When Meradith Leebrick (BSBA '06) decided to offer free English lessons in Playa Potrero, Costa Rica, she went door to door to tell villagers. Now her nonprofit, Abriendo Mentes, is opening new doors for children and adults with ESL classes, art projects and other activities.
An enterprise that started in a tiny, hot, open-air restaurant with 19 ESL students now has about 100 participants — 25 percent of the village’s population — who meet in a larger, but still stifling, open-air building with donated office supplies.
“People want to advance themselves. If you give them an opportunity, they’ll embrace it and let you into their world,” says Leebrick, co-founder of Abriendo Mentes with Drew Ragland, her boyfriend.
The couple had lived for several years in their students’ world before they started Abriendo Mentes, which in English means opening minds. “People realize that the huge economic shift from sustainable agriculture to tourism is affecting job opportunities. The skills people need now are speaking English and using computers,” Leebrick says.
A new project of the nonprofit involves creating artwork from recycled objects, an opportunity for villagers to sell crafts. Other activities have included beach cleanups and a talk about oral hygiene. “We’re open to any opportunity to empower the people we work with to do whatever they want with their lives,” Leebrick says.
After more than 1,000 hours of English instruction in 18 months, her efforts have paid off. Students’ English test scores have increased by about 15 percent. Leebrick’s recommendation helped a boy earn a scholarship at a local private school, and a reference from her assisted an adult student in getting a housekeeping job.
Next year, Leebrick will offer computer classes and fund another scholarship for a private school. She and Ragland haven’t earned salaries from Abriendo Mentes yet but will apply for grants next year that would include wages. They’ve run the nonprofit with their own money, donations and volunteer help.
A more pressing challenge than funding is working in a developing nation, with infrastructure issues and routine power and water outages. “A big challenge is learning not to be discouraged about day-to-day activities,” Leebrick says.
But she has advice and encouragement about starting a nonprofit. “Don’t be afraid to make a big change in your life. The first step was completely changing my lifestyle, knowing I wasn’t going to have a salary,” she says. “If you find happiness in what you’re doing, you’ll do it with 100 percent enthusiasm, and that will pay off.”
Leebrick, 26, took a leap with Abriendo Mentes.
After college, she worked for Neiman Marcus, studied Spanish in Costa Rica and returned to the United States for a position with a social networking company. But Central America called.
Leebrick has learned about leadership through Abriendo Mentes. “To lead any group of people, a corporation or a group of community members, you have to have trust. You need them to be confident in your abilities, and you have to be transparent so they see what your goals are.”
The rewards are transparent, too.
“The most gratifying thing is walking through town and having kids pop out of doors and say, ‘How are you?’ in English,” Leebrick says. “Seeing the progress they’ve made and knowing I’ve helped is an amazing feeling.”