Laura Peterson has seen more than her share of broken children. As a counselor in the United States, Laura spent 10 years caring for deeply wounded youth who suffered from severe emotional disorders. These children were so badly hurt that by age five they had already failed repeatedly in foster homes and adoptions. “I realized I could no longer be the ‘ambulance squad,’” she says, “and I began searching for more effective solutions to the problems of child abuse and neglect.”
In 2004, at the age of 33, Laura left the field of children’s mental health and founded Hands to Hearts International (HHI) to protect and nurture children in some of the poorest commu- nities in the world while empowering women to change their communities for the better. “I’m interested in addressing root issues,” says Laura. “Prevention is always easier than treatment… far less exciting, no sirens, no media flashbulbs, not nearly as sexy, yet far more effective.”
“When I started HHI, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Laura recalls. “I had no education in early childhood development, international aid, or in how to start, run, or fundraise for a nonprofit. I didn’t know what to ask for, I was rarely sure what to do, and nobody took me seriously.” None of this deterred Laura from her belief that a simple solution—teaching parents how to nurture their children—could help change the world. “Love is natural, but it can get smothered under poverty, disease, conflict, and suffering. HHI awakens love and compassion, and these change everything,” she says.
The first invitation for HHI’s early childhood education program came from India, where Laura had backpacked in 1999. During that trip she was overwhelmed, intrigued, awed, appalled, inspired—every emotion amped to its highest caliber. She approached her work with humility and lots of listening, knowing she could never fully understand all the complexities of Indian culture.
It took 18 months of hard work to get HHI’s first training program off the ground at an orphanage in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, but Laura saw radical improvements after the training. “Women were eager to learn about child development, for their families as well as their work with orphans,” she says. “Caregivers were much more engaged, nurturing and gentle with the babies. I was on cloud nine to see such swift changes.” Laura’s challenges were not over, though. “Within a few weeks, the orphanage was shut down, the director accused of wrong- doing, and the babies scattered to six different orphanages. Before I even returned home, it seemed HHI was over, ruined.”
Angry and frustrated, Laura flew back to Oregon. She found the strength to continue when a friend asked her, “What are you committed to?” Her answer was immediate: “I am committed to the children.” Laura contacted the HHI trainer in India and sent her to provide staff training at each of the orphanages to which the children had been sent. “That was a huge turning point for the program,” she says. “When I went to those orphanages months later, I got a whole list of positive outcomes for children and caregivers. For example, no baby whose caregiver had been trained by HHI had died. HHI continued, not in the way I had planned, but better, broader, more responsive.”
Though its beginnings were shaky, HHI has already served 178,000 children and parents in India and Uganda and will soon be launched in the U.S. Laura has even bigger plans in mind and hopes to expand HHI to new regions using cell phone technology to reach more parents, and to share HHI’s successful model with new partners.
Despite her successes, Laura remains humble. “I’m an ordinary person,” she says. “I have not overcome great life hardships, nor have I been given any golden tickets. I saw a gap and imagined a way to make things better. Ever since then I have been completely unreasonable in my pursuit of a solution for children around the globe.”