Interview with Luiza Vilanova, the “Gotinhas do Bem” NGO founder

Rough hands seemed to run in the family. Her grandfather had them from working in the Brazilian fields since he was a child, and now she had rough hands too, albeit for a different reason: Extensive handwriting–a fitting contrast of the difference education can make in someone’s life.

“It’s incredible how this one thing can change how we see the world and the scope of our dreams,” Luiza Diniz Vilanova, 17, said as she pondered her journey to founding the education-centered Gotinhas do Bem or Little Drops of Good.

Often moving from one school to the next, sometimes in the same year, due to her father’s job, Vilanova became the victim of bullying. Although this negatively impacted her on an emotional level, she partially attributes it to her evolving into a deeply empathetic person and how she found her passion for writing.

Vilanova wrote a lot during that time and did not realize until recently that it was likely her way of processing what she was going through.

“I feel that words let me go beyond borders and allow me to express new ideas,” Vilanaova said. “I also really feel like storytelling is a tool that can help anyone become a change maker, and that is what happened to me.”

She used the outlet as a way to get out of her own context and be able to control what was going on around her, which eventually led her to write a book at 13.

Vilanova was already involved in theater and reveled in the release of playing another person, but it was writing that really allowed her to “better express my own ideas and perspective about the world around me.”

The drive that was evident from such an early age continued on as she became a young adult, where she started Gotinhas do Bem, which focuses on teaching kids social and emotional learning. While the company gained traction in Brazil, she attended the Yale Young Global Scholars, where she learned about LALA, eventually attending a Brazil Bootcamp in December that shaped her views.

“It was life-changing for me to see Favela da Paz [a musical and cultural education project in the favelas of Brazil focusing on sustainability and non-violence] with LALA,” Vilanova said. “That was the first time I realized that engaging in a community-minded project can change the universe. It was really important to me in my decision-making in how I would spend the next years of my life and what I wanted to study in college.”

After that, her company started expanding more rapidly across South America. Today it is impacting 8,000 children in 15 Brazilian states and six other countries through regional directors, even trying to reorganize efforts in Venezuela and Mozambique given their current political climate.

The story that sticks out most to Vilanova, though, is from the first year of Gotinhas do Bem. Before she had the number of volunteers she has today, all of which are between the ages of 15 and 22, she was helping a school class that had a kid the teachers labeled as “difficult.” Undeterred, Vilanova worked with the class for an entire year and said she cries every time she thinks about what that little boy said to her on the last day: “Because you believed in me, I decided to become a lawyer.”

That is how Vilanova treats all of the students that are impacted by her organization. Although she is unsure exactly where her passions will take her next, two things are for certain: This empathetic young adult will never stop helping kids, and her hands will always be rough to the touch.

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