and people in other parts of the world don’t have the basic necessities (toothbrush, towel, bed, etc.) to not only survive … but to thrive. In America we hustle, hustle, hustle and take a lot for granted. In other countries, people value other things like family and tradition.

BLV:Is it important to travel? Why or why not?

AS: Yes. It is important because we get to learn how other people live, their culture and traditions. You learn a lot about how communities work together within a country. In Costa Rica, for example, everyone is laid back, but they do not take anything for granted. A local man explained how their country recovered from the last hurricane by every person contributing in the restoration process. It takes a lot of heart and pride from its inhabitants.

BLV: What are your dreams for yourself and how do you plan to get there?

AS: My dream (as a little girl) was to become a doctor. But the more I learn about the lack of respect for the Mexican community (we are always bashed; we are not appreciated), I want to be a role model for other Mexican girls to love their heritage and help empower the Mexican community. I have volunteered helping Mexicans complete immigration forms and being an activist as a way to gain awareness of the immigration crisis. Doing something in the immigration eld would put me in a position to be encouraging and show compassion to those entering our borders.

About Bright Light Volunteers

Bright Light Volunteers is a 501(c)(3), non-prot organization, designed to empower program participants and community partners through education and service. Specifically, our programs adhere to global service-learning best practices, which combine community service with both experiential learning in the eld and online coursework through our university partner, Bethel University. Our vision is to make the world a brighter place by creating a more peaceful, just, interconnected world where global challenges and opportunities are met by educated, compassionate, global citizens and leaders.

About the Hispanic 100:

The Hispanic 100 is a network of D/FW-area Latina leaders who are committed to increasing business development opportunities for Hispanic, women-owned businesses and to promoting Hispanic women’s leadership roles in the private and public sectors. The organization’s endowment fund supports initiatives that address the needs of Hispanic women and girls in the D/FW area. For more information, visit http://www.dfwhispanic100.org. Visit us on Facebook at DFW Hispanic 100 or follow us on Twitter @DFWH100.


Board Shake-Up at International Service Learning Organization Brings Fresh Blood and Diverse Perspectives

Joining the Board of Directors are Alma Garcia (Texas),Kyla Parker (Tennessee), Alex Van Dewark(California), Dr. Sharon Thomas-Parker (Maryland), and Kodi Henderson(Alabama).

Between the five new members to BLV’s Board of Directors, the new team has participated and/or led eight student programs, and three are career educators. It is a diverse Board with membership residing across the U.S. in Baltimore, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, and California.

“All five of our newest Board members embody the spirit of community and bring significant talent, expertise and energy to ‘carry the torch’ forward as we continue to scale operations. We are very fortunate to have them by our side as we continue to make the world a brighter place, one student at a time!” Catherine Greenberg, Founder and Co-Executive Director.

Rotating off the existing Board: Margaret McMillan, C. Scott Jennings, and Professor Stacie Freeman. Key details about the newest appointees below:

Alma Garcia, one of BLV’s newest board members, is a leader who has a history of supporting initiatives that empower young girls and women. Inspired by her experience volunteering as a mentor for Big Brothers & Sisters of Central Texas, she went on to serve as the Executive Director of Dream Angels, Inc., a nonprofit organization focused on empowering at-risk girls and providing the support and opportunities necessary to provide them with the best tools possible to achieve their professional and personal dreams. Alma has served, unpaid, as BLV’s Community Engagement Specialist in the past, as well as a seasoned Program Leader guiding groups in our host communities abroad.

Kyla Parker, one of BLV’s newest board members, is a veteran educator from West Tennessee. She has witnessed, first hand, the power of our leadership programs and is a proponent for equalized access to such programs as ours for Title One schools.

Alex Van Dewark, one of BLV’s newest board members, is an entrepreneur and a firefighter/paramedic based out of Chico, CA. Founder and CEO of UP, Inc. (UP: Unlocking Potential), Alex has worked hard to make the MixMat available as an easy and affordable solution to the need for concrete on our service learning programs. Having past experience working as a Business/Leadership trainer for Odyssey Teams, Inc., Alex is well positioned to help BLV expand into serving corporate sector clients to meet their need for cultural sensitivity, cross-cultural collaboration and leadership training.

Dr. Sharon Thomas-Parker, one of BLV’s newest board members, holds a Doctorate of Education focusing on Higher Education Leadership and has an illustrious and varied career as a licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. She has served in a variety of cross-disciplinary roles such as Program Director for Redefining Refuge, a nonprofit dedicated to serving victims of sexual trafficking and Director of Behavioral Health at the Family Health Centers of Baltimore.

Kodi Henderson Niehaus, one of BLV’s newest board members, is the Coordinator of Education Abroad and International Exchange at the University of North Alabama (UNA). She joined the Office of International Affairs (OIA) in August 2018. Kodi has a M.A. in Postsecondary Education and Administration and a B.S. in Journalism, Mass Communications, Geosciences, and Television Production. Kodi has worked in a variety of roles in the news industry as an associate producer, reporter, videographer, photographer, and journalist. Furthermore, she has worked several offices of higher education as a graduate assistant in the Student Disability Services office at Murray State University, a graduate intern in the Office of Global Studies at Bethel University, an intern in the Study Abroad Office at the University of Evansville, and as a volunteer in the Office of Education Abroad at Murray State University. She has traveled to Austria, Belize, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Italy, Mexico, and Switzerland.


Bright Light Volunteers is a 501(c)(3), non-profit organization, designed to empower program participants and community partners through education and service. Specifically, our programs adhere to global service-learning best practices, which combine community service with both experiential learning in the field and online coursework through our university partner. Our vision is to make the world a brighter place by creating a more peaceful, just, interconnected world where global challenges and opportunities are met by educated, compassionate, global citizens and leaders.


Finding Family in Cuba

Finding Family in Cuba

By Ethan Besnard

For most Americans there is a great deal of interest and mystery in Cuba because, until recently, we have not been able to explore the country. When offered this once in a lifetime opportunity with BLV’s award winning Cuba program, it was an automatic yes for me and I knew I would enjoy every second of it. I had already experienced one BLV program and was excited knowing how much that first trip impacted my life. I couldn’t wait to learn more from a different culture and lifestyle.

Upon arrival in Cuba, there was an immediate realization that Cuba’s economy appeared to be suffering. The airport in Havana was small, run down, had no air-conditioning and little organization. As we waited for transportation, I watched dozens of Cubans carting out TVs and other electronics that were difficult to obtain or too costly on the island which resulted in Cubans traveling to other countries to make purchases.  This was a shocking contrast to our quick Costco runs or Amazon orders.

Our BLV guide told us that one of our most important jobs was to help increase Cuba’s middle class, which was why we weren’t staying in hotels, but casitas: local homeowners who rent out rooms.  I quickly learned there were many advantages to staying in a casita over a hotel.  I was able to get to know the owners personally, became part of their community, practiced my Spanish, and enjoyed delicious home-cooked meals.

In our first night in Havana, our casita owner Maria hosted a big welcome party for us.  She and her family decorated, cooked langosta (lobster which is difficult to purchase), and hired professional salsa dancers for our entertainment.  Despite my language barrier, I could still communicate with our hosts through their patience and gestures.  Before long, there were no more barriers and we all danced and clapped together enjoying a true cultural celebration.

Havana’s streets were lined with brightly colored 1950s cars.  The buildings stood tall and closely together.  The ocean breeze provided comfort from the hot sun.  While Havana was overgrown with buildings and history, the small western town of Viñales was much more rural and provided warm people, beautiful views of greenery and the famous mogotes, and incredible food.

The real joy of the program came when we started our service on an organic farm in Viñales. After learning that the Cuban government takes 90% of the farmers’ crops for their own use, we knew the more we helped on the farm, the more the farmers could keep for themselves. We would walk to the farm everyday and spend hours planting, digging, weeding, and preparing for new crops. All of the farmers were very gracious and offered plenty of food throughout the day.  We did our best to keep up with the farmers and could tell they appreciated our work ethic.  After long days of working alongside these men, it was quite difficult to say goodbye. We gifted them tools, gloves, socks, etc. and they gifted us memories and gratefulness.

I have noticed similarities between my two BLV programs but the one that occured every single day on each program was the generosity of the local people who had little to offer; the farmers, who made just enough money to support themselves and their families gave us food from their farm, the casita owners who opened their homes for us to stay in overfilled our plates at each meal, the baseball players who played friendly games with us offered fresh pineapple to quench our thirst. Seeing the generosity of the Cubans was eye opening. While Cuba is a beautiful place, it is the people who make the country magical.



All Rhodes Lead to Service

All “Rhodes” Lead to Service

By Ethan Besnard

I was only 11 when my mom decided it was important for me to see my place in the world.  My mom took me along with her AP and IB students on a BLV service program to Greece, where we would visit Athens and spend majority of our time on the island of Rhodes. The trip was well organized and we got to see two very different styles of living in the big city and a more rural village.  While in Athens, we visited many ancient structures, including the Parthenon and ate fresh organic foods; however, it was our time in Rhodes that made a more significant impact.  There weren’t as many people and the city wasn’t as advanced. As soon as we arrived in Rhodes we traveled to a facility for special needs children.  The facility was trashed and overgrown outside.  I felt compelled to help the children, especially once I saw them through the windows.  We each had specific roles to do – I cut overgrown bushes, cleared out areas on the playground, and planted. We worked for several hours and transformed the run-down facility to an environment more conducive to learning. It was then that I realized what we came to Greece to do: to complete sustainable projects to provide for those in need.

Our group did many projects on the program, but one that I really enjoyed was repairing and painting an elderly couple’s home.  The house was hundreds of years old and poorly maintained.  We spent endless hours cleaning, scraping, priming, and painting the interior of the home.   Other community members watched and wondered why we came to help.  They didn’t seem to understand the concept of service, but were soon inspired by our group.  The couple whose home we painted was so grateful and yet they didn’t speak a word of English. I specifically remember the elderly woman offering me a blanket because it was very cold that day. Although we didn’t speak the same language, I tried to convince her to use the blanket instead, but she was more concerned about me.  Painting the house made me feel good inside knowing that we improved their quality of life and that the couple would remember us for the rest of their lives.

Of all the projects we did, the one that resonates the most with me and that I will always carry in the back of my mind is working in a Syrian refugee camp. Here I witnessed people, from kids to elders, who had lost everything.  In fact, many had lost loved ones and witnessed war and bloodshed.  While I was sympathetic, it was impossible to put myself in their shoes and truly understand what they had experienced.  Still, we listened to their stories and provided as much comfort as possible.  One teenage girl explained she was in school when there was an attack and she witnessed people being murdered.  This same girl was eager to learn German because her family planned to move to Germany and start fresh.  I respected this girl and the fact that she was willing to help contribute to her family and still had such hope about the future.

It was difficult to see the poor living conditions the refugees were living in.  There was a giant warehouse where all of the refugees lived.  Greek volunteers would hand out donations – clothing, food, books, educational supplies, toiletries, etc.  I witnessed the volunteers and refugees looking out for each other.  It was inspiring.  We purchased and served food and supplies.  We listened to our new friends and created bonds.  My favorite part of working at the refugee camp was playing soccer with the kids and adults. I remember thinking that it is incredible that something as small as a soccer ball could bring joy to a group of people who had nothing.

Even though I fell asleep on the dinner table each night from exhaustion, I will never forget my first Bright Light program and how it changed me. I see how fortunate I am to be able to help other people. I love learning about different cultures and lifestyles.  I realize that people are the same everywhere and our differences are outnumbered by our similarities.