Age, a language barrier and 4,500 miles prove no obstacles for Katie Zimmerman’s Project Discovery
By Jordan Fischer
Katie Zimmerman lives her life across two hemispheres.
For six months of the year, the 24-year-old Fishers native lives and works in the U.S., dedicating herself to fundraising for Project Discovery, a before and after school program Zimmerman started for at-risk children in Brazil. For the other six months, Zimmerman spends her time in Imbau, Brazil, where she and other Project Discovery members work with 100 Brazilian children on everything from improving their academic and English skills to learning Capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts form.
Zimmerman left for her seventh trip to Brazil in June, and will stay until December. She talked to Current from Brazil about her experience abroad so far.
Answering a need
Zimmerman’s first taste of Brazil came during a 10-day mission trip sponsored by her parish, St. Louis de Montfort.
“From my very first trip, I felt a connection with the people and a tugging to return,” Zimmerman said.
She returned the following two summers with the Sisters of the Holy Cross to assist with poor relief. She said she began to see a need for supplemental education programs for the children of Imbau. A University of Dayton graduate with a degree in education, Zimmerman said she felt up to the task.
“I encountered so many curious children interested in learning,” Zimmerman said. “They simply lacked resources and opportunities. I found myself building relationships with kids who had so much potential; however, they were missing self-confidence and guidance.”
Despite the geographical and linguistic hurdles – Portuguese is the main language of Brazil, and Zimmerman didn’t speak it – she decided to start Project Discovery.
“It would have been a lot easier to do in the U.S.,” she said, “But I saw the needs here so I tried to do the best I could. I guess I didn’t choose the location. I think the location chose me.”
Zimmerman spent the year before her first six-month trip studying Portuguese and fundraising – nearly $17,000 for the initial outlay of the program. Part of those funds came from a Brazilian ministry fund supported by tithes from Zimmerman’s church, and much of it was supplied by Zimmerman herself.
“I think we’ve done just about everything that’s legal under the sun to raise money,” she said. “We’ve had babysitting nights, we’ve done bowling nights, we’ve sold cookie dough. I also give a lot of talks about the program, and during those many people donate. The bulk of it comes from the generosity of people who have heard about the project.”
Still, during her six months in the U.S., Zimmerman said fundraising occupies some or all of nearly every day.
“It’s a little bit emotionally and financially exhausting to spend six months fundraising and saving money in the states, and then spend six months and all of the money you’ve raised on the program down in Brazil,” she said.
Like brothers and sisters
Although Project Discovery was established initially as an educational program, Zimmerman said it has grown to fill myriad roles.
“I feel like these are my kids – my daughters, my sons, my brothers and sisters,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve really gotten to work a lot with the family of these kids, which I think is unique. We try to fulfill any role which these kids are lacking, which unfortunately for a lot of them is a lot of things.”
Zimmerman was able to get Project Discovery affiliated with a social program sponsored by the Brazilian government, which now provides additional teachers and aids in selecting families to be enrolled in the program.
“They pick the poorest of the poor, but also the ones with the most problems in their family,” Zimmerman said. “We get the ones who would have been put in a foster care system, but they don’t have that here. They just have an orphanage.”
These children range from six to 16 years old. Several have been sexually or physically abused; some have had past addictions to drugs; a few are orphans; and all come from extremely impoverished situations.
Aside from academic and English instruction, Project Discovery offers these students dance and Capoeira classes, field trips (many children in Imbau have never left their home town, according to Zimmerman), community outreach, and programs designed to expose students to technology. In particular, Zimmerman said photography classes have had a big effect on students.
“I have seen the shyest boys and girls come alive behind the camera lens,” she said. “I have also witnessed my most behaviorally-disturbed student fall in love with photography. Watching him explore different subjects, angles and colors were some of the only times he appeared to be excited to learn and proud of what he had accomplished. He even branched out to help teach what he had learned to the other students.”
Zimmerman recalled a student who had a particularly strong impact on her, a 13-year-old boy named Ronaldo. Ronaldo came from a home with an abusive, alcoholic father, and a brother who was in jail. Zimmerman introduced him to Capoeira, which he eventually earned a scholarship for.
“He frequently resembled a kid in a candy store, constantly taking everything around him in and enjoying every moment,” Zimmerman said. “Being his confirmation sponsor, watching him receive his first belt in a Capoeira ceremony, sitting next to him during his first time being in a professional soccer stadium watching a professional soccer game, and telling him that he would be the recipient of a scholarship to a private English school are all moments that not only will I keep close to my heart, but I often pull them out during days of sadness or self-doubt to keep me motivated and inspired.”
Editor’s note: An extended version of Ronaldo’s story is available online here.
Passing the torch
This year, Zimmerman is joined by two friends from Fishers, Lee Ann Zatkaulak & Megan Cress. Although all three are relatively young, Zimmerman said it hasn’t been a hindrance.
“I don’t ever think about my age,” Zimmerman said. “In fact, I think it’s really one of the only times you can do it. I think about how hard it would be to learn a new language or leave the United States for an extended period when you were married and had a family.”
For the remainder of her trip this year, Zimmerman said her biggest hope is to begin preparing the Brazilians to take over the project for themselves.
“We are really, really working with the teachers the government has put in the program to organize them and develop lesson plans,” Zimmerman said. “They really didn’t have classes. They were more of glorified babysitters. We’re trying to assist their ideas – with them planning trips, them contacting the government for things they need. My biggest goal is to get them ready to do this program all on their own.”
For more information about Project Discovery, or to find out how to donate, write Katie Zimmerman at firstname.lastname@example.org. All donations are tax deductible through the parish at St. Louis de Montfort.