By Brian Hitsky
She has a heart of gold.
And how fitting because serving as executive director of the Hearts of Gold Foundation requires strength of character, as well as strong shoulders, to bear the burdens of helping to keep five partner organizations a float, managing a staff and responding to unsubstantiated rumors in the expat community.
Maria José Orellana, an Ecuadorian, was named to manage Hearts of Gold 16 months ago when former executive director Natasha Verkley left the foundation to move to Spain. It’s been a unique, challenging opportunity, Maria José said.
“I was very surprised when they chose me,” she said. “For me, it was a little scary because I saw how hard Natasha worked when she was in the position, but it also was an honor.”
Natasha said Maria José was chosen because she has an understanding of both the North American and Latin America cultures since she has lived in the U.S. and Ecuador and is fully bilingual. She is highly compassionate, hardworking and has the skills and determination to move the organization forward.
“Maria José is Ecuadorian and Hearts of Gold is about helping the local population. Hearts of Gold has always been the place that expats can go to give back to their local community. Having an Ecuadorian at the helm allows the organization to come full circle to begin to better integrate with Cuencanos,” Natasha said.
The 33-year-old Orellana immediately had to overcome obstacles. Some in the expat community, the primary financial contributors to Hearts of Gold, thought that the organization was changing with an Ecuadorian as its lead.
“Because I was not part of the expat community and didn’t know a lot of the people, or didn’t go to the places expats meet regularly, I wasn’t able to immediately be the face of Hearts of Gold,” she said.
Then a few months into her new position a crisis hit. Hearts of Gold was almost out of money. Every staff member gave up salary and the Verkley family, the original founders who serve as the board of directors, provided capital to keep the foundation going until the end of 2018.
Last December, however, the needs of the partners dramatically increased and a decision was made to devote the majority of funds to fulfilling their requirements, leaving Hearts of Gold’s own necessities in limbo. Again, the Verkleys came through with an infusion of money.
“We almost were forced to close, but thanks to the Verkley family and the community’s support we now have enough funding to last for a few months.” Maria José said. “Our partners need us. We need to be able to feed children and provide them medicine.”
Another issue that confronts Maria José is a rumor that persists in the expat community that Hearts of Gold misappropriated funds several years ago. “I’ve heard some in the community believe that Hearts of Gold has hidden money or used it inappropriately,” she said.
Maria José unequivocally denies the acquisition. “Hearts of Gold is not a wealthy foundation. We have a very small staff. Our books are open I invite anyone to come to the office unannounced to look at our records,” she said.
In addition, Hearts of Gold is required to fill out monthly and annual reports for raising money and taxes and also must meet strict financial compliance for the governmental entity that oversees Ecuadorian foundations. Last year, Hearts of Gold was certified by Global Giving to fund raise internationally, after undergoing a rigorous audit of its business procedures and practices.
“These rumors hurt the communities we serve and that’s unfair,” Maria José said. “The rumors don’t have any truth or facts behind them. They are just taking funds away from kids because they aren’t getting the services they need.”
Hearts of Gold oversees five foundation partners — CETAP Lucy, El Arenal, Kallpa Warmi, Nova and OSSO. It provides education, funding, mentoring and alliance building so that the organizations can sustain themselves.
“With the new face leading Hearts of Gold, there is a renewed energy, a hundred percent dynamism, but the generous heart as always. That’s Maria José in her administration,” said Miriam Maldonado, NOVA Inclusion School director Maria José grew up in Cuenca, but at 13 traveled with her family to Tampa, Florida where she went to high school. When she returned to Ecuador, she enrolled in the medical program at the University of Cuenca to become a doctor. After fainting several times when seeing blood, she decided that career wasn’t suited for her.
She switched to child development and obtained her degree. Then went back to the United States and worked at a school with autistic children for one year. Back to Cuenca again, she applied for a position with the Ministry of Health as a therapist, travelling 90 minutes each way from her home to serve her patients. She wanted more, especially when she was told that there wouldn’t be growth opportunities in her position.
She had learned of Hearts of Gold and became its volunteer coordinator in 2015. Later, she was named community development director in 2016. “Hearts of Gold was a good fit for me. I always wanted to work for an organization that helps children, but when I had volunteered for other organizations in the past, I often didn’t feel as if I was making an impact.
“Hearts of Gold has created the only foundation in Ecuador that teaches native organizations how to be transparent and how to survive. We assist our partners —orphanages, educational and psychological support programs for disadvantaged children, nutritional programs, entrepreneurial education programs for poor women — to manage their finances and fundraise for themselves,” Maria José said.
Maria José is especially thankful to a cadre of volunteers that assist in the office, organize fundraising activities and events and provide a sounding board for ideas.
“There are times when things get really overwhelming, but there are other times when I feel like I am the luckiest woman in the world. When the struggle is really hard, I can reach out to our networking group of partners where we share our concerns. Everyone understands and helps out,” she said.
“The biggest part of my life has become the foundation. It’s not a job that’s eight hours a day, five days a week. It’s most of my life. It’s my passion,” she said.
For Marie José, her heart is really in it.