We sat down with Celina de Sola, the incredibly inspiring founder of non-profit Glasswing International. We are proud to pledge a portion of our profits to her organization, whose work supports at risk children and young adults 10 Latin American countries and migrant youth in the United States. The Obama Foundation fellow, humanitarian, and public health expert shares her mission, the importance mental health, and how she finds calm while making the world a better place.
Where is your hometown and where do you live now?
My home town is San Salvador, it’s where I was born and also where I live now.
Tell us a bit about your work, and how your career developed. Did you always know you wanted to work in the non-profit sector?
Professionally, I have only worked in the non-profit sector. I think I have wanted to do it ever since I was in middle school—maybe even before then! When I was younger, I didn’t necessarily know the terminology around social justice, but I felt like I wanted to do something that leveled the playing field, where people could have access to the same opportunities I had. Early on, I knew I was born into a situation where I was lucky and privileged. Even as a kid, I could see the difference in my life and that of other kids, especially here in Latin America where the differences are so evident. As I got older, I got to thinking: how did you use the fact that you did have opportunities to try to adjust the fact that most people don’t. In the end, both my academic and my professional decisions were based on that goal, and I recognized that it was going to be a lifelong learning process because it’s so challenging: it’s a really exciting space, but also a really tough space because change takes a lot longer than you would want it to.
You can’t function in an unhealthy society whether as individuals or as a business. Whether it’s the environment, conflict or violence: it’s all a product of the lack of opportunities that we haven’t really addressed regarding social justice issues. We need to make sure we have access to basic services, but beyond that, make sure that everyone has the opportunity to become the best version of themselves: to aspire and have hope. It sounds simple because it makes sense, but it doesn’t happen and it is a shared responsibility between individuals, civil society, government and private sector.
“You can’t function in an unhealthy society whether as individuals or as a business. Whether it’s the environment, conflict or violence: it’s all a product of the lack of opportunities that we haven’t really addressed regarding social justice issues."
What is the core mission of Glasswing? Can you tell us a bit about its activity in both in Latin America and in the U.S?
We want to keep kids out of violence and help them thrive. We look at the root causes of poverty, violence and migration. We can’t focus on the challenges and the symptoms without addressing what is causing them. We do this through programs that develop kids' skills, for example social-emotional learning, after school activities, trauma informed mental health programs, job readiness and entrepreneurship programming, and [other various] programs for young people and communities. The majority of our programs are powered by volunteers, [which] strengthens the social fabric, helps engender more trust, and builds community.
What are some of the positive aspects about being in Latin America?
Glasswing was founded in El Salvador and is present in 10 countries. In being based in Latin America, we get a better sense of the different situations. We listen to young people and their priorities, so that we can be more directly responsive to what they need. We also work with migrant youth in New York City and just like in Latin America, we focus on social-emotional learning, but also English literacy, mentorship and mental health. We have been doing some work with their families as well, but mainly with young kids. This is a partnership with public schools with migrant youth from all over the world.
What has been the most challenging part of running your own organization? The most rewarding?
One of the most rewarding aspects has been working with great colleagues and team members. We have grown as a team, with an organizational culture that is really strong. As for the challenge, it’s tough to be in so many countries and maintain that regional presence and an organizational culture.
More recently, an incredible thing happened with two young women in our debate club who have been part of our after school and social-emotional learning programs since they were really little. After graduating from high school, they both decided to become civic leaders—one of them even made it into law school! The really cool thing is that we started working with these girls when they were pretty young and now they are running for office in their communities. To me, that says so much about human potential: what are we missing out on globally by not investing in our young people or by writing off certain neighborhoods because of the perceptions we may have?
In 2018, you were selected as a recipient of the Obama Fellowship. How has this experience impacted you personally as well as the organization?
It impacted a whole lot—I got to meet a cohort of peers that have really interesting experiences. It’s also been great in giving more credibility to the organization. We have been so lucky to be able to do these amazing fellowships with Ashoka, Skoll Foundation, and Tällberg Foundation. One of the things the Obama Foundation really helped us with, was to think about what civic leadership means. For example, sometimes, leadership is getting out of the way so that other people can lead. That’s one of the biggest takeaways: what does it mean to contribute to building more civic leaders?
What is top of mind for Glasswing now during COVID? How have your programs changed to address the situation at hand?
In general, the region has been pretty hard-hit by multiple crises prior to COVID. We have all felt the impact and it just continues to surprise us. Just when we think we have taken steps forward, all of a sudden we go back again. The social and economic impact is big, as the pandemic has increased violence, risk factors, and poverty. We are seeing not just the effects of a disease itself, but really the impacts that have been further and deeper reaching than the illness itself.
I think we’ve all had to figure out how to pivot completely. We have taken a lot of our work online, but then it becomes challenging to create that sense of community. A lot of what we do is focused on trauma and violence prevention, and so much about our work is about healing, in-person contact, and interpersonal relationships. Pivoting to online and then viewing these digital platforms as an opportunity to engage in multiple ways when we are finally able to meet in person.
Another example is with our programs in New York, where students come from all over and sometimes it’s tough to engage with parents. Through this crisis, we have been able to engage more with them because now we have these platforms and community cafes online. This is also true of Latin America. When people can’t show up they can at least get on a call. That being said, we have also seen more isolation in communities where kids don’t have access to enough bandwidth or there is only one device per family, for example, one cell phone. This has also very clearly shown us that so many inequalities exist and we still have to address them.
As for what is our top of mind, it’s reaching those who are hardest to reach. Also, bringing mental health to the forefront even more. We have been working on mental health since we started, because in my previous life, I used to do humanitarian relief, so I have always been really interested in mental health. Nowadays, we are all talking about it because it’s affecting us all, so it’s a great opportunity. Let’s bring it to the forefront, because the more isolated, remote, and the less access on has to people and tech, the more impacted you are.
"I also think it’s a great time to be a volunteer. There’s a really great quote by Ayesha Siddiq: 'Be the person you needed when you were younger'."
How can People help now during COVID? For those who want to help those most affected by the crisis and address the most immediate needs, what would you recommend in terms of donations and other actions we can take?
If you have the capacity to do so, supporting organizations financially is a great way to help. You could help in kind. I know organizations like ours are trying to get devices to kids. So many of us have extra devices, like older computers or cell phones.
I also think it’s a great time to be a volunteer. There’s a really great quote by Ayesha Siddiq: “Be the person you needed when you were younger”. We can all do that. Not ideally in person, but just set aside some time like you do for the gym. It’s a game changer for both the volunteer and the person you volunteer with. It’s important to be consistent about it too.
What are your own recommendations for mental health practices that people can implement.
I’ve been an advocate for mental health because my job has exposed me to people who are incredibly resilient during so much human suffering. I think mental health is something that does not have to be clinical. You can draw on so many practices: Asian, Native American, Mayan, from African cultures. There are so many amazing techniques out there that have been developed and existed for millennia. Often times I think we try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to mental health, wellbeing, and healing, and sometimes going back to the basics might be what works the best.
I am not a very good at self-care in general, but I think for me, because I love wildlife and nature so much, my idea of self-care is a bucket list of sorts. For example, animals I’d like to see in the wild. I try to do that once a year. I have three dogs, it’s a very important part of my life. I also love to play with my nine year-old and my husband, playing just for the sake of it. As we get older, we forget how to do that. Recovering that sense of wonder. It helps me to read children’s books. I don’t read that many adult books lately.
Define what beauty means to you.
When people have a lot of integrity and are authentic, I perceive that as something beautiful. Things in their natural state. A person being exactly what they are. I think that is really beautiful and surprisingly, not that easy to find - especially now as society expects so much in terms of beauty, or we expect so much from ourselves.
What are some inherited practices beauty or self-care lessons?
My mom would always have us breathe. She didn’t call it mindfulness and it was way before it became more mainstream, but she would always tell us to breathe and she would always talk about visualizations. I feel that they are very helpful and I do them with my son. Nowadays, I am learning from one of my aunts about Mudras, how by placing your fingers in different positions you can find great comfort. I want to learn more about Tapping as well.
What is your favorite destination in Latin America?
Lago de Coatepque, a crater lake. I just went yesterday and I love it! It’s one of the most amazing places in the world, I find it rejuvenating.