Born and raised in Guyana, South America, Onica Charles faced many disadvantages still experienced by its citizens today. When she was twelve years old, her parents brought her to the United States “to give me a chance at a good education.” Charles had no idea that one day, that opportunity would inspire her to create a similar path for others.
Charles (M.P.A. ’09) made the decision to attend Nova because “I was able to begin the program right away. I knew pursuing my Masters would set me apart; I wanted that competitive advantage.” While attending Nova, Charles interned with two local municipalities. Today, she continues employment with the City of Sunrise in the budget department.
Though successful in South Florida’s local government, Charles’ passion is philanthropy. As an undergraduate, she was involved with Alternative Spring Break, spending time off from school to participate in local, national, or international service projects. She traveled to third world countries, visiting clinics and centers that serve disadvantaged communities. During the summer, Charles traveled throughout the Caribbean, North and South America and even Europe to continue her humanitarian work. “I started out simple; handing out sandwiches to the homeless. My work grew from there.”
After completing her M.P.A., Charles established International Children’s Outreach (ICO), Inc., with the goal to “give back to children in need any way possible.” ICO is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children facing poverty throughout the world, assisting with food supplies, healthcare, educational resources and health training seminars. ICO also conducts service learning projects, which take college and high school students to third world countries to help those in need. The trips immerse students within the culture while they conduct community service projects. The organization also provides tutoring, motivational speaking and summer camp services.
Charles is building her first community center in her homeland of Guyana to provide a safe haven for children. “Many of them can’t afford transportation to get to school, so they end up dropping out and doing chores around the house and errands for neighbors in order to make money to help their parents support them.” As someone who has lived through those experiences, Charles believes anyone with a little help and motivation can get out of this situation. After the center is constructed, monies raised will go directly to providing assistance to those children, so they can get an education. “Every child deserves a chance, and I promise to give them one, so they too will make a difference in the lives of others.”
In addition to owning a nonprofit organization, this year Charles opened her first child care center within a low income neighborhood, Little Masters Child Care Center. The center specializes in behavioral enrichment, family therapy, mentoring and tutoring. She believes that children shouldn’t be subjected to subpar education because of their socioeconomic status, and plans on making a change. “Every child deserves an equal opportunity. I am creating a path for these children to become little masters.”
Her advice to Nova students: “intern and get a mentor to guide you throughout your career. Most students don’t think they need to because they assume they will get hired after they graduate. My experience was so valuable, I wish I had started interning in my undergraduate programs.”
She hopes to instill her enthusiasm for philanthropy in future generations. “In giving back, you not only learn the value of helping others, you appreciate the opportunities you were given.”