Teaching Orphans to Dream

Alice Skaff has always been a dreamer. For years, it has been her dream to help disadvantaged children, and it was a literal dream which led her to “adopt” an entire orphanage in Bolivia in 2004. Now her dream is to help other struggling orphanages around the globe to rescue, love, restore and equip children who have lost everything.

What saddens her most is that many of these children have never dared to dream. They can’t see past the next meal or the next night — will they have a roof over their heads, food to eat, anyone to care about their struggles?

“Children who end up in orphanages have been derailed from following their purpose by no fault of their own,” laments Skaff, whose zeal and compassion have a way of infecting others. “We’re teaching them to dream and equipping them through vocational programs to reach those dreams.”

She’s speaking of Haven of Hope International, a homegrown nonprofit which started with one orphanage in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and now is branching out as a model for other orphanages worldwide.

“Let’s help these dedicated people on the front lines who are struggling to survive to reach more kids and get more programming,” she urges a small crowd of supporters gathered at Cornerstone Builders Design Center on a rainy Wednesday night. They’ve come to offer a “Toast to Hope,” each lifting a flute of champagne in support of Skaff’s latest dream.

“It’s amazing what she’s done down there,” says Peter Fenger, a member of the Haven of Hope “Dream Team” who has been on three mission trips to help with construction projects at the orphanage. “She’s very good at getting people involved because she believes in the project.”

It all started 14 years ago when Skaff went on a mission trip to help build an orphanage for children who were living on the streets of Santa Cruz. Seven years earlier, she experienced a vivid dream that she was running a place called “Haven of Hope.” She never dreamed it would be in Bolivia, but Skaff knew she couldn’t just walk away at the end of her trip. She persuaded her church, Citygate Ministries, to help her adopt the orphanage, and Skaff gathered a small board of directors for Haven of Hope, which became a nonprofit entity separate from the church three years ago.

“I had no orphanage experience when I did this,” recalls Skaff, who recently left a career as an elder care coordinator for a local law firm and has jumped full time into the executive director role for Haven of Hope. “I just wanted a good environment for kids to grow up in.”

She hired staff and implemented programming which incorporates “trauma informed care” to help abused children recover. A loving married couple, Gladys and Marco, now oversees the orphanage and its 35 children. Gladys holds a degree in childhood education. The orphanage staff also includes an English teacher, a psychologist and a social worker, along with frequent visits from pastors and healthcare professionals to keep the children mentally, physically and spiritually healthy. Vocational training is the next area of focus. Children who age out of the orphanage are vulnerable to human trafficking if they don’t know a trade.

“Our goal is to see these kids succeed as adults, to break the cycle of poverty and abuse,” Skaff says.

Now Skaff is exploring partnerships which would allow Haven of Hope International to aid 45 vetted orphanages in 28 countries. She dreams of giving “Extreme Hope Makeovers” to each of these orphanages, similar to what she’s done in Santa Cruz — building a cheery recreational hall and a spacious kitchen with food prep stations for the kids.

She’s also chosen to come back to Florida to help abandoned kids here. The Heart of Florida Youth Ranch, in Citra, Fla., turns away abused and neglected children every day due to limited space. Haven of Hope is raising funds to build an additional cottage to accommodate a dozen more children. A donor has offered a matching grant of $125,000, so every dollar is doubled in impact, Skaff notes.

“Alice is a force that pushes back against the tide of hopelessness that breaks in on vulnerable children,” says Heart of Florida Executive Director John Sweet. “She has been a constant support and encouragement for The Heart of Florida Youth Ranch. We look forward to working with Alice as we seek to expand our scope of care for the hurting children of Florida.”

This month, Skaff is back in Santa Cruz with a team of Southwest Florida volunteers who will be setting up an infirmary at the orphanage. The clinic will help fulfill the dream of Nieves, a Haven of Hope graduate who is now in nursing school and wants to help care for other orphans. Nieves’ U.S. sponsors have encouraged her along her journey and funded her education — enabling this childhood human trafficking victim to learn to dream.

It takes about $120 a month to care for basic needs and provide tutoring for one Haven of Hope orphan. Skaff encourages individuals, organizations and corporations to consider adopting an orphan. Haven of Hope has 15 more beds it hopes to fill by year-end, she adds.

Skaff is planning a second mission trip in September — a “Vision Trip” designed for those who want to explore how they can help with vocational and sustainability programs. There will be a “Blue Skies” meeting July 18 in Fort Myers for anyone who wants to brainstorm other ways to help. With an estimated 140 million orphans worldwide, Skaff is ever dreaming of how to do more.

“The burden of all the kids out there just weighs heavy on me every night,” she says. “Every child deserves to have enough stability to be able to dream about the future.”

Blue Skies Meeting

When: Tuesday, July 18 at 5:30 p.m.

Where: Royal Palm Association of Churches, 5481 Briarcliff Road, Ft. Myers

What to expect: Brainstorming session with Haven of Hope directors, supporters and volunteers

More info: www.havenofhopeintl.org

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