President and CEO at Voices for Children Foundation
Nelson joined Voices For Children in 2009 as President and CEO. Originally from Bogota, Colombia, he began his career in Miami working with Mayor Alex Penelas and Dave Lawrence, Jr. to help establish Universal Pre-Kindergarten for every 4 year old child in Florida. While Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez served as County Commissioner, Nelson worked on his staff. Currently, he mentors human trafficking survivors, adolescents and young adults who have aged out of foster care who are making the transition to independent living and braking the intergenerational cycle of abuse and neglect.
What do you do at your organization in terms of Social Impact, how do you monitor and report the outcomes and what are the goals?
Currently more than 90% of the children who come into the foster care system have a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) to speak for them. In other words, there is someone there who will advocate for the best interest of the children to make sure they have stability, love, compassion, and opportunities as quickly as possible. How that representation becomes transformational so that the cycle of abuse and neglect is interrupted is a different story. Because we deal with human beings who have experienced toxic stress early in life (the type that has long-term health effects if not addressed), it is hard to see the fruit of the seeds that we sow. In the last few years, there has been a real concerted effort by many people in the field of medicine, research, and social justice to address issues of childhood adversity, which according to research has been shown to affect all of us who have endured it.
We want to make sure that children who enter foster care are able to heal their wounds and break the intergenerational cycles so they ultimately don’t repeat what they have experienced. We want youth to own their stories and become vulnerable. I believe that focusing too much on outcomes sometimes distracts us from the individuals who need to feel loved, cared for, understood ,and believed – today. I just want to see that the kids we touch and spend time with are able to embark on a healing journey. I want them to know that there are possibilities for them. I want them to know that they are loved and not judged.
I want to be able to say to them that their worst is behind them and that they can begin to heal by telling us what happened to them.
I want Victor, Michael, Thomas, John, Isriel, Brendan, George, Andrew, Chris, Palens, DeMarco, Wikendy, Olisa, Kenny, Ed, Ashley, Ashlyn, Stephanie, Ruth, Brigitte, Colesha, Claudia, Kamila, Shadae, Allison, Kwantisa, Geqiya, Zakill, Briana, Kimberlyn, Antulio, Tino, Patricia, Jojo, Shakyiah, Isaiah, Daniela, Tiziana, Valentino, Kwad, Arjhannay, Genesis, Tracy, Vera, Jose, Jemes, Sabrina and so many others to use their stories to move forward and write new stories. Stories filled with meaning and purpose.
...write new stories.... Stories of love and gratitude and understanding and compassion and hopefully, as they begin helping others heal, stories of forgiveness because who knows what kind of stories their own parents must have endured.
"Through Voices For Children and the Guardian ad Litem program, we have an opportunity to be a voice for children in foster care, to be the change they need, to give them courage and hope, and help them believe that they can have a better and brighter future."
What does an organization need if it wants to start introducing CSR/Social Impact/Sustainability practices?
If a company wants to start implementing CSR it should start by listening to its employees by asking them their personal stories. In the adverse childhood experiences study done by Dr. Rob Anda and Vince Felitti among more than 17,000 participants (mostly college educated, middle class, Caucasians), they found that a great percentage had at least one factor that could affect their health during adulthood. I would say to every CEO, give the ACEs test to every employee and ask them what their ACEs score is. Let that be the starting point. When a company talks about Corporate Social Responsibility the best place to start is in their own house.
My score is 7, but I assure you that all of my children currently have a score of zero (the higher the ACE score, the more probabilities you have of developing health issues).
When we as individuals begin to see ourselves as wounded healers, we will begin to heal and take better care of ourselves and everyone around us. When we heal, we want others to experience the power of healing. When we take better care of ourselves, we will be able to take better care of our employees.
What does it mean to you to create an impact?
There is great risk in impact. The greater the impact we wish to make, the greater the risk.
We have a program to support and transform the lives of women who have been victims of human trafficking. There is great risk in that type of transformation because the pain is so severe, and the wounds are so deep.
There are some girls who take years to heal, there are some who have been working on themselves for decades and sometimes the traumas surface and make living difficult, but we continue to support and encourage their growth. Voices For Children is so much more than a funding or a fundraising organization.
We have come to understand that at the core of funding there is compassion and that is where transformation begins.
Do you see a change in behavior in your donors?
Slowly donors are beginning to see that maybe feeding, clothing, and buying backpacks for thousands may look good in terms of numbers but the impact is low. In our business, we want to aim high volume, high impact, sustainable transformation.
Everyone talks about how scalable is our program or our initiative. My answer to that is how scalable is love?
Can we love the 20 something year old who was born in a jail cell to a mother who had to sell her body for drugs and has never met her father and who despite all of the support we give them constantly belittles us? Unless and until we are able to transform that life we have not transformed any lives because we are only as strong as our neediest child.
How do new technologies and this digital age influence your work? Do you use new technologies to spread the word about what you do?
I wish we did more with technology. We are living in exciting times when everything is so readily available, yet what we yearn for the most seems so scarce. We all just want and need to feel loved. While it seems like there is an app for that, there really isn’t, because the first love we must find is love for ourselves and that includes sometimes disconnecting and going into the classroom of silence.
Millennials and Gen Zs sometimes get a bad rep and they are criticized for many things but what I have seen is that they love to get their hands dirty and solve issues.
They just need apps to guide them as to where the problems are. I wish we had an app that would connect people, I wish we had an app where instead of putting a mask and pretend that all is well, we could ask for help. I wish there was an app that could make all of us more human, more compassionate with the stories of our fellow travelers.
In your view, what’s the biggest challenge when it comes to marketing Social Impact efforts in general?
I think the biggest challenge when it comes to marketing is probably the allocation of resources and the ability to tell the stories of what we do.
Because we don't change or transform lives for publicity, it is hard to do a better job at marketing.
We're learning slowly and our board is consciously allocating resources to support marketing efforts. We also have great minds helping us deliver our message. Keeping dedicated resources is difficult to achieve but I guess this is just a matter of timing and as we continue to impact lives more stories will be told and the impact will be greater.