Children wait eagerly outside the doors leading to the TV room at the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida center. Arts and crafts, games and movie nights await them inside.
Diana Abarca, a sophomore communication sciences and disorders major, and her high school friend Naadiya Hutchinson found their inspiration to start their own nonprofit organization here.
In early summer 2015, Abarca and Hutchinson began planning for what is now their co-founded nonprofit corporation, Charisma’s Crayons. The mission statement on its website reads, “We are focused on providing children opportunities for a successful education.”
Hutchinson, a freshman public health and sociology double major at Johns Hopkins University, originally asked Abarca to join her in this endeavor while Abarca was backpacking across Europe.
“I knew right off the back that I couldn’t do it myself, and the first person that popped in my head was Diana,” Hutchinson said. “I knew Diana was the only other person that would be ready and invested in something like starting a nonprofit in college in our teens.”
Charisma’s Crayons was established on July 21, granting both Abarca and Hutchinson the titles of chief executive officer.
Initial business planning for the two untrained students proved to be daunting, but deciding on a name seemed to come easy to them. The months leading up to their opening meetings were filled with memorable moments with a 6-year-old girl named Charisma from the Coalition.
“Charisma was very playful, kind of mischievous,” Abarca said. “She would often ask us to help her with writing her letters. She would take our materials. She would take books from the TV room from the Coalition. She would take our pencils, crayons and other supplies.
“That’s when we really became aware of the problem that kids aren’t getting what they need for their education.”
Since its establishment, Charisma’s Crayons has implemented four programs: Supplies for Success, Training Talent, Pointers for Parents and Attention for Eternity.
Supplies for Success focuses on giving homeless children school supplies. Since it is naturally the most expense-heavy, 80 percent of the donations they receive go to this program.
Training Talent focuses on monthly, soon to be bimonthly, tutoring sessions at the Coalition. During its two-hour sessions, student volunteers from Timber Creek High School and UCF work one-on-one with kids in kindergarten up to fifth grade.
Pointers for Parents, the youngest program, is focused on helping families discover available assistance resources, such as health care and free lunches.
Attention for Eternity is a mentorship program, where children are matched one-on-one with a volunteer. While it’s not an official rule, Abarca’s hope is that the mentors and mentees maintain their relationship to the day the mentee graduates high school.
“I want us to be able to be there for them when they’re going through the college-application process and to push them to do that,” she said. “Because, for some kids, it’s not a reality — it’s more of a dream.”
Abarca hopes the mentorship program also teaches the volunteers a new sense of empathy.
“Our aim is for mentors to not only learn, but to understand what’s going on with these families, with these kids and to get rid of any judgment, any preconceived ideas that they might have had coming in. It’s a mentorship for the kids, but it’s been a huge learning experience for me,” she said.
For Abarca, that compassion and empathy has always been there. Her father, Carlos, said she always had a need to help someone.
“She has a heart of gold. She can’t see people in need,” he said. “If she sees someone in the street, she will stop and either give them food or go back to the market and buy something for them.”
Abarca’s older sister, Sofia, said she looks up to her sister.
“I’m the older sister, but she’s my role model,” Sofia said. “She takes care of me. She’s selfless; I just admire her. She’s got a good heart and wants to do everything.”
Michael Dutcher, a teacher at Timber Creek and one of Charisma’s Crayons board members, has gotten to know her through her work with the nonprofit.
“She genuinely cares about each person that she comes into contact with and has a desire to make sure that their day is better because they interacted with her,” Dutcher said. “When a problem occurs, instead of getting upset, she finds a way to overcome and does so with a smile and grace that is very rare.”
In a single semester, Charisma’s Crayons has tutored and supplied 15 students per monthly tutoring event, and it has raised more than $1,000 for school supplies through donations.
“When you’re helping people, it has to be completely out of love,” Abarca said. “It can’t be with any judgment. You have to do it completely selflessly.
“It is the growth of the kids’ knowledge, self-worth and determination that we strive toward.”