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Natasha Verkley loves a challenge. When she became the Executive Director of Hearts of Gold, the charitable organization was in the midst of a big transition and a serious cash shortfall. The last 18 months have been filled with problems to solve, miraculous events, and hours of work from hundreds of dedicated volunteers who believe in Cuenca and want to make it a great place for everyone. Even with all those obstacles, Hearts of Gold gave $75,000 to community organizations in 2014 and aspires to do even more this year.
Natasha’s eyes sparkle when she talks about empowering people. As a child, the twentynine- year-old dreamed of becoming the Prime Minister of Canada because of her passion for social change and helping others. That dream led her to work in the Prince Edward Island Legislative Assembly, in Mexico, and later in South Africa on a microfinancing project. Natasha came to Cuenca in 2013, joining her parents, Richard and Sheryle Verkley, who started Hearts of Gold in 2010.
In 2013, Hearts of Gold went through the rigorous process to become an officially recognized Ecuadorian foundation, requiring extensive paperwork and on-going monthly reporting on the finances and activities. The Ecuadorian government monitors all foundations to ensure that funds are used properly and that the program plans submitted by the organization are implemented as intended.
Hearts of Gold discovered an important niche during that process. There are many Ecuadorian charitable organizations in Cuenca working hard to serve specific populations. These organizations, however, are so busy providing services that they don’t have time to create a sustainable infrastructure, proper program planning, fundraising, or to complete the proper reporting to the Ministry of Social and Economic Inclusion (MIES) which can lead to unfortunate closures. “Hearts of Gold partners with these local charities to take some of the organizational burdens off their shoulders so that they can spend more time helping children, families, and seniors. It is a great marriage of the two cultures, working off each other’s strengths, cooperating together. After all, what does someone from Calgary Canada or Colorado USA know about direct services in Cuenca Ecuador? By allowing our partners to be the experts in the field we have found ways to coordinate our cultural strengths and to help where they struggle most," Natasha explains.
Organization, program planning and fundraising are not always sexy, but they are crucial to the long-term survival of community programs. Natasha shares, “Imagine if someone wanted to donate books to some underprivileged children. Without proper planning, assessment of need, funding, and infrastructure, those books could be the wrong ones or sit unused, with no teacher, no distribution system, and no way to measure the impact of that donation on the community. Hearts of Gold works with their partners in this process so they can do more good in our community.”
Hearts of Gold also vets each partner carefully, looking for alignment of mission, transparency, and open communications with financials. This ensures that all given funds are going directly to preapproved programs that strengthen the community. It is important for our donors to know that when money is raised for a certain partner program it is our responsibility to make sure the money goes to where it’s supposed to, for what it’s supposed to. These funds have gone towards purchasing school supplies and school shoes, nutritional needs, home repairs, and even to the implementation of sustainable solutions like the CETAPLucy Chicken Coop. Hearts of Gold also connects sponsors with children who are in need of ongoing educational, psychological, and physical assistance.
Hearts of Gold’s approach to helping their partners in strategic planning, program design and reporting is so unique that MIES has asked them to train other non-profit agencies in Cuenca. In essence, Hearts of Gold also helps as a “Foundation Coach” to other institutions. Natasha is excited about this growing direction, and has begun similar relations with the Prefecture of Azuay to open the first food bank in Cuenca. The food bank is opening in Turi and in the future will include a small restaurant so that it can become partially self-sustaining.
In the end, Natasha and the Hearts of Gold organization are all about empowerment and sustainability. “We saw that most of the mothers of the children who attend the El Arenal program at Feria Libre could not pay the participation fee, making it very difficult for El Arenal to sustain their program. So, we started looking for solutions to help these women make a fair wage. One idea for a future program is the creation of a marketable product the women could make that would strengthen their entrepreneurial skills giving them a sense of empowerment. By investing in the mothers, we would be able to maintain their dignity, enable them to create a better life for their families and help El Arenal become more sustainable as the mothers could then contribute financially to their program costs.”
One of the difficult things for Natasha has been the swirl of rumors about Hearts of Gold in the expat community. “People say all kinds of things like we have a Swiss bank account with all the donation money in it, that I am pampered, little rich girl, that the money doesn’t go to the kids and that Hearts of Gold pays for lavish offices. If people knew how much we’ve struggled just to keep the doors open this year, while supporting all our programs, they would be shocked.” With the reporting guidelines imposed by MIES, the Hearts of Gold finances are reviewed every month with each penny carefully tracked. Natasha and her team work many long hours in a small donated corner of the Gringo Tree office. There is no evidence of pampering anywhere, just hard work, and heartfelt dedication.
Transparency is a key value for Natasha and Hearts of Gold. Anyone is welcome to make an appointment and come in to talk about the programs and look at their financial records which are also online. They have implemented a tracking program that enables funds to be routed to specific programs or to the Rapid Response Fund, which is available for emergency situations. The foundation was also thoroughly vetted and approved by CAF America, a 501(3)(c) organization in the United States, which allows US citizens to donate to Hearts of Gold and receive a charitable tax deduction.
“For me, Hearts of Gold is, in all respects, the volunteers and donors. Without the volunteers and the people who support and believe in us Hearts of Gold would not exist and my team and I wouldn’t get to do what we love every day.” Natasha is tremendously proud of the volunteers, saying “Cuenca is filled with remarkable people. Many expats want to give back and volunteer. Hearts of Gold has benefitted from volunteers working directly with us, one of our partners, helping with our special events or donation collections. One volunteer even made this article opportunity possible. There are also some expat volunteers with grant writing experience. We have worked with more than 250 volunteers over the years and we are adding new ones every week.”
While Hearts of Gold is powered by the volunteers, all the paperwork, programs and activities require the dedication of three full-time employees. Joining Natasha are Johanna Vaca and Colleen Eschenburg. Johanna or “Jo” serves as the Program Director, using her previous experience with MIES and her understanding of Ecuadorian culture to build culturally relevant programs and bring in corporate support from some Cuenca businesses such as Nutra Leche, who donates milk to all the partner organizations. Colleen, the Office Coordinator, attends to the volunteers and office activities of the foundation keeping the day-to-day running smoothly. “It’s fun to think that the day to day of Hearts of Gold is run by three young women, one from Canada, one from Ecuador, and one from the United States, all supported by this amazing base of Expats who believe in what we do. We are not only close co-workers, but we are also a family, a family with Hearts of Gold,” smiles Natasha.
Currently, Natasha, her team, and a dedicated group ofvolunteers are busy putting together the plans for the 4th Annual Christmas Gala coming up on December 4th at Quinta Lucrecia. This year’s event will include a wonderful evening of fun and festivities, along with something very special—someone will win a new car! Working in partnership with MetroCar Cuenca, the local Chevrolet dealer, Hearts of Gold will be raffling a 2015 Chevy Aveo. “It’s important for people to know that no donor funds were used for this car,” Natasha says. “This is a wonderful opportunity for some lucky ticket-holder to win a new car and for everyone to share in the excitement of the Auto Lotto.”
Hearts of Gold has a history of great work in the Cuenca community and a vision for the future. With your help, we can make that vision happen. See you at the Christmas Gala on December 4th!
Hearts of Gold is always looking for volunteers who would enjoy helping with the star-studded gala or working in some of their partner organizations. If you have a heart for helping others, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lynne Klippel is a best-selling author, ghostwriter and publisher who specializes in non-fiction books and information products. She’s lived in rural Paute since 2012. For more information on her work visit www.SageMountainBooks.com