Maya Rowencak says her nonprofit organization, Maya’s Hope, began as the result of “those magical forces that allow you to get to where you need to be.”
Feeling empty after the loss of her mother in 2007, and following a chance encounter with a grumpy child on a subway in the summer of 2008, she decided to spend Christmas with orphaned children. She initially planned to go to Thailand, but political unrest in the area — and a surprise connection from a friend of her mom’s — led her to book a flight to the Philippines instead.
When she boarded that plane, Rowencak was an executive assistant at a private equity firm. By the time she flew home, she was a changed woman. Seeing the living conditions of a 5-year-old girl named Kyla and the other children in the Bulacan orphanage she visited shook her to her core.
“I made a promise to never forget them,” she says.
Rowencak kept that promise. As soon as she returned to New York, she began writing letters, leveraging connections and cold-calling companies to get them to pay for supplies for the orphanage. That was the beginning of Maya’s Hope, an informal effort that she turned into a full-fledged nonprofit by 2010.
Today, her organization raises money primarily to cover medical expenses for children in orphanages half a world away. In addition to ensuring proper health care for these children — whom she refers to as her “cutie pies” — Rowencak is on a mission to affirm their value as human beings. She does this by sharing their stories so that other people see them as she does and then open their hearts — and wallets.
“I don’t see them as statistics,” Rowencak explains. “People always want to know the numbers, but every child has a story, has their own struggles. What inspires me is when I see them succeed.”
A Passion for Helping Children
At first, Rowencak collected all the donations she could and sent items to the orphanage herself. These weren’t small batches, either — she estimates that she was sending six to 10 “huge” boxes at a time.
She simply couldn’t forget about Kyla, “a very lonely kid” who “sought approval and attention constantly,” Rowencak says. “She hadn’t felt like a child in so long.” The other little girls Kyla lived with pulled at Rowencak’s heartstrings, too. “One girl was telling me she just wanted to have a hug, or to be told she was beautiful and special.”
Rowencak’s determination to improve their lives — and the lives of children in other nearby orphanages — did not fade with time or distance. In fact, it grew stronger. Eventually, a friend stepped in and told her that, if she was going to run a nonprofit, she should make it official — and helped her fill out the paperwork to formalize her efforts. In November of 2010, Maya’s Hope became a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
Then in 2010, Rowencak expanded into Ukraine through another one of those “magical” connections.
“I was doing a clothing drive for the Philippines, but I was getting an overwhelming amount of winter coats,” she says. They were of no use to the children on a tropical island, so she started calling other organizations. “Finally, I found one nun, who was about 90 years old,” who sent supplies to orphans in Ukraine and helped her deliver the coats. The nun gave her an “in” to connect with orphanages there to address kids’ medical needs, too.
[Related: See the full list of the women entrepreneurs on The Passionate & Purposeful list]
As Maya’s Hope has grown, Rowencak has made a point of sharing the stories of the children, so donors feel they know who they’re helping. In addition to spotlighting stories on its website, Maya’s Hope also shares them with the public face-to-face.
Take Jennifer Allen Friales, a 9-year-old Filipina girl who, due to a rare form of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma, has significant facial abnormalities. In her Pilipino orphanage, she doesn’t have access to proper medical treatment, Rowencak says.
To help, Maya’s Hope organized a social media campaign about her plight that garnered press coverage from several major networks. The idea was to raise awareness and inspire a hospital in the United States to take her in and give her the care she needs, according to a post on the nonprofit’s Facebook page. They were able to help fund local chemotherapy treatments for Jennifer, but are still trying to get her to the U.S. for surgery.
Overall, telling stories has proven an effective fundraising tool, Rowencak says. In the last year alone, Rowencak and her two employees pulled in about $330,000 in donations. To date, Maya’s Hope and its donors have helped 250 children in the Philippines and Ukraine pay for medical procedures, and hundreds more children have benefited from donations of clothing and goods.
A Purpose in Delivering the Aid Kids Need Most
In the beginning, Maya’s Hope sought $30-a-month sponsorships from each donor to cover basic needs like school supplies for one child. But she began to notice that books didn’t matter “if they had pneumonia or needed a blood transfusion.” So she began seeking larger one-time donations for specific medical needs, while still offering sponsorship opportunities of various sizes.
This year, Rowencak aims to fund at least 20 surgeries, and hopes that by elevating awareness of the children’s personalities and significant struggles, more of them will get adopted. She also has specific goals for each location, including improving access to college educations for kids in the Philippines and fighting social stigmas against kids with special needs in the Ukraine.
The profound effect of her work on kids’ lives is already plain to see. One boy, who was so poor he had no shoes, is now in college in the U.S. on a scholarship and speaks excellent English. “He’s actually doing it — and he feels like he can conquer the world.”
This, Rowencak says, is what Maya’s Hope is all about. “Kids are blossoming through our work, and the support that we provide them. That’s what inspires me.”
Why should we include you on The Passionate & Purposeful?
I consider myself an instrument, and the cutie pies of Maya’s Hope are the music that pours out from me. Our volunteers who come into the office to make glitter cards for our sponsors are an extension of the cutie pies. Our partners abroad are the heroes who execute our vision of a brighter and healthier future for our cutie pies. My passion comes out because I love these kids. Many of them would have died because no one cared. Many of them would have had to drop out of school to help feed their family. Many of them would have died because their families couldn’t afford a surgery. I am the voice of these children. Without me, there is no Maya’s Hope. Without me, these children would not have hope. I don’t think I’m a saint or perfect. I’m an ordinary New Yorker with a big mouth who loves glitter, but these kids need someone to be their cheerleader.