Best Way to Overcome Adversity: Give Back!

Best Way to Overcome Diversity: Give Back! Says Kaitlin Roig Debellis

Best Way to Overcome Diversity: Give Back!

Lessons from Sandy Hook Teacher Hero

If the way in which you overcome adversity signals your level of motivation in the workplace Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis must be one of the most motivated teachers on earth.

On December 14th, the tragic day of the Newtown, CT, school shootings, Kaitlin’s fast thinking saved the lives of fifteen first graders. She packed them all into a three-by four-foot bathroom and kept them calm and quiet while the shooter killed 26 people including 20 children. One month later, when most of us would’ve still been experiencing shock, this young woman, now 30, created Classes 4 Classes Inc., a nonprofit organization that lets elementary school classes sponsor educational gifts for other classrooms. She believes that positive social change needs to start with the youngest members of society so her organization teaches K-8 students compassion, caring, kindness, empathy and other lifelong lessons.

A graduate of UCONN with a Masters of Education from NEAG School of Education, Kaitlin is a member of several honors societies, and was named New England Scholar in 2005. She began teaching first grade at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2007 and is now on leave to focus on her nonprofit.

Given last year’s tragic Newtown Shooting, how did you overcome adversity and promote motivation in the workplace?  

Motivation in the workplace begins at a young age

Motivation in the workplace begins at a young age

After experiencing this tragedy, immeasurable in its scope, I know there are no words of explanation and that there never will be. When I asked why, I heard silence in return. Sometimes we focus so long on what we can’t answer that we forget there are a lot of questions we can.  So for myself I had to look inward and ask: If there is no answer to ‘Why?’  then what does that mean? Where do I go from here? What is there to do? Those were two questions I could answer: I knew which direction to go, and I knew that there was something to be done. I needed to go forward, and I needed to create something positive for myself and my students, as to not let the destruction define us.

Time passed, days, weeks…(pause) Time is a funny thing, after enduring a tragedy, (do you know what I mean?) It just puts distance between you and it. It doesn’t diminish it, doesn’t change it, doesn’t erase it. It’s there. It’s constant. All one can do is to make the most of the good that is also abundantly around. Good and bad are both always present.

When I thought of my students, I knew we had to make a choice for ourselves, our nation, our world. If after such terror and destruction we were going to choose love, kindness, compassion, empathy, and hope, then I needed to find a way to teach this to my students. But at this point, I still had a large question to answer, and that was: How?

For myself, the answer to this was in founding Classes 4 Classes, Inc. This was how I gave control back to my students and myself. It was also how I came to find that this tragedy would not define my students or myself.

What advice would you give others to successfully overcome adversity ?

Things happen to us in our lives that impact us, influence us, change us.  We don’t have control over what happens to us, only in how we choose to react to it.  It is all in the power of positive thinking.

Perspective is amazingly powerful. Outlook determines how you react, or not to every situation in your life. You have the choice. You have the power.  You can choose to see the best in everything, to see the positive, to appreciate your many blessings. Having this perspective will make the challenges, hiccups, and upsets in your life so much more approachable. It will make the impossible, FEEL possible.

Tell us a little about Classes 4 Classes and what inspired it. Talk about a way of creating motivation in the workplace.

When we returned back to school in January the support from around the world was incredibly uplifting. So many gifts were coming into our school.

How you overcome adversity signals your level of motivation in the workplace.

How you overcome adversity signals your level of motivation in the workplace.

I stepped back and I realized that while my students were beyond deserving of all of these special gifts,  I needed to teach them a very important lesson. That in life when you get, you have to give. After all that is what makes our world a better place.

One afternoon I brought a large box a friend of mine had mailed to my class and I placed it in front of my class. I said to them, “This box is filled with things for us to use during recess,” and I started pulling out puzzles, games, balls, coloring books, markers…and their eyes grew wide.

I paused and then I asked them, “Do you know why someone sent this to us?” Their hands shot up and they started answering “Because they wanted us to be happy, “or “They wanted to be nice” or “They wanted us to have fun at recess.”

I told them, ” You’re all exactly right! Someone did this for us, for all of those reasons. In life when someone does something nice for you, you have to do something nice for someone else, and that is what we are going to do! We are going to find a class somewhere in the United States and we are going to make them feel the way we do right now…Happy”

Their eyes widened with excitement and their hands started to raise. They were so excited, ” Who are we going to help?” “How are we going to help them?” They asked. They were equally, if not more excited, at the thought of helping someone else, as they were for the gifts they had just personally received.

We then reached out to another class to see how we would help them, and make them feel happy. That is how the idea for Classes 4 Classes came to be!

What advice would you give others who are contemplating starting their own business and might be unsure about how to overcome adversity even when it’s different from the one you faced?  

It sounds very cliché, but you can do anything you put your mind to.

Persistence is key in meeting any goal. If you keep working hard, keep trying, always keep your goal in your forefront you will be met with success. You will always end up farther than where you started from. Always persevere.

“You must be the change you wish to see in our world.” Gandhi

We each have many gifts, and it is our job to share them.

You can connect with Kaitlin via Facebook

Twitter: @Classes4Classes

LinkedIn: Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis



Changing Careers: Empowering Women, Poor for Self-sufficiency

Changing careers is seldom a smooth path and less so when you spent half of your life working for well-known institutions such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (Director of Technology), the Miami Art Museum (Director of Operations) and the University of Miami Florida (Professor) But for Tina Cornely, born in St. Mary’s Georgia, and educated in Honduras, Switzerland, and the U.S., changing careers in her late forties came naturally. It was the culmination of a life-long passion for the arts, her innate tinkering abilities and her interest for those less fortunate. Empowering women and the poor through her non-profit Bridging Humanity was the logical next step for this modern-age, female Da Vinci.

How young were you when you discovered you had a talent for tinkering and an interest for the environment?

When I was six years old I’d take things apart to figure out how they worked: Clocks, radios, everything I could get my hands on. Then I’d put them back together and always managed to end up with extra screws and other mechanical components. Fortunately for me they always worked so my parents never found out about my tinkering experiments.

Empowering Women at COPE Presentation

Changing Careers: Empowering Women at COPE Presentation

Never thought of being an engineer?

I have a teaching degree in French from Switzerland. My dad wouldn’t let me study technology, which is what I would’ve loved to do. When I returned to the U.S. I went to Miami Dade Community College so I could learn how to build computers. This was in the early 1980s and there were only 2 colleges worldwide with electrical engineering classes geared for building circuit boards and computers. I was the only girl in the class. It was the beginning… Bill Gates had just come out with his 8086 computer. Shortly afterwards, I was hired by the University of Miami to teach one of this country’s first networking A+ classes. It was great fun teaching people how to take computers apart and put them back together!

Where did the passion for repurposing trash come from when at the time you were building computers? It seems to me that you’ve been changing careers your entire life…

From a young age I was an environmentalist, an art lover and a tinkerer. I think life circumstances helped me combine the three. My dad, an Anglo man born in Alabama, wanted my siblings and I to be raised with Latino cultural values. So we moved to Honduras when I was 10. Dad had a car dealership and a popular restaurant that served typical Honduran food. I became my siblings’ mom (driving them to school since I was 13,) I went to school myself, and then helped around the house and at the restaurant.  Honduras was the perfect place for me to learn how people reuse things others would discard.

You are an incredible modern artist. You make all kinds of sculptures with trash … I wonder what your house looks like…

Oh my. Well, it is interesting to say the least! All my friends give me their left over garbage. Plus I don’t throw anything away so you don’t want to open any closets at my house. To make matters worse I use my living room to stage my donations. My yard is interesting too. I turned a discarded shower organizer into a vertical garden and all kinds of other interesting container gardens. I also have around the house broken vases that have been converted into beautiful sculptures. I repair them by foiling the exterior with discarded items like the foil wrapper found inside cigarette cartons and colorful Hershey’s kisses foil.

But you don’t just use trash as art for yourself. Tell us how you use it for empowering women and those less fortunate.

Changing Careers: Empowering Women, Poor for Self-sufficiency: Rope Made With Braided Chip Bags

Rope Made With Braided Chip Bags

I usually create art work from repurposed trash that I donate to charities so they can raise money at fundraisers but I also teach people with few resources how to make art with discarded items they find in garbage dumps so they can sell it and make a living. For me, empowering women and the poor is extremely fulfilling.  In a recent trip to Nepal I taught monks how to weave belts for their robes with plarn (plastic yarn from repurposed garbage bags), and large groups of poor village women how to weave necklaces and purses from garbage bags, a big pollutant in that area.

Tina Cornely, Bridging Humanity: Lodeo & Tina

Lodeo & Tina

I try to live in an area for a while until I see what I can do to help the people there improve their lives. Typically I teach them how to create useful things like batteries with charcoal and lye so they can have LED lights in their homes.  How to compost and grow nutritious food; how to build a make shift latrine to avoid disease; how to decontaminate water with the SODIS method (solar disinfection). Even what plants they can use to fight Malaria and some other deadly diseases like diabetes, dysentery, cholera, typhoid and dengue. Today more and more impoverished countries are facing high cases of diabetes because the poor can only afford to buy starchy food like rice, potatoes and pasta. And starch turns into sugar. So I teach the poor how to use alternative medicine and plants to regulate their blood sugar.

You are also empowering women who don’t have access to birth control pills with your Cycle Beads. Tell us about that.

Empowering women who don’t have access to birth control pills with Cycle Beads

Empowering women who don’t have access to birth control pills with Cycle Beads

These are necklaces to help women figure out when they are fertile so they can avoid having sex. And more importantly, do their family planning when they are ready and able to have children. The necklace is the product of a study conducted by the Center for Reproductive Health in Georgetown. I thought it was a brilliant idea but the original necklaces weren’t very attractive. I improved them and included a fashionable clip charm so that women would wear them with pride and discretion. The necklaces have different colored beads for the different parts of a woman’s 32 day menstrual cycle. The way it works is they need to start tracking their period as soon as it starts. They can use the charm to count down their menstrual days. Women can get pregnant between the 8th and 19th day after their period starts.

I taught workshops on how to make and use these necklaces to the poor village women in Nepal and now I’m bringing the idea to schools for pregnant women and teens here in the States. It’s a simple idea that’s saving lives!

Changing careers seems to have suited you well. Do you miss working for an employer?

Not really. I feel I can help many more people with my current work.

Your work ranges from disaster relief to sustainability, to empowering women, to helping improve the quality of life of the less fortunate. You’ve even attracted the attention of “doomsday preppers.” What’s next for you?

I want to create an awareness campaign: “9 Steps to Eradicate Poverty” and get this information in the hands of NGO’s and humanitarian organizations so they can help me spread this life saving information. Disaster relief agencies like the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders need to be made aware that permaculture theories can help with their disaster recovery efforts. These agencies need to start hiring a team permaculturists so they are prepared for the next major disaster. Who better than permaculturists to help out with the rebuild efforts in Syria? These professionals know how to repurpose rubble, how to build make shift latrines out of what is available and how to use plants to detox contaminated water. Additionally I think we should use these strategies to inspire the younger generation to think outside the box and to embrace the power of science. There are so many simple ideas waiting to be discovered!


Twitter: @TinaCornely

Facebook: BridgingHumanity

Famous Hispanic People: Berta Rojas Classic Guitarist

Berta Rojas - Famous Hispanic PeopleWhen you look at many lists of the most famous Hispanic people you usually find popular musicians like JLo, Shakira and Ricky Martin. Not as well known in the U.S., Berta Rojas is one of the most famous Hispanic people and one of the top classical guitarists in the world! Latin Grammy-nominated Rojas describes herself as inspired by the love and affection she receives from her people, homeland, culture and roots, and, by extension, from Latin America, a great source of inspiration for her.

She began studying the guitar at age 7 when her older brother, who also played the guitar, handed her the instrument.  From that moment on it was love at first sight” First with music and then with the two instruments she studied, piano and guitar.

The Landfill Harmonic Orchestra creates instruments out of garbage

The Landfill Harmonic Orchestra creates instruments out of garbage

Rojas has also recently partnered with the famed Recycled Instruments Orchestra of Cateura, also known as the Landfill Harmonic Orchestra, to create instruments out of garbage. Together they charm audiences with their humility, creativity and talent.

Washington Post and Classical Guitar Magazine have praised you as a “guitarist extraordinaire,” and I will pose that you’re actually one of the most famous Hispanic people around the world. What makes you stand out?

In the classical music world it’s very easy to follow the European school of thought which is where classical guitar music began.  I have decided though, to take a different approach, one that’s based mostly on my South American roots. Perhaps that made me a little different and gave me the chance to stand out.

As a professional woman, what are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career and how have you overcome them?

As a woman, working in a field that is still dominated by men is not an easy task.  You have to be prepared to answer the stereotypical question that always comes up: “Can a woman play the guitar?”  That was a question that I was asked frequently along with: “What are you studying?” When I would explain that I was studying classical guitar music, they were dumbfounded; as if playing the guitar was supposed to be only my hobby.  This attitude is changing slowly as more women are making their way into classical guitar, bringing something new and exciting to the field. The number of women studying the instrument professionally is growing, especially in countries like China and the U.S.

What do you find the most satisfying part of your work?

Without a doubt it’s the affection I receive from the audience. When you give your heart and soul to the audience and they reciprocate in kind, that’s truly magical.

A #redguitarcase in support of the #redshoemovement - Thank you. Berta!!!

A #redguitarcase in support of the #redshoemovement – Thank you. Berta!!!

There are several reasons one chooses to pursue a career in music.  I hope the main reason will always be a love for the art and a need to express oneself.  That’s certainly a good place to start.

Give us an example of how you’re currently helping other women advance professionally or fulfill their career goals?

I teach a master class globally to help students develop their technique and musicianship.  Many girls, hoping to pursue a career in music, attend my classes.  Our gatherings allow me to share some useful career tips. In addition to teaching, I am involved in a project which I have been working on in Paraguay that is comprised of a series of motivational talks I host in grade schools and universities throughout the country.  Through music I hope to help students of all ages develop their talent and bring out the best in them. Women’s issues always come up in the talks with them.  In the four years I have been doing this project, we have reached out to 26,000 students and we hope to continue it.

Could you mention one or more women who have contributed to you being considered one of the most famous Hispanic people in the world?

My grandmother Leona and my mom, Fidela. Leona means “lioness” in Spanish.  So, you can tell from her name what type of woman my grandmother was: protective and loving.  I admire my mom for her determination and fortitude.  I would be nowhere today without the support I received from either one of them.

What is your signature quote:

“The world can be a better place if we try.”


To contact Berta with your questions or show her how much you admire her talent you can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, via e-mail or visit her website!



Overcoming Adversity: Sonia Velasquez, the philanthropic journalist

sonia velasquezSonia Velasquez is one of the best examples of overcoming adversity you will find. After the loss of her left eye to family violence, this beautiful woman embraced a career as a model, as a well-respected journalist, and a successful producer. Her passion for helping others has shaped her brand of philanthropic journalism and social activism.

Although we all know stories of famous people overcoming adversity, Sonia’s case is unique for the in-your face contrast between what happened to her and her generosity of spirit.  Born in Colombia, the host of Extreme Makeover Home Edition Latin America spends her time between Colombia, Miami, and Argentina.

Many successful stories begin with overcoming adversity. But when you are actually experiencing it, it’s not always easy to find a way out of it. When you think back about the time when you lost your eye, could you tell us what kept you going? How much influence did the mentor who introduced you to the eye patch have in your ability to pursue your career dreams?  

What kept me going was faith. I am convinced the universe brings you angels in the path. I was 18 and needed a push to move forward. My mentor at the time, was an incredible woman named Irma Airstizabal. She is a talent manager and a visionary who lit up my career. She knew something was missing… and she suggested that I wear an eye patch and introduced me to Adriana Eslava, who also wore one. They gave me the confidence to wear it. It was a leap of faith.

The most satisfying part of my work is trying to alleviate the pain of others by listening to their needs and helping to build their homes and dreams.

The most satisfying part of my work is trying to alleviate the pain of others by listening to their needs and helping to build their homes and dreams.

You’ve never been a traditional journalist and as the industry experiences dramatic changes, your style seems to be perfectly suited for the present. What kind of decisions do you make on a daily basis that challenge the way things have been done in your industry in the past?

My philosophy is based on social responsibility and the importance of our actions. The question: “How can I help others” is a way of thinking that makes many people uncomfortable.

Overcoming adversity is obviously in your DNA. What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your job and what strategies do you have in place to overcome them?

Everyday I deal with very skeptical people. For me the main challenge is their lack of hope in a better world. The way I balance this is by responding with understanding. Sooner or later they realize that everything is possible.

What do you find the most satisfying part of your work?

Trying to alleviate the pain of others by listening to their needs and helping to build their homes and dreams. I also have the need to connect with vulnerable women sending messages of hope and empowerment by sharing my story.

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What advice do you have for other women who have unusual career goals?

Connecting with the spiritual world no matter what beliefs you hold. By doing this I have found the strength I need it.

Give us an example of how you’re currently helping other women advance professionally or fulfill their career goals?

In Extreme Makeover Home Edition Latin America we help to build houses in which women are in charge. Beyond the material aspect, we send a powerful message of faith: You are not alone; we recognize the importance of your life, we recognize your challenges and your suffering. We send messages of love and recognition to people in similar situations.

I also work for the More Peace Less Aids Foundation, creating awareness about prevention and digging deep into the real causes. AIDS is not a medical issue but a social one who affects the vulnerable women population.



For more on Sonia Velasquez:

Fan Sonia on Facebook

or Follow her on Twitter!

and, of course, visit her page!

Qatar Airways, Lisa Markovic, Country Manager USA

Lisa Markovic - Qatar Airlines Country Manager

Lisa Markovic – Qatar Airlines Country Manager

Born on Long Island, New York, Lisa moved as a child to Slovenia (at the time, Yugoslavia.) Although she came back to the U.S. to finish her education, she later returned to Slovenia, and started a family.

She speaks five languages: Slovenian, Serbian, Croatian, Russian, and English.

Her father had built a career at Lufthansa and Lisa too began her aviation career there after going through training and a series of tests.

After 22 years in a successful airline career (she became one of the few non-German speaking females to reach an executive position) she moved to an opportunity at Jet Airways, a privately owned Indian airline, and more than six months ago became the USA Country Manager for the award-winning Five Star carrier, Qatar Airways.

You have spent your entire career in the airline business. What are some of the  changes you’ve seen in the industry in regards to opportunities for women at all levels?

In the last 10 years there have been enormous opportunities opening up across all facets of the business. While most are traditionally male dominated, there are many interesting roles spanning every side of the business, from political affairs, sales, finance, e-commerce, information technology, marketing, fleet management, flight Operations and the list goes on.

What traits are required to be successful in this industry?

This is an industry that is a 24/7 operation, with aircraft bearing the company’s emblem located in every country at any given moment. This means that a great deal of coordination needs to happen across departments and time zones, and communication and organization is key – and so is cultural sensitivity and awareness.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your industry and in your job?

As a female executive one of the challenges is finding the line to keep things professional while being friendly. I have very high standards and strong work ethics. I’m conservative, but I also need to be flexible and sociable. So it’s finding that line because sometimes friendliness can be misinterpreted.

What do you find the most satisfying part of your work?

The satisfaction I feel is from being a part of one large team that are positioned on every continent that are all driven towards the same goal.  Meeting my numbers, meeting my budget, and the goals that are set, also gives me a great sense of achievement.

Give us an example of how you are currently helping other women advance professionally or fulfill their career goals?

I like to conduct one-on-one interviews and regular meetings with everyone reporting to me, so that I get to know my staff better. During these conversations I ask people to tell me their goals. So I always try to incorporate their goals into opportunities and training. I have asked for organizational changes so that some people could be placed in a track that works better for their strengths. I always say, we all spend so much time at work that you have to do a job that you enjoy.

Who are one or more women who have helped you get to where you are today?

One of my secret mentors was a friend of mine at Lufthansa who moved to the banking industry. She did reality checks for me and believed in my strengths and pushed me along. She was my informal mentor.

Lisa Markovic - Qatar Airlines Country Manager