How the Gerald family brightens lives of vulnerable youth
Watching Fabiola smile for the first time after spending day after day for several months at Casa de Luz in Honduras made everything worth it for co-founder Marilyn Brautigam.
Before the day care center opened, Fabiola, then age 3, would accompany her mother to work sweeping streets each day, eating what they could afford -- a soda pop or cracker from the street vendors or handouts from the homes on the street. When she first started day care at Casa de Luz she was shy and scared, but over the course of her time there she brightened, came out of her shell, and has grown to be a successful young adult.
"The first time she smiled, we all cried," recalled Brautigam, who started Casa de Luz with her brother, Neil Gerald of Gerald Auto Group, and his wife, Ginny, in 2005.
Casa de Luz, which means "house of light," has been living up to its name ever since, by providing child-care services to some of the most impoverished Honduran citizens. Work brought Brautigam and her late husband, Harry Brautigam, to Honduras in the early 2000s. His job as president of a national bank was high profile and required that they have security and drivers at all times. Brautigam and her bodyguard, a local pastor of a nondenominational church, became friends and she eventually got to know the families and young children he served through giving Christmas gifts to the children in the Las Palmas neighborhood and buckets of food staples to their families.
Through these experiences, Brautigam saw firsthand the abject poverty the Hondurans were facing. She knew she wanted to give back in a bigger way and asked the pastor what the church's greatest need was. At the time in Honduras, many men were fleeing the country and mothers were forced to work to provide for their families, often having to leave their young children at home unattended. Brautigam said it wasn't uncommon to see children as young as 7 or 8 caring for siblings ages 2 and 3. The church's greatest need, the pastor said, was child care.
"They needed a place where the women of the church could volunteer to watch the kids, otherwise the kids would be watching other kids, roaming the streets or stuck inside their houses," said Brautigam.
When the Geralds visited Brautigam in Honduras that spring, they too saw the need. Together, they founded Casa de Luz and rented the basement of a house in the heart of the barrio to begin providing child care to the kids in the community. They started small, about 10 kids in all, but the number quickly grew to serving 100 children in this location today. All that is required to take advantage of the child care, meals and education that Casa de Luz provides is proof that there is no one else available to care for a child while his or her mother is at work and a small contribution, whether it be $1 a month, offering to bring a snack in or sweeping the floor.
At first, Casa de Luz was only open to 2- and 3-year-olds, but the center has expanded to service older children as well to help prepare them to thrive in kindergarten and beyond. The organization went from renting a basement in a building in the barrio to building its own free-standing center. They also expanded to include a second location in a rural community. Between the two centers, about 200 children receive services, which include two meals and a snack per day, child care, schooling, parenting classes, English lessons, and visits from medical and dental mission teams. Over the years, Casa de Luz has become a safe haven for Honduran families and a trusted community resource.
"It's really cool to see the influence we have in the community. They trust us and they know they'll be safe there," said Brautigam. "In a strange country, where I didn't know anyone, it was a miracle that I had the privilege to help."
Two missionary families live in Honduras and run Casa de Luz. Brautigam moved back to Miami to be near her children in 2008, but still actively raises funds for the organization. She and the Geralds hosted their annual fundraiser for the child-care center in September. Gerald, who is part of Gerald Auto Group and who owns Gerald Ford, Gerald Genesis, Gerald Nissan, Gerald Subaru, Gerald Kia, and Gerald Hyundai, said he's grateful for the many local Naperville businesses and community members that offered their support. Through Gerald Cares, the Gerald family returns the favor, donating to many charities and supporting local causes.
"There are a lot of good causes and we are involved with almost all of them in some way," said Gerald. "We've always tried to participate in and give back to the community that supports us." Brautigam and the Geralds hope that Casa de Luz continues to be a house of light for Hondurans in need, many of who live on less than $1 a day. To support Casa de Luz, visit www.cdlworld.org.