Nicki Lehrer flew to Ecuador last year and wound up changing the lives of an entire community.

“I was profoundly touched by the street children with no food, clothing, or education,” says this senior who spent a semester in Quito. “Street children were everywhere — in the cities, in the country, sitting in the dirt, in the rain, everywhere,” says Lehrer, adding people were dying on the steps of the hospital because they didn’t have $20 to buy medicine. “I saw things I could not forget.” One day, so moved by the stories of a group of women, she says, “I promised that I would not forget about them.”

Lehrer is now founder and president of Children of Guayaquil, Inc., a non-profit organization she incorporated in the state of Maryland in 2005. Her first project was to build a community center in Pascuales, one of the poorest regions in the country, to provide basic human needs and education for the children.

First, she secured the land on which to build the project, then launched a major fundraising campaign to collect the $60,000 to build the center, which included publicity on American and Ecuadorian radio, television, and newspapers. Lehrer then enlisted the help of MIT Architecture Prof. Jan Wampler, along with three students, who volunteered to design the building, which will include a library, medical center, community room, child-care center, educational classes, and a safe place for children.

So far, half the money has been raised, and the first stone was laid last winter when the children laid their handprints in the concrete. The building is slated for completion in August. Lehrer’s future goal is to provide scholarships for the children to attend universities in Ecuador and internationally. One day, she hopes the center will be a model for projects in other parts of the world.

Lehrer is also a classical guitarist. Having released three CDs, she has performed in more than 150 concerts across the United States and Mexico. At age 13, she was awarded a U.S. patent for a device she developed for kids to carry their books. For her work in Ecuador, she was recently invited to speak on social entrepreneurship at Cambridge University in England.

“Nothing makes me happier than to see the smiles on these children’s faces, and to have the power to bring hope not just to a single person, but to an entire town,” she says. “It really does light a fire inside of me.”

To raise money to build the community center in Pascuales, the foundation is selling engraved bricks. For more information, visit