April 05, 2022 | Scholarship Program

Creating Helping Hearts

Scholarship program alumni choose careers in service

By Kati Burns Mallows

Empathy is often described as being able to imagine yourself in another’s shoes to understand the world from their perspective.

But true empathy has much more to do with one’s ability to listen.

And learning to listen — much as Unbound’s co-founder Bob Hentzen learned to listen to those in poverty early in his travels — is one of the greatest skills to acquire if you dream of helping a community in need.

For Yanoris, mother of sponsored children Sara and Thiago, this is the skill she developed from the community service portion of the Unbound Scholarship Program that she said has benefited her the most on her career path.

“The process I went through as a scholarship service volunteer … and getting to know the whole community, all the feelings of the people and what [they experience], they are part of my whole process of what I am going to work on in my career,” said Yanoris, who will graduate with a degree in psychology this year.

Yanoris was one of 46 former Unbound scholarship recipients from Bogotá, Colombia, who, last August, participated in a focus group that evaluated the scholarship program’s effectiveness at increasing scholars’ participation in, and commitment to, the well-being of their communities over time.

The outcome of the evaluation? It was somewhat unexpected for Program Evaluation Coordinator Alejandro León.

“We did work with people who had already passed [from] the project nine or 10 years ago, and we realized that they opted for careers in [areas such as] social work, teaching, psychology and health,” León said. “We asked why, and their answer was they were inspired and wanted to study something that would really support the community because they are part of the [communities] that need these careers.”

Similar evaluations with scholarship alumni in the Philippines have revealed much the same, according to Unbound International Evaluations Manager Becky Findley — that the desire to give back goes beyond the initial service required for the program.

“We’ve heard that a feeling of gratitude is the driving force behind their personal commitment to community service,” Findley said. “There is essentially a desire to ‘pay it forward,’ helping others in their communities achieve their goals the way they did in Unbound.”


Yanoris and her young family moved to Bogotá in search of a better life. Since the age of 14, Yanoris knew she wanted to be a psychologist, and being an Unbound scholarship recipient made that possible for her. “It is important when people [in the community] tell you that you are that reference point [that gives them] motivation to fulfill their goals, their dreams. …” Yanoris said. “If some mothers see in me that I was able to study and get ahead, they know that they can also achieve it.”

Empathy from the eyes of those in poverty

At the Making Caring Common Project (MCC) in the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Milena Batanova is a senior research and evaluations manager. MCC is committed, through resources and research, to helping the world “raise kids who care about others and the common good.”

Batanova describes empathy as other-oriented. “Empathy means having the emotional capacity to genuinely care for others and their feelings, and wanting to alleviate their suffering or celebrate their successes,” Batanova said.

Empathy in children and youths, Batanova explained, can be nurtured and grown with the right amount of support, warmth and responsiveness from parents, caregivers or mentors. Overcoming adversity, which builds resilience, can also contribute to growing empathy, and is part of why Batanova is not at all surprised that Unbound’s scholars — many still in poverty themselves — would choose a career helping others.

“They’ve been well-supported, and they want to pay that forward,” Batanova said. “They may not even realize this connection; they just want to help. They are well-equipped and more attuned to help alleviate the suffering of others.”

In summer of 2021, a group of current Unbound scholars and alumni from the Tamil Nadu programs in India — backed by their many years of support and motivation from the sponsorship and scholarship programs — began an endeavor in their communities to do just that.

Collecting what little money they each had remaining every month after their own needs were met, the group of 10 chooses a “deserving family” from their community to provide them with things like groceries, clothes, toys or home needs. Their efforts so far have supported more than 10 families.

Scholarship recipient Vinitha explained how she had to open her own family’s eyes to support her giving to the needy in her community. “My mother immediately said that we are in a position of receiving support from somebody for our [own] need, so why should we help others,” Vinitha said. “I answered my mom that by God’s grace, we are now in manageable condition, but the people we support are in … worse financial condition. Later, my mother also started giving money for [the needy] … so I feel happy. ...”

Among the group members, four are studying to become social workers, and one, a lawyer.

In Chennai, India, Unbound scholarship recipient Vinitha (back right) and scholarship alumni Jayapradha (front right) and Sharmila (center right) meet with husband and wife Ramesh and Julie Mary in their home to assess the family’s need.

From left, former and current Unbound scholarship recipients Vinitha, Liyancy, Sharmila and Jayapradha purchase items for needy families at a grocery shop using their own money. As a next step for their group of 10 members, they would like to eventually be able to sponsor a child in their community who dreams of becoming a doctor.

Opening a path to helping professions

The scholarship program is only one of many of the systems of support available to Unbound’s community. Established in 1998, the original purpose of the Unbound Scholarship Program was to help youths with tuition costs in secondary school, vocational training and higher education. Over the years the program expanded to include scholarships for mothers of sponsored children, and to also cover technological needs related to schooling that arose as a result of the pandemic.

In 2020, scholarship grants to Unbound field offices totaled more than $3.6 million, and scholarships were awarded to over 9,000 students in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Scholarship recipients must complete service hours as part of the program to develop leadership skills and give back to their communities. Scholars might tutor young children, organize clubs and activities, teach literacy and health workshops for Unbound, and help with correspondence between sponsored children and their sponsors, among other things.

They gain skills in teaching, making proposals, public speaking, budgeting, technology and time management. But the intangible benefits to the scholars might be what is most important to their development, according to Rogelio De Vera Jr., head of the correspondence department and scholarship program coordinator for Unbound’s Quezon program in the Philippines. Such benefits include building self-confidence and self-awareness and learning to show kindness or empathy.

“They become civic-oriented … develop creativity, flexibility and [become] a role model in the community,” said De Vera, who works with almost 600 scholars in the Quezon program, 18% of whom are non-sponsored. “Working with the people in the community also helps them gain perspective about privilege — the ones [privileges] that they have and the ones that they don’t, as well as the responsibility that comes with that.”

In the Philippines, sponsored youth and scholarship recipient Mae helps with the process of collecting annual photos of hundreds of sponsored individuals at an office for the Quezon program.

Rogelio De Vera Jr., head of the correspondence department and scholarship program coordinator for Unbound’s Quezon program in the Philippines, works from his desk in the program office. De Vera Jr. has worked with Unbound for over 20 years and, as the scholarship coordinator, has seen scholars through the years seek careers in such areas as humanitarian activities, social development, education and counseling, to name a few.

Empathy as a transferable job skill

Employment job board Indeed.com lists 12 top transferable job skills that will help an individual succeed in any industry. Among the top 12 listed are professionalism, integrity, initiative, empathy, leadership and teamwork, all skillsets that De Vera and León have described Unbound’s scholars as possessing.

But empathy, in particular, according to Batanova, is often thought of as a “soft skill” and not always a positive one.

“Some researchers believe it can lead us to make immoral choices, that it can be detrimental,” Batanova said. “For example, a classic experiment showed that when asked to imagine the suffering of a sick child, participants were more likely to move that child up the waitlist for pain treatment and to unfairly leave other suffering children further down the list. So, empathy doesn’t guarantee morality. But I think it’s important to emphasize the hard skill that it is — to truly empathize, to listen and be present and to think about improving others’ lives. That’s [something] that can go a long way in any profession, and there’s nothing simple or soft about it.”

León describes Unbound scholars as “Unbound professionals,” who bring additional skills. “Unbound professionals” possess knowledge of community development, leadership tools, empowerment and community recognition that comes with a plus beyond their single career.

“[The Unbound professional] has the feeling of participation and connection to take their community forward,” León said. “… When they become a professional, they will not turn their back on their community.”


A group of Unbound scholarship recipients in Bogotá pause for a photo after completing community service work at a recycling facility. One impact of the program discovered during the 2021 evaluation was that scholarship alumni desire to continue networking with one another after leaving the program and want to continue contributing to their communities together through their professions.

Changing the face of poverty by walking with their communities first

In 1981, the founding members of Unbound envisioned a program that empowered families in poverty, connecting the world not only with their struggles, but also their incredible gifts.

But who could have imagined that walking beside them would also connect those same families to the struggles of their own communities, helping them to look beyond their own needs, to not only realize their own potential as human beings, but also that of the neighborhoods in which they live and work?

Through the scholarship program, students in poverty will continue to fulfill their dreams, many with the goal of helping others like them someday fulfill their own.

This has been the life’s work thus far of Bogotá scholarship alumni Danilo Sunza.

Sunza always knew he would help others in some way. His experiences in Unbound laid the groundwork for the professional direction that he would take and opened his eyes more fully to the sufferings of his own community.

Sponsored through Unbound for more than 20 years and a scholarship recipient, Sunza recalls telling his classmates as a child that he one day wanted to have a foundation like Unbound, a similar place where children in poverty could go after school to do extracurricular activities, “escape the realities” of their living situations and learn how to “get on track” despite those realities. A pivotal learning experience came to him when, as part of his requirements for his Unbound scholarship, he would do home visits to sponsored families in his community. It was here that he found himself reflecting on his own circumstances as a person in poverty.

“[I] believed that we [he and his family] were in a bad way. On the contrary, we were [doing] very well [compared to others],” said Sunza, who now has a degree in social work.

Four years ago, Sunza founded Escuela de Pensamiento (the School of Thought), a nonprofit organization for youths that’s committed to social transformation. His organization offers leadership building classes in social work, psychology of the arts, communications and environmental studies, and provides extracurricular activities for children and youth such as art, dance and theater classes, and club involvement.

The School of Thought directly serves 150 children, and indirectly serves 400 children and 800 migrant families. During the height of the pandemic, Sunza’s organization led a social media movement that secured donations from all over the world of more than 12,000 food rations that they then distributed to starving families throughout Colombia.

From his time in Unbound, Sunza took away many tools in leadership, social and community issues management, and learned important values and principles that continue to lead him now in his own career.

“I have always wanted to work with an indigenous community or in the field” Sunza said. “It has always been a dream that is coming true and, thus, through [the School of Thought], to help fulfill other dreams.”

Danilo Sunza was sponsored by Unbound for more than 20 years and is a scholarship alumnus from the Bogotá program. Inspired by his time in the program to choose a social work vocation, Sunza founded the nonprofit organization, the School of Thought, in Bossa, Colombia, with the intent of helping others like him “fulfill their dreams.”

Sunza takes a selfie with staff and members of the School of Thought after an activity they call Forum Movie Day, where they watched and reflected on “The Boy in Striped Pajamas,” a movie about a German boy who befriends a Jewish child during the Second World War. Photos from the School of Thought Instagram page @org.escueladepensamiento.

At the School of Thought, children and youth have access to activities like gardening and tree planting, painting, dancing, sports and crafting, among others. Photos from the School of Thought Instagram page @org.escueladepensamiento.

Be a part of helping aspiring young adults pursue higher education and become role models in their communities. Invest in new leaders, and donate to Unbound’s Scholarship Program today.

We have heard that a feeling of gratitude is the driving force behind their personal commitment to community service. There is essentially a desire to ‘pay it forward,’ helping others in their communities achieve their goals the way they did in Unbound.

— Becky Findley, Unbound international evaluations manager