PiLA Blog

Introducing La Brigada Verde

Angie Neslin
May 23, 2018

“¡Angie! ¿Hoy vamos al huerto? ¿Hoy vamos a reciclar? ¿Hoy vamos a hacer Parlamento?” Hearing this daily chorus always brings a smile to my face, because these are the programs I work on at Fundación Abriendo Camino. Our mission is to provide alternatives for the protection and education of children, youth and families in a vulnerable urban sector, the barrio of Villas Agrícolas in Santo Domingo. These alternatives include the urban garden, 3R (recycling), and student parliament programs I’ve helped to develop during my two years here. That our students, who largely range from five to thirteen years old and number in the few hundreds, stop me on the street to inquire about them suggests that we’re succeeding at channeling the kids’ talents and interests into fruitful endeavors (quite literally, in the case of the huerto!).

During my time here, I’ve witnessed a genuine transformation in habits and attitudes regarding the environment. The youth of Villas Agrícolas have empowered themselves in Fundación Abriendo Camino’s rooftop garden, organizing into a Brigada Verde that currently has 55 members with more signing up.  They water and weed and name our plants, research their nutritional and medicinal properties so that they can give tours to the many adults who visit our center, and sort and prepare the paper and plastic we collect so it can be delivered to a recycling plant. 

And they don’t just participate in the garden. They’ve gotten involved with our Parlamento, arguing for the implementation of monthly cleanup days in the streets surrounding our center and for the extension of our recycling program to the neighborhood schools. Both of these proposals won the backing of the public at the Asamblea del Parlamento, were approved by our administration, and have since been carried out. As one of my 10-year-old friends commented during the cleanup in December, “es lindo limpiar.” And this is happening in a neighborhood where “waste management” often means the gutter—at least until the Brigada Verde comes along.

That’s because best of all, our students are spreading what they’ve learned at Fundación Abriendo Camino to the rest of their community. They’re bringing in their parents’ recycling, and they’re bringing home plants so they can start their own gardens. Last week I was pleased to visit one of their schools and see the vertical garden they’ve installed, populated with transplants from our roof. Now we have parents coming to our huerto urbano to buy a packet of mint so they can make a refreshing lemonade for their children, or to get some lemongrass for a tea to help a grandparent fight a cold. Even among our staff—known for our love of cake and toffee—many of my coworkers, themselves members of the Villas Agrícolas community, are picking up chard, leek, and arugula to take home for dinner.

These experiences testify to the importance of engaging kids outside of the classroom, giving them a space to develop their skills and passions in not-so-traditional ways and thus empowering them to drive change in their world. It’s been a privilege to work for an organization that achieves this purpose with so much community backing. If you’re ever in Santo Domingo, stop by the rooftop garden at Fundación Abriendo Camino. The students of the Brigada Verde would love to give you a tour—and they just might convince you to take home some cilantro ancho or orégano poleo!

President Oscar Arias celebrates Princeton in Latin America

November 3, 2017

Former President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, delivered the keynote speech at the celebration of PiLA’s 15th anniversary at the Princeton Club of New York on the evening of November 2 and spoke highly of the organization and its fellows.

“PiLA became a trusted partner and friend of the Arias Foundation. PiLA fellows joined what seemed like an impossible mission that the Foundation undertook in the 1990’s … they believed and they rolled up their sleeves and for that I am eternally grateful.”

“The Arias Foundation is proud to be PiLA’s oldest partner and I am also proud of the impact your program has had on organizations and countries throughout Latin America.”

“For that reason, an investment in a program like PiLA is perhaps one of the most valuable of all, because this program is not just changing the lives of young graduates. It is building spokeswomen and spokesmen that our world needs. It is inspiring supplies of light, voices of reason that our world needs now more than ever before.”

Reflections on Life in the DR: Hope in the Face of Challenges

Luisa Nilan
March 27, 2018

It’s hard to believe that I’m nearing 7 months here in Cabarete, working with the Mariposa DR Foundation. I’m saddened by the prospect of having to leave this beautiful place in just 4 months. My time here has been invaluable, as I’ve had so many opportunities to experience both personal and professional growth, to meet so many different people, and to really be convicted about my desire and responsibility to serve.

The Mariposa Foundation operates a supplemental education program for the girls of Cabarete, ages 8-17, Tuesday through Saturday, in an effort to help end generational poverty through the girl. As such, my main responsibilities revolve around teaching classes. I’ve taught a variety of fun classes, from health, reading, and English, to cooking, music, and sports. Working directly with the girls is by far my favorite part of my job, but, needless to say, it comes with its challenges. My favorite days are those when I feel that we’ve managed to have a successful class, that I’ve done minimal yelling, and I’m left feeling energized and beaming with joy. On the flip side, there are days when we’ve had to have difficult conversations with the girls about the racial tensions between Dominicans and Haitians, when my efforts to speak to a girl one-on-one, due to behavioral issues, seem futile, and when I feel that the mindfulness and calming techniques that we teach the girls are more for me than for them! On these occasions, I have to remind myself to be patient, and that it is persistence that helps one win the race.

It is through these interactions, however, that I slowly learn more about the girls, their homes, communities, and the Dominican Republic at large. While here, I’ve had many opportunities to have discussions about heavy, important topics like why 80% of girls in the DR are pregnant before the age of 18, why many only finish primary school, why femicide is a concern, how Dominicans and Haitians continue to discriminate against one other, and the effects of poverty and economic disparities. Sometimes, all of these issues are overwhelming, but then, at the Mariposa Foundation, I’m also able to have conversations with people, locals and visitors alike, who are passionate about helping and fighting to make a difference, and my hope and inspiration are renewed. I witness the successes of the organization, such as how Mariposa has given girls the opportunity to study at prestigious schools, like United World College, when many of them have probably never travelled far outside of their hometowns, and I’m so excited to see where the now 8- and 9-year olds will end up in 10 years! I’m hopeful that their paths will not be the common ones that their society and culture has so often led other young girls down.

During the remainder of my time here, and after my departure, I’m eager to continue to share the mission of Mariposa with others, because I’ve been blessed enough to have real-life experiences that allow me to testify why investing in girls really is worth it. I’m thankful to the organization, to the many beautiful people I’ve met, and to the crazy, hilarious, and loving girls that allow me to be a child and inspire me all the while!  

Valentines, community service, and carnival in Nor Yungas, Bolivia

Nora Harless
March 9, 2018

Feliz dia del amor from post-Carnival Bolivia! My name is Nora Harless, and I am the current fellow working at the Unidad Académica Campesina (UAC) in Carmen Pampa, Bolivia in the region of Nor Yungas. Here are a few impressions of my experience working as external relations coordinator at the UAC deep in the Andes mountains.

UAC is a community serving institution of higher learning whose goal is to empower young Bolivians to actively respond to the social, environmental, and economic needs of their families and communities. One of the facets of #UAC-CP's mission is working “comunitario,” or community service hours in production-based modules. Ranging from coffee harvesting, agricultural production, to growing swine and chickens, the students at the college reinforce their education with hands-on skill sets that will also enable them to serve the rural community in an innovative way.

National parades and traditional dances are an important part of Bolivian culture. These street parades and performances are a way for communities to share in and celebrate “la vida Boliviana” with one another, and with foreigners like me. In Bolivia, one mustn’t shy away from a good Carnival celebration. ¡Vamos pues!

One element of my work is serving as the Spanish-speaking liaison between the community of Carmen Pampa and its international partners. Some recent projects have included the building and maintenance of a sand filtration system with #engineerswithoutborders and #rotaryinternational, a medical research mission conducted by #stcatherineuniversity, and service trips through #peacework and #sienacollege. A crucial component of international development is bridging the gaps between otherwise estranged communities. Getting my hands dirty in the thick of the fieldwork makes the world feel... un poco más pequeño!

Another perk of working with both national and international organizations is #travel! Whether it be through a partnership with the #usembassylapaz , site visits with international visitors, or collecting #UAC graduate stories, I have been lucky to experience a myriad of regions across Bolivia. After all, there's nothing quite like a road trip up the world's most dangerous road in the #andesmountains!

The only way I can think to properly conclude this brief blog entry is by saying: THANK YOU. To the community members and administrators who have welcomed me with open arms - #thankyou for the countless hours of teaching and learning, through language barriers and with an openness to working alongside “su nueva amiga rubia.” The work #princetoninlatinamerica fellows do, both in Bolivia and throughout Latin America, would not be possible without the reciprocity of our partner organizations.

Por eso, les digo GRACIAS.

Una vulnerabilidad mutua

Nicole Hardy
March 5, 2018

La semana haciendo experimentos científicos fue algo inolvidable porque encarnó la diferencia en el concepto de servicio comunitario con DREAM y servicio comunitario para DREAM. Los estudiantes en el grupo de Cape Cod, no querían ser solamente unos “salvadores,” proveer útiles escolares y después salir olvidando de los que dejaron aquí a “pudrir.” En lugar de eso, ellos querían una experiencia de vulnerabilidad mutua y deseaban involucrarse en la comunidad y aprender de ellos igual que los estudiantes pueden aprender de los voluntarios. Mejor dicho, no querían solamente dar sino querían admitir que la comunidad también puede brindar algo a ellos y que hacer servicio comunitario no requiere solamente dar a la comunidad sino recibir y aprender de ellos.

Teniendo eso en cuenta, la semana funcionó como un intercambio. Los estudiantes no tenían mucho entendimiento de ciencia y los voluntarios no sabían nada de español. Es decir, que ellos se complementaron-los voluntarios entregaron su conocimiento de la ciencia a ellos y ellos les entregaron lecciones en español para ayudarles a comunicar mejor.

Creo que esta experiencia es un ejemplo de algo aún más grande que un simple intercambio entre jóvenes. Es una representación de como servicio voluntario debe ser. En lugar de enseñar a la comunidad que ellos necesitan a extranjeros para hacer algo, deberíamos destacar que cualquier comunidad puede ofrecer algo. No existe una comunidad en el mundo que no pueda enseñar algo a un voluntario y deberíamos empoderar a las comunidades para que se den cuenta que los recursos y los conocimientos que tienen no necesariamente tienen los extranjeros, aunque sean de un país más rico con más recursos.

Esa forma de empoderamiento hace que los miembros de la comunidad tengan más conciencia de lo que tiene y de lo que puede mejorar y por esa conciencia podemos construir comunidades que estén orgullosos de sus logros y que trabajen para capacitar a los miembros. Así se hace en DREAM y me siento muy orgullosa de ser parte de esta organización sin fines de lucro. 

ADISA: A closer look at inclusion

Jesse Moore
February 9, 2018

My work at Adisa has made me think more deeply about the meaning of inclusion. Adisa's motto: "Por una comunidad inclusiva" (for an inclusive community) is much more than just a slogan. It is the motivation and foundation for our work. Whether it be our healthcare, employment, education, or empowerment programs, or just daily interactions, Adisa strives to create a community based in inclusivity. 

Inclusion starts by changing the culture around disability. Education, mobility solutions, health services, and physical therapy do not bring change without being backed up by a supportive community. In Santiago Atitlán, it has been a long and difficult process to change public perception but, as Adisa celebrates its 20 year anniversary this year, we are happy to see changes within the community.

The first time children with disability participated in the independence day parade in Guatemala in 2001, it went poorly. They were insulted, and made fun of, and Adisa nearly pulled them out of the parade because of it. But in the end, they stuck it out because otherwise, they would never learn to go out on their own. Fast forward to 2017, and children from Atitlan's school of special education lead the parade. They smiled and proudly wave flags, cheered on and admired by the same community that nearly forced them out sixteen years earlier. 

Changing community attitude has made the rest of Adisa's programs possible. In education, inclusive education training for school teachers provide local teachers the skills and knowledge necessary to include people with disability in their classrooms. 

In healthcare, our early intervention program provides specialized care to young children children with developmental delays. Engaging and stimulating children at an early age is critical to their growth. Children in this program have rapidly improved their speech, motor, and social skills.

In employment, Artesanos de Adisa is a force of 18 young men and women with disabilities from Santiago Atitlán that make artesanal crafts out of recycled materials. What started out as a small project to provide work for people with disabilities in 2006, has now become its own association and today is selling its products throughout Guatemala and internationally. In addition to artesanal crafts, young people with disabilities also run a chicken coop that sells eggs to many people in Santiago Atitlán. Every person, regardless of (dis)ability, has the right to their own livelihood.  

In my own work in development, an important aspect of my job is fundraising. One project that we recently fundraised was to build a wheelchair accessible ramp for Juanito. With the support of many generous donors, we were able to raise the funds and Juanito can now get to school and leave his house on his own, without relying on his dad or brother to carry him up the steep staircase. Accessibility projects such as this one empower people with disabilities to gain their independence and improve their quality of life.   

Beyond the empowerment of individuals, we also work with and train other disability service organizations to adopt community based rehabilitation strategies. Adisa is a leading organization, reference and model in disability work that promotes inclusive development and advocacy. We want our work to be sustainable, and by training with other organizations, we ensure the longevity of our work. 

Infinite Impact in Rural Guatemala

Yihemba Yikona
February 8, 2018

When I guide visitors through the Starfish Impact School, I do my best to convey how special and revolutionary it is to see nearly one hundred young indigenous women sitting at school in Guatemala at an age when many would no longer have the opportunity to continue studying due to lack of financial resources or cultural pressure.

As Communications Coordinator, a huge part of my job is storytelling—whether that is telling the story of Starfish to visitors in person, or communicating with a broader audience through online media.

What do I say?

I tell them that the young women with whom we work face quadruple discrimination from their circumstances as poor, female, rural, and Mayan.

I tell them that the average indigenous woman in Guatemala has 2.5 years of schooling, and 57% of indigenous girls in the country are married and/or mothers by the age of 18.

I tell them that Starfish is changing this reality by using education and mentorship to unlock the potential of young women to lead transformational change.

I tell them that this organization is really doing what it says it is doing and the results are incredible. The lives of Girl Pioneers are changing, as they are equipped to be changemakers in their own lives, their families, their communities, and their country.

Although so much of my job involves storytelling and spoken and written communication, I’ve found that the best way to do that comes from listening and observing. As I listen and observe, I learn from my Guatemalan coworkers and am impressed by how quickly they mobilize as we move forward to provide high quality education and expand opportunities for the young women we serve. When I have the privilege of speaking with Girl Pioneers, I am so inspired by their stories of resilience and how education has changed their lives and helped them learn the value of their voices.

These voices have power—a power that resounds in the young woman that celebrates her high school graduation despite many obstacles along the way. It is found in the eighth grader that dreams of becoming a chemical engineer, and the business administration university student that plans to open her own business one day.

As these voices express hope and determination for the future, they embody strength and perseverance. The task of empowering young women and fighting for their education is not easy, and it is an honor to see how the team at Starfish commits to this each and every day.

To learn more about Starfish, visit starfish-impact.org.

New PiLA Fellows for 2017–18

July 25, 2017

We proudly announce the 2017–18 cohort of 32 PiLA fellows, who collectively will serve with 20 PiLA partner organizations in 11 countries.

See bios and photos of all 2017–18 PiLA fellows



College or University

PiLA Partner




Swarthmore College




Arango Gomez

University of California Berkeley





Tufts University

The Nature Conservancy

Arlington, VA and Mexico



Wesleyan University

Osa Conservation

Costa Rica

Ana Teresa

Colón García

Haverford College

The Nature Conservancy

Arlington, VA and Mexico


de la Vega

Carleton College

Project Alianza




University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

Global Partnerships




Pitzer College





Middlebury College

Pueblo a Pueblo




Tufts University

Building Dignity




Princeton University


Dominican Republic



New York University

UAC-Carmen Pampa




Princeton University

Global Partnerships




University of California Berkeley





George Washington University





Ohio State University

Comunidad Connect




Princeton University

Mariposa DR Foundation

Dominican Republic



Harvard University

Hospitalito Atitlán




University of Pennsylvania





Occidental College





University of Washington

The Nature Conservancy




Harvard University

Mariposa DR Foundation

Dominican Republic



Harvard University





University of Iowa

Pueblo a Pueblo




Washington University in St. Louis

Hospitalito Atitlán




Pepperdine University


Dominican Republic



Duke University





American University


Dominican Republic



Princeton University

Mariposa DR Foundation

Dominican Republic



Macalester College

Fundación Arias

Costa Rica



City University of New York-Hunter College


Dominican Republic



Princeton University



In addition, five members of the 2016–17 cohort will remain in the field for a second year as PiLA senior fellows:

  • Annie Austin (Endeavor Mexico, Mexico City)

  • Tiffany Brown (Yspaniola, Esperanza, Dominican Republic)

  • Danielle Coony (DREAM, Cabarete, Dominican Republic)

  • Anjelica Neslin (Fundación Abriendo Camino, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic)

  • Rachel Ozer-Bearson (Antigua International School, Antigua, Guatemala)


Education, Leadership, and Community Development in Lima

Alexis Álvarez (Building Dignity, Peru)
March 24, 2016

Alexis Alvarez

Working alongside a resilient community in the outskirts of Lima continues to transform my outlook on development.Villa El Salvador, where Building Dignity works, has a proud history of fighting for recognition through movements to formalize its settlements. This legacy continues as community members continue to struggle to access basic amenities from the state, quality education and the now-deteriorating opportunities to participate in Peru’s evolving job market. Building Dignity seeks to address these issues alongside the members of Villa El Salvador through initiatives focused on education, leadership, and community development. As a Princeton in Latin America Fellow, I work closely with the community to carry out Building Dignity’s programs as Program Director.

Following Building Dignity’s pillars of leadership and community development, I worked with community leaders to seek out funding and train them on project implementation. This allows leaders in their community to take action when the local government fails to address the community’s infrastructural needs. As a result, community members planned and implemented a neighborhood lighting project and currently seek to implement similar projects throughout other parts of Villa El Salvador. I also lead a youth group that empowers youth to take action against the injustices their community faces through leadership training and community service projects. We hope to build the next generation of leaders that will allow for Building Dignity to achieve a model of self-sustainability.

Alexis ÁlvarezAlexis Alvarez




In addition to assisting with community development initiatives, Building Dignity effectively executes an innovative solution to the problem of low-quality education in Villa El Salvador. Peru suffers from a high level of teacher absenteeism and outdated teaching methods that hinder students’ learning. In order to address this, I am able to work directly with local students through Building Dignity’s tutoring program that implements interactive and dynamic pedagogical strategies to improve a student’s engagement and cognitive development. The program's success is evident: through the course of the program, students have gone from struggling to read simple sentences to comprehending short paragraphs and discussing them with the class!

    At the moment, I am conducting a randomized control trial in order to measure the impact of the education initiative in order to better inform Building Dignity’s staff and donor base about our work. This impact evaluation allows me to apply my skills in economics while simultaneously learning about new education methods that can potentially transform how development organizations work in the field of education. Building Dignity's work both inspires me and continually shapes my understanding of development. I am especially thankful for the opportunity to become part of such an amazing community here in Villa El Salvador. 

Women in the Workforce in Rural Nicaragua

Grace Galloway (Comunidad Connect)
March 16, 2016

Marta Eliza checking in patients at the clinic

While driving home after meeting with community leaders about a new water project, community health worker Marta Eliza, program supervisor Yarisleidy and I discussed the challenges of being a woman in Latin America and a woman in the work force. In this case, each of us is both.

“A veces creo que se equivocaron conmigo.”

“Sometimes I think they got it wrong with me,” explained Marta Eliza, a community health worker from the rural community of Los Robles in Northern Nicaragua. Marta Eliza confessed that sometimes she thinks she was meant to be a man because she enjoys working – both in the physical sense of agricultural labor and in an office environment. She shared with us that she wakes up early, works all day and doesn’t mind; she is always looking for more ways to give back to her community. She is strong, both physically and emotionally. For these reasons, she wonders if she may have been better suited to be a man than a woman.

Yarisleidy and Grace

Despite my strong feminist convictions and educational formation, I didn’t quite know how to respond to Marta Eliza’s comments. I waited to see what Yarisleidy, a young professional Nicaraguan woman, would say.  Her response nearly took the words out of my mouth. Yarisleidy expressed that being strong and driven has nothing to do with gender. She argued that men in the rural communities do work hard in agriculture for a full 8-hour day, but that women spend before, during, and after the workday caring for their house, children and husband. Often they tend their own garden and farm animals as well.

For a woman in the professional world, regardless of geographic location, sexism and discrimination are parts of everyday life. My female coworkers and I must confront machista statements and decisions on a daily basis. These acts of discrimination are not only perpetrated by men, and this phenomenon is certainly not limited to Latin America.

As the conversation with Marta Eliza and Yarisleidy continued, I had the opportunity to share with them how impressed and excited I am by the female leadership in both my organization and the communities in which we work. By the end of the drive, each of us had learned something new about each other and come to understand that despite cultural differences, we all have something in common. We are striving the increase equality among people – regardless of gender, age, life experience or nationality.  

Marta Eliza will most likely never read The Feminine Mystique or attend a gender studies lecture. I will never thoroughly understand what it means to run a household in Los Robles. Through conversations such as these, she and I can connect and collaborate as a team – of strong, independent women – working to empower rural community members and especially young women to demand and show respect for themselves and those around them. 

Innovative Food Assistance in the Andes

Sarah and friends in Quito
Sarah Balistreri
April 1, 2015

When friends and family from the States talk about Ecuador, they often mention the beauty of the Galapagos Islands and the snow-capped volcanoes of the Andes. Very few think of the prolonged armed conflict taking place in Colombia and its impact on Ecuador. Before I began my fellowship at the UN World Food Programme (WFP) last July, I also knew little about the effects of this conflict on Colombia’s smaller southern neighbor. Since 2000, approximately 175,000 people have petitioned for asylum in Ecuador, and the country currently hosts the largest refugee population in the region. WFP has been active in Ecuador since 1964 and provides emergency food aid to the Colombian refugee population and vulnerable Ecuadorian host communities.

While I had a basic understanding of the logistics of providing humanitarian assistance prior to coming to Quito, I am astonished at how much I have learned at WFP. In Ecuador WFP has taken an innovative approach to food assistance and provides beneficiaries with an electronic voucher that functions like a debit card. In order to recharge their voucher, beneficiaries participate in monthly trainings on subjects such as nutrition, safe hygiene, and gender violence prevention.

As a member of the communications team, I translate and revise publications, donor reports, and fundraising documents. I have also had the opportunity to participate in monitoring and evaluation activities, which has been my favorite experience as a PiLA fellow in Quito. To measure the impact of its food assistance, WFP staff regularly conduct surveys with beneficiaries and partner organizations. In the fall, I spent a month interviewing Colombian refugees about their eating habits and their perception of tensions between Colombians and Ecuadorians in Quito. Many would relate how they most like to prepare cassava root, or about the hardships they have encountered both in Colombia and Ecuador. Hearing their stories has been by far the most rewarding and powerful part of my time in Ecuador. This fellowship has been an unparalleled learning experience, and I am very grateful for my time with WFP.

Background: Sarah graduated from Georgetown University (2012) with a bachelor’s in Spanish and Italian.