Denisse Montalvan doesn’t have any biological children of her own.
But she is a “mother” to around 350 kids in five orphanages spread through Colombia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Rosarito, Mexico.
Like any mother she worries about them, shares in their trials and triumphs and, most of all, supports them. In her case, it’s by recycling and refurbishing discarded beads, pendants, earrings and jewels that friends and strangers give her. She then turns them into jewelry she sells online, at bazaars, and “to anybody who will buy.”
Montalvan also runs a nonprofit she founded called “The Orphaned Earring” — a labor of love that helps to feed, clothe and bring a little bit of happiness to children who welcome any expression of love.
Keeping A Promise
“This started as a promise to God,” said Montalvan, who was born in Costa Rica and raised in Nicaragua.
She came to the United States alone at age 17, and spent six months living with extended family before moving into a small room she rented from a fellow church member.
That meant finding a job and putting aside her dreams of going to college.
“Being an immigrant, education seemed so impossible,” the 36-year-old said.
As she adjusted to a new country, language and culture, Montalvan struggled with illness and spent time in a hospital. She soon became mired in debt.
“When I turned 18, I owed about $8,000,” she recalled.
Montalvan survived on odd jobs before getting permanent employment as a receptionist. At age 22 she married her first husband, whom she divorced four years later in part because he didn’t share in her educational goals.
Depressed and without much direction, she said she made a promise to God.
“I prayed, saying ‘if you help me get an education, I will serve you with it,” Montalvan said.
Soon after, things started to turn around. Montalvan attended El Camino College in Torrance before transferring to California State Dominguez Hills to study Communications and Public Relations.
To pay for college she did what she always did — work odd jobs.
“I worked as a nanny. I cleaned houses on the weekend. I dyed hair,” she said.
A friend taught her how to make jewelry, which she sold to make ends meet.
Financial aid helped pay for classes and books.
By the time she graduated, “I was debt free,” Montalvan said.
Soon after she got an internship at a prestigious Los Angeles public relations firm and it led to a job. Today, she still works in the communications industry.
Once her life was settled, it was time to keep her promise.
Montalvan wanted to help orphans because, she said, “I could relate to feeling abandoned and not having anybody to help you.” One day in 2011 she was looking in her jewelry box and saw a lot of “orphaned earrings.” An idea struck; she began refurbishing them into jewelry pieces she sold to friends.
“When I ran out (of old jewelry pieces) I asked my friends for some, and it became a network of women supporting my mission,” she recalled.
In 2012 Montalvan registered “The Orphaned Earring” as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation. In the last four years the organization has raised around $50,000, all of which goes directly to the orphanages.
Some of those who help her collect the old jewelry pieces also directed her to orphanages abroad.
“I started ‘adopting’ these children little by little,” Montalvan said. “I fell in love with the kids.”
She visits the orphanages once a year, except for Casa Estrella, an all-girls home in Rosarito, Mexico, where she visits every two months.
“The feeling I get every time I go … as much love as I give, I can’t explain how much love I get back,” Montalvan said.
“I feel they fill my heart with so much love. I adopted them but, really, they adopted me as their mom.”
For the kids, it’s the little things that count, Montalvan said.
She celebrates their birthdays, provides school supplies, sends monthly cash donations and, when she’s there, helps bathe them and brushes their hair.
In other words, she’s their mom.
“It’s that ‘someone cared for me,’ feeling wanted, that will change their life,” Montalvan said.
People often associate orphanages with small children. But “they forget there are senoritas (young women) too,” Montalvan said.
And with youth can come risks, especially in Latin America. One such risk is men who try to seduce these girls into leaving their homes, only to end up working as prostitutes.
So in addition to “The Orphaned Earring,” Montalvan created “Quince Dreams” — a promise to the orphaned girls that if they remain in the institution, get good grades and take care of each other, “I will give you a quinceañera.”
A major tradition in Latin America, a quinceañera is a birthday celebration for a girl when she turns 15. It can take on many extravagant forms.
Montalvan has thrown large parties for girls at the orphanages, and pays for everything.
“I go personally and do their hair and makeup. I make them feel like a princess for a day,” she said
All through the sale of the recycled jewelry she makes.
“I sleep five hours a night. I go home and make bracelets, key chains and rings. It’s a different job after my job,” explains Montalvan, who creates the jewelry with the help of four steady assistants.
Montalvan says she feels like a mom to all the children she helps.
“When someone is in pain and needs something, I feel it. That’s how a mom would feel it,” she said.
“I feel so proud when they grow,” she added.
Montalvan, who remarried several years ago, says she and her husband have decided to adopt.
But that won’t keep her from continuing to help the orphanages she’s been supporting all these years.
“I’m never going to abandon this,” she said.
To purchase jewelry from The Orphaned Earring or help with Montalvan’s foundation, visit http://theorphanedearring.com.