Co-Founder and CEO of Chicos and Kids Incorporated
Stephanie Quintero in conversation with Monika Samtani in Washington, D.C. | April 2018
What inspired you to start a school in Colombia?
Both my parents are from Colombia, and I am always there over the summers. I would spend most of my time at my grandparents’ house in a very small village about an hour away from Bogota, and I would play with the kids there in the village. When I was 12, my grandmother told my brother and me that they were going to cut the English program at their school. I know how to speak English and Spanish very well, and I thought, why don't we just teach these kids for a little bit? And it turned into us teaching 30 kids every single summer that we were there. We are inspired by our Colombian culture, and it is so important to us to have the opportunity to interact with kids may look up to us. We wanted to show them that although we live in the United States, we're just the same people as you.
What is Chicos and Kids, when did it start, and how many do you have today?
Our main goal is to provide peer-to-peer educational experiences to kids around the world, which can be sports, language, or basic knowledge. The program is about the symbiotic mentorship that you have between the kids that you're teaching, and we try to recruit a lot of young volunteers who want to make an impact and a difference in their community. This started back in 2010 and currently we have six workshops. We have three in Colombia, one in Guatemala, and we continue to do a lot in the DC area with children in low-income housing.
What were your first steps in creating the school?
At first, we did not really know what we were doing at all! I was 12, my brother was 14, and we didn't know how to be teachers in any sense, but we did know how to speak English and how to play with kids. It wasn't really anything that formal, but more like a cultural exchange. For example, we would teach them how to play American football and tennis, and they would teach us how to play soccer. Our Spanish isn't completely perfect, so sometimes they'd be correcting our vocabulary.
I went to a private school, and I've always felt like I didn't completely belong in my middle school and high school, and it was partly because of my background and where I came from. I come from a low income family, so I couldn't really relate to my friends. I would be ashamed to have them over to my house because it didn't look like theirs. For me, going to Colombia and having these shared experiences with these kids, really resonated with me. These kids look at you as if you're a unicorn because you come from the United States, and they think you don't have the same struggles as they do. But it was inspirational for me to tell them that there are struggles in the United States - that the United States isn't perfect and we need to come together.
You were learning from them and they were learning from you. How did you build from there?
Since I was so young myself, this was the first leadership opportunity that I'd had. Being so young and having 30 kids look up to you is nerve wracking, and it's so hard to see yourself as a role model at that age. I was scared that I might say something wrong, and something I've struggled with for a while is that I have all these kids looking up to me, but I don't think I'm perfect in any way.
Since I was born, my parents have told me that I need to go to college, that education was the most important thing in my life. As a first generation student, my parents didn't go to college, I was guiding myself through figuring out how to apply for college. Deep down, I needed an outlet to share what I've learned with other kids, even though education isn’t seen as a priority in Colombia. The priority is to survive, and a lot of the time going to school isn't a great way to support your family or put food on the table. The only way I could really connect with the kids was telling them that the only way that you can really help your family, is to invest in yourself. And if that's through education, go ahead and do that. But if you're passionate about activism or doing something in your community, you can do that too. I wanted to show them the different options they have in their life.
"These kids look at you as if you're a unicorn because you come from the United States, and they think you don't have the same struggles as they do...it was inspirational for me to tell them that there are struggles in the United States - that the United States isn't perfect and we need to come together."
How did you get your message across to these kids who are living in poverty, and education is the last thing on their minds?
I connected with the kids through something very small scale: I showed them little victories in their lives. I would make the kids that were with us for a long time leaders in certain workshops or sports, and they gained an understanding what it is to organize and be someone of importance. Once the kids became
leaders, they had a lot more confidence in themselves, which they demonstrated through academic performance, or making friends, or reaching out to people that they probably wouldn't have before. It was super important to teach them that you can be a leader and it doesn’t matter how old you are, where you come from, or how much money your family has. It comes from within, and what you personally feel is best for your community, your family, and yourself.
Besides gaining an education from your school, what else do you hope that the kids learn from this experience?
I hope that they find an opportunity to change the cycle that they'd been living in for generations. I hope they see that you that you don't have to go by what your parents say, or what society tells you to do. It’s about staying true to yourself and doing what you think is right.
Who has been a pillar of support throughout this entire experience?
My mom has been there from the very beginning, and has always been an inspiration to me. She’s so passionate about teaching children in our own community. She always puts others before herself, and I get that passion from her.
It must be difficult to dedicate time to the organization while you’re in college. How are you still developing the school and what do you hope to accomplish in the future?
For me, being in college is very hard while having a nonprofit in DC and Colombia, but I have a lot of volunteers who tell me what's going on. I am in charge of fundraising at school, or building up our social media presence. It's not just me and my brother anymore; it’s a network of young leaders who want to make a difference.
Describe a moment where you felt powerful.
It has to be when I'm at these leadership conferences with amazing women, and it makes me feel like I’m a piece of the puzzle. When I'm in Colombia, it's hard to see the big picture because I'm doing something so small scale. But when I come to leadership conferences and talk to different women, it makes me realize that I'm not alone in this. I'm doing something that I'm passionate about, but there are thousands of other women who are also doing things that they're passionate about. I feel like I'm contributing what I can to the world.
What’s next for you, personally?
I'm a pre-med student. When people ask me what my motivation is behind wanting to be a doctor, I always look back at my family, and where I come from, and all the kids that I've taught. I always make sure that I understand who I'm doing it for and why I'm doing it. I want a better future for my family, and I want to feel like I've accomplished something that many people have been telling me that I couldn't do, because of the way that I look or because I'm a woman. I always try to make sure that the things that I tell my students, I also use in my everyday life.
If there's a young girl who's watching this and looking to you for inspiration, what would you say to her?
Stay true to yourself, because there's going to be a lot of people that get in your way, telling you you're not good enough, and you're going to doubt yourself so many times. But the only person that knows what's best for yourself is you. You are the driving force behind your own success and your own dreams, and you're the one who makes them come true.
UPDATE: In the past year, Chicos and Kids has expanded to include women's empowerment and health workshops for pregnant girls ages 13-17 in Cali, Colombia. With the help of many local healthcare practitioners, they have been able to provide accurate information on disease prevention, ante and postnatal care. Stephanie will be leading the workshop in Summer 2019 and hopes to incorporate mindfulness and breathing techniques for the girls as well.