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How A Broward Area Business Grad Started A Nonprofit In South Africa

The Gratitude Project
Courtesy of The Gratitude Project
Gaia Calcaterra, left, met with families in an immigrant camp in Nkomazi on her first volunteer trip. The baby, Azalia, lost her mother to HIV/AIDS days after her birth, but is now a healthy 2-year-old with aid from the project.

Over the last two years, Gaia Calcaterra has learned how to run a global nonprofit from South Florida.

In 2015, Calcaterra, who is originally from South Africa, was visiting a friend who worked with children orphaned by AIDS and cholera in Nkomazi, a refugee camp for immigrants at the border of Mozambique and Swaziland (renamed eSwantini this year). 

By the time she got back to South Florida, Calcaterra, 45, had decided to go back to school. She wanted the formal background to be able to run a nonprofit. She took a break from her job restoring old fresco paintings and enrolled in Nova Southeastern University's MBA program in Davie. Early last month, she graduated with honors.

The non-profit, The Gratitude Project, is a home in South Africa for children who are mostly orphans raising their siblings. The project provides some schooling, medicine and food for their families.

Calcaterra was born in South Africa to Italian parents and has lived and worked around the world. She started her own business after going to college in Italy, making coatings for buildings, just like her parents. 

Calcaterra takes after her father, who was always entrepreneurial: she started other businesses, including fresco painting restoration and vacation rentals.

She moved to Fort Lauderdale 10 years ago after visiting her brother, who was living in the area.

“I came to visit him, absolutely loved it, ended up applying for an E2 investment visa...and stayed,” she said.

The Gratitude Project
Credit Caitie Switalski / WLRN
Calcaterra decorated her cap with a South African angel ornament on her graduation day in June - to keep The Gratitude Project with her as she walked across the stage.

She loved the weather, the people, and how easy it was to fly back and forth from South Africa to see family.

She enrolled in the business program at NSU with the hope to be able to run The Gratitude Project and make it sustainable.

Read More: South African Government Ramping Up Efforts To Get More Land Into Black Ownership

The nonprofit initially struggled to bring in donations. One of the classes that helped change that, Calcaterra said, was Accounting For Decision Makers, with adjunct professor JoAnn Ackerman.

“It’s usually the least-liked course in the MBA program,” Ackerman said of her class.

But Calcaterra used the class to develop a working business and marketing plan, Ackerman said, which changed The Gratitude Project's fundraising direction.

The Gratitude Project
Credit Courtesy The Gratitude Project / WLRN
Calcuterra, center left, helps run The Gratitude Project home for orphaned and impoverished children in the rural patches of South Africa - from her Fort Lauderdale apartment.

Originally, the organization's marketing materials were being directed at millenials.

But Calcaterra soon realized "they have a lot of time to donate, but not the income."

Through Ackerman's class and a marketing strategies course, Calcaterra decided to refocus donation efforts on middle-aged women.      

“It was a ‘wow’ moment," Ackerman says, remembering when Calcaterra showed her The Gratitude Project's donations. 

Calcaterra had initially planned to raise $111,000 to establish a house for The Gratitude Project. By the time she graduated she'd raised more than triple that.

Eight children can live in The Gratutude Project's house in South Africa. It’s a resource center for dozens of others, and the project just added more bedrooms during it's second phase, which is nearly complete.

Next, Calcaterra is trying to open a second Gratitude Project home for children near the South African border to Mozambique, right by Nkomazi. 

Caitie Muñoz, formerly Switalski, leads the WLRN Newsroom as Director of Daily News & Original Live Programming. Previously she reported on news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News.
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