Our Story

Our Mission

Gracia’s mission is to economically empower young women in Guatemala. Economic empowerment is more than a paycheck: it means young women can earn income and possess both the confidence and independence needed to make financial decisions.

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We Provide Opportunity.

In Guatemala, 55% of the population live below the poverty line. Many have little to no income. They live in unsafe environments and most suffer from hunger and malnourishment. Young women are without a voice in society, they lack access to education and are subject to discrimination. Gracia provides the curriculum and leadership training to develop self-confidence, inspiring young women to change their course.

We Inspire Change.

The Gracia Entrepreneur Training Program (G.E.T.) and its social enterprise, Milagros, provide opportunities and resources needed to actualize economic empowerment: G.E.T. provides curriculum and leadership training to develop self-confidence, and Milagros is the product arm where the girls earn income through jewelry sales.

Who We Are

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We Listen

Many girls pursue degrees in teaching or in basic business administration, but these positions are virtually non-existent in rural Guatemala. Knowing this, Gracia listened to their needs, focused on their aspirations, and created its G.E.T. program to give young women the tools needed to create their own success.

We Train

Gracia trains a group of 20 young women to make quality, handcrafted jewelry and accessories. They learn to manage the logistics, inventory, marketing and sale of Milagros products. These are transferrable skills, enabling them to earn income throughout their lifetimes.

We Create Opportunities

Gracia is not a charity; we provide opportunities for young women to create change for themselves. Each job provides the potential for economic advancement that will impact the girls, their families and their communities.

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.

  • Kevin Stevens

    Kevin Stevens

    Board Member
  • Kevin Stevens

    Kevin Stevens

    Board Member

    Kevin Stevens grew up on the West Side of the city of Chicago with his 11 siblings, his father a Chicago police officer, and his mother, a Chicago public school teacher. He now lives in Highland Park, Illinois.  He has been in academia for over 30 years as a director of a large School of Accountancy and Management Information Systems, as an associate dean for international initiatives, and for the past six years as dean of the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago.

    He learned about Gracia though Clare Kunkel’s brother, and, of course, Clare. He is drawn to serve on the board of directors of Gracia because he believes that addressing systemic poverty and empowering women of color to be two of the most compelling social issues of our times. In his leisure time, he is a avid reader, a serious walker, and is aspiring to be  a mediocre guitar player. He, his wife Marietta, and their two sons Patrick and Kevin are enthusiastic travelers.

  • melissa buich

    Melissa Buich

    Board Member
  • melissa buich

    Melissa Buich

    Board Member

    Melissa grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but now calls Chicago home. She is a licensed tax attorney advising her clients with respect to mergers, acquisitions, and restructurings. She was introduced to Gracia through UNICEF NextGen and subsequently traveled to Guatemala in early 2020 to visit the workroom and to meet (and be totally impressed by) Las Mujeres Fuertes.

    Melissa is passionate about the advancement and education of women around the world and, as a former Division 1 athlete, believes in the power of sport to develop and promote self-confidence and collaboration. She’s an avid traveler and in her free time enjoys cycling and playing soccer.

     

     

  • Chris Ryan

    Chris Ryan

    Board Member
  • Chris Ryan

    Chris Ryan

    Board Member

    Chris is a finance and analytics professional who has spent the duration of his career at Allstate where he now serves as a Director of Finance. He is passionate about building teams and relationships and working toward end-goals that drive personal and professional growth. Chris was first introduced to La Casa Hogar in 2009, when he spent back-to-back years serving as the team translator in what is now the Milagros Workroom.

    Chris is an avid traveler and is energized by exploring new parts of the world and interacting with new people. Lincoln Park is home when he’s not on the road!

  • Enrique Barillas

    Enrique Barillas

    Board Member
  • Enrique Barillas

    Enrique Barillas

    Board Member

    Enrique, an attorney, is the Executive Director of Amigos de los Niños, Mi Casa, in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Amigos de los Niños, Mi Casa, is an orphanage providing free education, medical and dental care to orphaned and abandoned children in need. Enrique’s initial involvement with Gracia was as an attorney when he assisted with legal and business matters for Milagros. Given is legal acumen and experience with at-risk youth,  it quickly became clear that he would be a valuable addition to the Gracia Board. He is often called upon for matters of cultural context during Board meetings.

    Enrique is completely fluent in English, and has an avid interest in reading, baseball, tennis and fútbol. When not in Guatemala, you might find Enrique traveling to the States or other countries in Central America.

  • Rachel Mikula

    Rachel Mikula

    Board Member
  • Rachel Mikula

    Rachel Mikula

    Board Member

    Rachel Mikula grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin but has lived in the Chicago area for 22 years. As Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Rachel’s practice has included work with immigrant and refugee groups from Central and South America and survivors of domestic violence and abuse. Presently,  her private practice focuses mental health therapy for children, adolescents, and families who struggle with issues such as depression, anxiety, trauma, grief, ADHD and life transitions.

    Rachel was introduced to Gracia by a former board member who invited her to travel to Guatemala.  Rachel was impressed and in awe of Las Mujeres Fuertes, the Workroom, the GET Program, and the unwavering dedication of Gracia’s BOD to achieving its mission.  As a mother of 4 daughters, Rachel finds herself committed to women’s rights and their access to equal opportunities.  In her spare time Rachel loves spending time with her family, friends and her Chocolate Lab, Ruby.  She enjoys running, yoga, travel and getaways into the beautiful outdoors in her home state of Wisconsin.

     

  • Patrick Wlodkowski

    Board Member
  • Patrick Wlodkowski

    Board Member

    Patrick is an experienced commercial finance professional with a background in financial analysis and credit underwriting. Prior to joining the Board, Patrick served as a volunteer helping to prepare the Gracia financial statements and annual forecasts. His volunteer experience culminated in a site visit to Casa Hogar in early 2019, where he was able to witness the life-changing impact that the GET Program has had on young women in Guatemala.

    In his free time, Patrick enjoys listening to podcasts and watching stand-up comedy. He is a self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur and an avid motorsports enthusiast.

     

  • Clare Johnston Kunkel

    Founder, Board Member & Executive Director
  • 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.

  • Suzi Gurry

    Board Chair
  • Suzi Gurry

    Board Chair

    Suzi is an artist and experienced Non-profit Fundraiser in Chicago. Her mixed-media works have been exhibited publicly at galleries and events in Chicago and NYC and commissioned by private buyers. She's overseen fundraising events benefiting social service agencies and schools both public and private. Suzi was an active board member of Adoption-Link until its acquisition by Holt International.

    Suzi is passionate about human rights, environmental causes, arts in education and protecting the world’s most vulnerable children. She's an avid Soul Cycler and enjoys live music, comedy and travel adventures with her family. Suzi’s service on the Gracia Board builds upon her decades-long support for programming that addresses root causes of extreme poverty, specifically in Haiti, Guatemala and the Englewood community of Chicago.

  • Rita Rortvedt Hoke

    Board Member
  • Rita Rortvedt Hoke

    Board Member

    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.

Gracia Program

  • Donna Samulowitz Larson

    Program Director
  • 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.

  • Maria Teresa Leal Wittmer

    Gracia Liaison
  • 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.

The Gracia Entrepreneur Training Program

The GET program gives the young women of Casa Hogar the cognitive, technical, and essential skills needed to change their course. Cognitive skills build the bank of knowledge needed for the business processes and skills required in the Milagros Workroom.

Technical skills are the abilities and knowledge needed to perform specific tasks of jewelry making. Essential skills are needed to develop critical thinking and problem-solving capability; they build a sense of personal worth and agency, guiding young women to interact with others constructively and effectively. Each of these is woven into GET’s four learning platforms: The Classroom, The Milagros Workroom, Las Mujeres Fuertes Cohort, and ¡Adelante!

Concepts and cognitive skills needed for financial literacy and business management (e.g., budget, production planning, price modeling) are introduced in the Classroom using a traditional lecture format. The Classroom establishes a baseline for learning needs within the group. Along with observation, it provides the first official opportunity for leadership, evidenced in group work and round table discussion. For education to play a part in women’s empowerment, it must be relatable, dependable, and superior quality. The development of cognitive skills in the GET Classroom is the first step on this path.

The Milagros Workroom: For Las Mujeres, GET can be an alternative for girls who have struggled to complete their formal education. Programs that combine pertinent technical skills, essential skills, and labor market connections are the most effective at improving women’s future labor prospects. (Chinen, p. 2) The Workroom is the production base for Gracia’s social enterprise, “Milagros”. It serves the GET program in four distinct ways.

  1. Milagros’ revenues offer Las Mujeres salaried jobs and benefits- a labor market connection. (Please note that Milagros does not pay per piece as many artisan enterprises do.)
  2. The Workroom acts as a hands-on “lab” for the content learned in the GET program. For example: skills to estimate income and expense as example budget in the Classroom are then utilized in real-time for the Workroom operating budget.
  3. The Workroom offers hands-on training for Las Mujeres and Aprendices, giving them technical skillsets.
  4. Workroom rent is paid to the Casa Hogar has created the first, and remains the only, dependable income stream in the Home’s history.

Las Mujeres Fuertes Cohort:The Cohort” helps develop essential skills, self-efficacy, leadership, and agency. The Cohort curriculum includes decision-making, goal setting, women’s health, and conflict resolution. Las Mujeres Fuertes Cohort content objectives permeate all areas of the GET program.

¡Adelante!”: Fútbol for Development: “Adelante” means forward or onward. Using research drawn from the World Bank, United Nations, and the Population Council, “¡Adelante!” uses fútbol (aka: soccer) to develop essential skills and self-efficacy. On the field, young women learn the value of sustained practice/effort, respect for rules, teamwork, accepting diversity, and empathy as they put essential skills, like communication, into practice. They carry these skills off the field, using them in the Workroom and their daily lives. Sport-based programming can advance the skills to prevent violence in relationships. (UN, p.36) It can be a tool for fueling gender equity and social inclusion. The young women of Gracia will mature, empowered with increased self-esteem, confidence, and resilience, and have the tools needed to become equal participants and leaders in their communities. (UN, p.46)

For the Mujeres Fuertes, Milagros’ revenues provide jobs with fair wages, benefits, and their own financial savings. In addition, Gracia rents workroom space from the Casa Hogar; the rent paid represents the first dependable income stream in the Home’s history.

Girls of Gracia

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The Casa Hogar is a home for abused, abandoned, and indigent girls/young women in Jalapa, Guatemala. Approximately 110 young women from 2 to 21 years old live at the Home. At 21, they must leave the Home yet employment prospects are bleak

The young women in Gracia’s program are from mining towns and farming communities. Here, unemployment for women is 55%; if employed, they earn 40% less than men. For them- Gracia provides an opportunity.

The G.E.T. program works with two different groups of women: the Apprentices and Las Mujeres Fuertes.

The Apprentices, ages 16-21, are young women learning to work and problem solve together. As a group, they create and ship Milagros products, while attending school full time. Apprentices assist with the basic business needs for 1500+ units of various designs exporting monthly. This is their initial introduction to financial practices and opportunity. The Apprentices also benefit from the social support they receive in the Workshop, e.g., peer support/friendship, a safe space to work, as well as mentoring by the Mujeres Fuertes and Gracia staff. Successful completion of Apprentice training and graduation from Secundaria (secondary school) offer the young women entry into the G.E.T. program and potential salaried employment in the Milagros Workshop.

Las Mujeres Fuertes: “Strong Women”, ages 19-23, are participating in the G.E.T. program and are aspiring entrepreneurs and businesswomen. Independently, they oversee the entirety of the Milagros Workshop’s daily production and operations. This includes logistics, production planning, and marketing. By completely managing the Workshop, Las Mujeres Fuertes apply skills they have learned in G.E.T. to real-world demands. Their success is in their hands.

Gracia is proud to be a research-informed program. Metrics for success are drawn from the United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles and UNESCO’S Integrated Women’s Empowerment Programme, CARE International’s Report on Women’s Empowerment, as well as findings from MIT Poverty Action Lab’s research on adolescent women, the World Bank, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.