Think one person can’t make a difference in the lives of many? Vanessa Hornedo would beg to differ. Read her incredible story of putting her creativity to work to turn community service into real opportunity for women in the Dominican Republic.
1. What gave you the inspiration for Inspiring Hands and My Hands Inspire?
The message that we hear as maturing young women, and men for that matter, is the importance of securing a great job by earning a college degree. You’re told financial stability and happiness aren’t always interconnected. This message doesn’t allow us to believe in our dreams. It doesn’t tell us that we can turn those dreams and passions, especially when they have to do with community service, into a career. Inspiring Hands intends to give girls the opportunity to explore their passions and learn how to create a sustainable living income from doing good things in their community – a concept I didn’t learn until my late 20’s. After changing majors, switching jobs and spending countless long nights writing pros and cons lists, I took a chance on my dream and spent a year doing missionary work, against the advice of basically everyone in my life. It was the most transformative and self-affirming experience I’ve ever had, and I want all young women to have the chance to seek out their dreams.
The My Hands Inspire project is what stemmed from that risk. It’s my dream turned into action. After spending that time in a remote mountain village in the Dominican Republic, I discovered that the women I had befriended had lost their identity and sense of pride in the day-to-day grind that their culture creates, sometimes stuck in abusive relationships because they had no other options. I wanted to give them a chance to promote their talents and creativity while earning an income of their own, and the My Hands Inspire project was born.
2. Why did you choose bracelets?
Inspiring Hands is built on the premise that what we do with our hands make us who we are. Women in this world offer so much care and love through the simple talents they share when stirring a pot of soup, washing laundry near a river or creating beautiful works of art in different mediums. It just made sense to use bracelets – something that adorns the top of the hand – as our signature item. A bracelet from the My Hands Inspire project is meant to remind you of the woman whose identity you helped strengthen, but it is also meant to remind you that your own talents are worth sharing with the world.
3. How did you get started? How did you get your effort to grow?
After spending time with the women in various villages, I found a group of women who had begun their own association meant to support one another financially. Through my conversations with them, I learned that they were in constant need of funds for a variety of very basic needs – healthcare, seeds for planting next season’s crops, and shoes for their children. They wanted to work, but gender roles in the Hispanic culture prevented them from doing much more than cooking and tending to the children. I sought out a partnership with a jewelry company in Florida that was willing to donate their off-season or damaged jewelry, and I spent my free time taking the bracelets and necklaces apart so that the women could use the beads to make new creations. I met with them once a week, when the rains didn’t prevent me from the treacherous one-hour hike to their village, and we’d spend about an hour doing bracelet workshops. After a few months, we had bracelets worthy of being sold. I brought the bracelets back home, and my family and friends couldn’t wait to buy them. I knew I had to maintain the project after seeing how proud the women were that someone outside their village actually cared about their work and wanted to spend money on it.
4. Is there any particular story that stands out to you as far as the impact of your effort that you would like to share?
The days leading up to my departure back to the States at the end of my service year had been full of teary-eyed goodbyes, but meeting with my bracelet group was especially hard. I had spent countless hours working with them over the course of my year and had grown close to them and their families. I will never forget the look in the eyes of one of the ladies as she thanked me for all I had done for her. She told me that being taught how to write her name and knowing that someone in the United States knew she existed was life-changing. It was in that moment that I realized it was never about the bracelets. It was about the woman who made the bracelet and the importance of her identity in the world. I left that day knowing that I had to do my best to help women find themselves the way I had helped her, the way I had helped myself.
5. As you began to provide the women a way to earn an income by making bracelets, how did their husbands and other men in their family react?
Gender roles in the Hispanic culture are extremely cut-and-dry, even today. In the village, women tend to the children and prepare the meals, but they do not make the money nor do they have much else going on outside the home. When I began hosting the workshops with the women, I was often faced with men lingering nearby trying to draw their wives back home. Many times, the women had to work twice as hard making sure food was prepared ahead of time so that they could spend the hour with me. Even then they were always looking over their shoulders.
6. How do you get the word out about My Hands Inspire?
Word of mouth is always the best way to get information about my project out there. I have a website which people can visit, as well as social media channels for interested folks to follow. I am hoping this year to be able to speak about my project in local shops and events in hopes of making this a sustainable economic project for my friends in the Dominican Republic and in other areas in need.
7. What do you find to be your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge is transportation. Running the My Hands Inspire project from Florida is difficult because most of the women do not have cell phones, and those who do, don’t have service in the remote mountain village where they live. They have to walk hours up the mountain to find reception. So, if I miss a call, it could be days before I get another one. Because this is a nonprofit, funds to travel back and forth are always an issue, and I rely solely on the support of others who are traveling and willing to carry materials or relay messages.
8. What makes you feel confident?
I feel most confident when I believe in what I am doing. I have the worst stage fright you can imagine. Just thinking about talking in front of crowds makes me so nervous. But, somehow, when I am speaking about my passion, I feel so confident and so brave. Loving yourself and loving what you do is the absolute best way to push yourself into a courageous and confident place no matter who you are or what it is you are doing.
9. Tell us about how you and Inspiring Hands bring confidence to others.
Inspiring Hands aims to bring confidence to others through community service and passionate leadership. I want young women to understand that helping others is the absolute best way to help yourself. Your passion for service, for exploration, for happiness needs a place to bloom. I want Inspiring Hands to be the fertile ground where those dreams flourish because fighting for your passion and achieving your dreams is the ultimate confidence booster.
10. What does She’s Fit to Lead mean to you? How does someone become fit to lead?
She’s Fit to Lead is an amazing opportunity for women to see that there are others out there just like them. Sometimes when you are fighting to be a leader in your community or career, things get messy. We need motivation, encouragement. She’s Fit to Lead provides that space for connection and inspiration.
I believe a person becomes fit to lead when they find the courage to stand up for what they believe in and finds ways to bring others along for the journey. Being empowered to change your community is one thing, but actually leading that change is completely another.
Thanks Vanessa, and welcome to the Fit List!