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Happy Valentine's Day from Puerto Rico!

Okay, so we're not currently in Puerto Rico but we were and are continuing our work with organizations and individuals on the island to help communities in desperate need. This is the official start of a collaboration between NextRound Productions and The Validation Project to help communities in dire need all over Puerto Rico. Learn more about these organizations below. Today we'll be start by sharing a story from Toa Baja, Puerto Rico.

Photo by Alison Vidler

Valentine's Day is all about love. When you were a kid, who was the person that made you feel loved and taught you that you were worth it? For the youth in Toa Baja Pueblo, a woman named Nina Castro is that person.

Affectionately nicknamed "Nina Ice Cream," this budding activist is changing the lives of children in her barrio, Toa Baja Pueblo, one day at a time. Before Hurricane Maria and Irma, Nina owned-and-operated an ice cream shopand children's center where youth had a safe haven to hang out and get homework help and mentorship. Now, 148 days after Hurricane Maria, her community and the lives of the children in Toa Baja Pueblo look very different.

Nina's shop before and after Hurricane Maria.

Already a poor community, Toa Baja Pueblo was one of the barrios hit hardest in Puerto Rico. Nina's ice cream shop, children's center and personal home were flooded completely - along with the elementary school, middle school and high school. Today only Adolfina Irizarry de Puig High School has reopened and just recently received electricity on January 22nd, 2018 (125 days after Hurricane Maria.) The other two schools have no estimated reopen date. Over 800 children are forced to go to school in a building only meant to hold a third of that number. Because of this, the children's class schedule has been cut in half, only allowing them to attend class for four hours a day. The upper classmen attend classes in the morning and the lower classmen attend classes in the afternoon.

People in the community try to encourage kids to stay in school, but there is an epidemic of kids not attending even those four hours. With a community suffering so much, many of them don't see a point. To make matters worse, all other children community programs have ceased in Toa Baja Pueblo, but Nina hasn't.

Nina has taken on the organization of extra-curricular activities and the well being of the youth. She's now known as the woman to go to for help. She regularly gets lists from teachers of what kids need - uniforms, supplies, extra help - and she figures out how to get kids help however she possibly can. She is not affiliated with the school at all and is not compensated for any of her work. "I truly want Toa Baja's kids to develop and succeed regardless of the environment they are living in."

Her goal is to create programming that encourages kids to stay in school and makes them feel supported and safe. Her newest project launches today, Valentine's Day, or as Nina and the kids calls it, "Friendship Day." Today over thirty elementary school students will organize in the local plaza to write loving messages to one another — but her goal is much larger than letters. Nina will work with these kids over the next few months on a Toa Baja talent show. The talent show will be performed in the open school in a few months. She hopes that this will encourage the students to stay in school and give them a sense of pride in themselves and their community. Over the next few months we'll be partnering with Nina to help her and the kids in Toa Baja. Help us spread the love this Valentine's Day and over the next few months by sticking with us on this email chain or on Facebook and Instagram. We'll be updating with concrete ways to help this and other barrios and make sure these kids have an education and support system that teaches them their worth - and how to use that worth to make the world a little brighter.

In the meantime, if Nina's story moves you, comment on the blog or email with a message to her or the kids. We'll get it to her today! Thank you for your support thus far. It means the world to these children that people an ocean away care about them. xoxo, Amanda, Flor & Val

Founded by college sophomore Valerie Weisler, The Validation Project is an international organization working with youth to solve the most prominent issues through mentoring, social justice assignments and educational resources. The Validation Project has been recognized by People Magazine, The New York Times, CNN, L'Oreal Paris and more.

NextRound Productions is a full service video production company founded by Flor Tejada and Amanda Sabater that specializes in producing online branded video content and documentaries. As a proud women and minority owned-and-operated business, NextRound commits to hiring female filmmakers and sharing female and Latinx stories.

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