Susana Juarez Rodriguez won an award last fall, but the real
winners were the 500 children in a remote Mexican village who received needed
school supplies thanks to her collection drive. Some of the children had never
seen crayons before. Now they have crayons, colored pencils, markers, note
paper, even a backpack and a calculator.
Rodriguez was one of four winners of the Catholic Business
Network of Northern Virginia Y.E.S. (Youth Exemplifying Service) Awards.
“A personal set of crayons is empowering. It’s theirs to create, and it’s inspiring to see the kids smiling,” Juarez said.
“It was nice to get the recognition, but what was more important
to me was that it opened so many doors for me,” Juarez said. “The award benefited
the children we were helping because we were able to get even more donations,
and it was even more of a stepping stone to get money from sponsors.”
The Bishop O’Connell High School senior was born in Monterrey,
Mexico, the third-largest city in Mexico, at the foot of the Sierra Madre
Mountains. She moved to the United States in 2000, but she feels drawn to
helping the poor in Mexico.
She and her family volunteer with a nonprofit called Dibujando
Sonrisas, Spanish for Drawing Smiles. The organization provides Christmas
presents and other needed items — but not school supplies — to small towns in Mexico.
“I thought collecting school supplies was something we can easily
get from students,” she said. “I asked for gently used or new supplies.” The
first collection drive she spearheaded in 2015 netted 150 pounds of supplies. That
year, she and her sister, Cecilia, a freshman at O’Connell, carried the school
supplies in their suitcases. They flew alone to Monterrey, and joined folks
from Dibujando Sonrisas for a seven-hour bus ride to several villages in the state
of Nuevo León, south of Monterrey, including La Joya del Zacate, San Elías and Jesús
María del Terreno.
In 2016, the donations grew to more than 600 pounds of supplies
and $600 in donations.
“By mail we sent 140 pounds consisting of paper, binders,
coloring books and notebooks to Mexico and took with us 300 pounds of supplies
in our suitcases and carry-ons,” said Juarez. “The other 200 pounds we bought
in Mexico with the monetary donations we collected.”
Juarez promoted the campaign through a presentation during O’Connell’s
Hispanic Heritage assembly, on social media and through a GoFundMe page. More schools
became involved, including her grade school, St. Joseph in Herndon. Her friends
also donated items in honor of her 18th birthday.
Juarez, an artist, said she wants to give kids the opportunity to
create something out of nothing.
“A personal set of crayons is empowering. It’s theirs to create,
and it’s inspiring to see the kids smiling,” she said.
After her graduation, her sister will continue to collect
supplies at O’Connell for the annual December trip.
Juarez believes that this kind of work is her calling. She plans
to major in business analytics and hopes to start her own nonprofit.
She hopes to expand the school supply collection in college so
she can “serve as a bridge between the U.S. and Mexico.”
“By using me as a middle man, we can help even more people.”