Who We Are

Board of Directors

Gracia’s Directors travel annually to the Milagros Workshop at the Casa Hogar. During their visit, the Board meets with the young women and evaluates the progress of Gracia’s work. Gracia depends on these annual visits to provide context and perspective for decisions made throughout the year.

Rita Rortvedt Hoke, Board Chair

Rita Hoke is a seasoned healthcare executive with experience starting up and leading teams. She held leadership positions in sales, marketing and business development.
Rita has served on the Board of Crossing Borders Music Collective and has volunteered as a pharmacist with Latin American Medical Professionals in Jalapa, Guatemala. Rita lives in Lake Forest and enjoys travel, photography and reading. She cherishes all time spent with her family.

Benjamin A. Johnston, Finance Director

Benjamin had been a Gracia volunteer for two years before joining the Board. A graduate of NYU Stern School of Business, Ben uses his business and financial acumen to help Gracia quantify its progress and identify opportunities for growth.  At NYU, Ben played water polo and raised funds for organizations including Relay for Life and St. Baldrick’s.
When not crunching numbers, Ben can be found snowboarding or cycling, depending on the weather, and dreaming of someday racing in Formula One.     

Clare Johnston Kunkel, Founder, Board Member & Executive Director

Clare is committed to helping disadvantaged Guatemalan girls and women achieve economic independence and create lives defined by confidence and success. Clare oversees the US day-to-day operations of the Gracia program, as well as design and distribution of Milagros products. Clare began working at the Casa Hogar in 2007, and served as the director of Program and Development for HEAR Foundation from 2009-2012. 
In 2012, Clare redefined the Milagros program and established Gracia as an independent entity. Under her direction, the original program has grown from teaching young women basic sewing skills to design development and  comprehensive business skills training. Clare is a proud, native Chicagoan. When she is not in Guatemala, she can be found running by the lake, riding her bike, or walking her dogs in Lincoln Park.

Meredith B. Diamond, Board Member

Meredith is an experienced merchandise analyst. As a member of the Gracia Board, Meredith blends her love of fashion with her passion for social justice. Gracia counts on her ideas and analysis as Milagros pushes to expand its distribution.
Prior to joining Gracia, Meredith spent many summers on the Lake Geneva Water Safety Patrol. During her time with the Water Safety Patrol, Meredith was recognized for her remarkable professionalism by receiving the regional Red Cross Hero of the Year Award.  
Meredith is a graduate of University of Wisconsin (Madison), where she studied Retailing and St. Ignatius College Prep, in Chicago.
When Meredith is not analyzing fashion trends, or saving lives, she might be snowboarding, running or traveling, but she will never be found sitting still.

Charles K. Harris, Board Member

Charles first became acquainted with the Casa Hogar when he was asked to produce, Gracia y Milagros, a short film about the Gracia program . With a background in communications and journalism, he was well-positioned to tell Gracia’s story.
Charles has had an enduring interest in social justice, both as an HIV/ AIDS advocate and in his work with victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Charles is proud and happy to be working with the Gracia program. In his spare time, you can find him kayaking either the mighty Hudson River or the Great Lake Michigan.

Marilyn Rusnak, Board Member

Marilyn first visited the Casa Hogar and became acquainted with Gracia’s program in early 2015. With a background in social work and a strong interest in women’s empowerment, the Gracia program is a natural fit for her talents. 
For years, Marilyn has worked with families of different cultures leading them to a better understanding of one another’s diversity. With her expertise in understanding and managing relationships, she brings a unique perspective to Gracia’s work. She currently serves on the Visiting Committee  of School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Marilyn enjoys travel, theater, and humor in any form.

Gracia Program

Donna Samulowitz Larson, Program Director

Donna has acted as Program Director for Gracia since its inception. In this role, Donna assess the needs, designs the program and measures the progress of its participants. Donna’s extensive background in teaching and counseling at-risk youth have helped her to develop curriculum for the Gracia Entrepreneur Training Program (GET).
For 18 years, Donna co-owned and operated a traditional American craftwork store this giving her even more insight and appreciation for the handcrafts of the Milagros Workshops. A running enthusiast, Donna can either be found training for a race or hanging out at Burning Man.

Michaela Larson, Program Consultant

Michaela Larson acts as a program consultant for Gracia. She holds a Master’s degree in Globalisation and Development Studies from SOAS, University of London. With her education and experience working with women in developing countries, Michaela is uniquely prepared to help Gracia with the design and development of its economic empowerment program.

Additionally, she has developed an ELL (English as a Learned Language) curriculum, with an emphasis on business vocabulary and usage, for the young women in the G.E.T. program and Milagros Workshop. From April through February, Michaela spends her off-time tackling baking challenges like making homemade croissants and watching documentary films. However, in March, baking and documentaries are on-hold for this UConn graduate, when her focus becomes March Madness and the Huskies.  

Maria Teresa Leal Wittmer, Gracia Liaison

Maria Teresa is a Guatemalan woman who has lived half her life in Guatemala and half her life in the U.S.  With this unique perspective on both cultures,  Gracia depends on her to bridge any gaps in understanding between its Guatemalan and American teams. During her weekly visits to the Casa Hogar, Maria Teresa reviews Milagros production progress and acts as an interpreter for weekly Skype meetings with The States. For the girls of the Milagros Workshop, Maria Teresa is a mentor:  when problems arise, the young women seek her guidance and support. Together, they find solutions that benefit both Milagros and their growth as young women. 

Maria Teresa is an avid reader and traveler. Without question, her favorite destination is wherever her children and grandchildren are living.

Milagros Staff

Ilma Cruz, Gracia Chief Operating Officer (COO)

Sucely Ventura, Director of Sewing

Ilma came to Casa Hogar seven years ago, when the threat of gender-based violence in her home village became too great for her to continue her studies there.
As a graduate of the Gracia program, Ilma now oversees and manages the day to day operations of Milagros. This includes processing orders, the production schedule, logistics and quality control. Her strong work ethic, faith, and the support she feels from those around her make her hopeful for the future; she says that she believes no matter the difficulties we face, we can always conquer them and make our dreams come true.
Sucely Ventura has lived at the Casa Hogar for eight years. Prior to accepting the position of Director of Sewing, she trained in the Milagros Workshops for four of them.
"Sucy" enjoys combining her design know-how with her business skills. In her leadership role, she trains other young women in production techniques and design. Sucely’s hard work is helping Milagros expand and she looks forward to employing more young women from the Casa Hogar.