Even at the age of 9, Gabriella Brignardello, a senior at La Reina High School in Thousand Oaks, felt that something was not quite right. It was Christmas Eve. She and her family were in Lima, Peru — the native country of her father, Carlo — attending Mass at Santa Maria Chapel.After Mass, she and her father were approached by two little girls in tattered clothes who were trying to sell them candy. Gabriella remembers thinking to herself, “This could be me, if I weren’t so fortunate. I’m going to a nice warm home to eat dinner and open gifts — and these girls are selling candy on Christmas Eve. This seems so unfair.” 

Her family had always been committed to helping out during its yearly visits to Peru, bringing shoes, backpacks and supplies to donate to the church. But as Gabriella grew older, donating goods did not seem to be enough to her any more. That one Christmas Eve scene lingered in her mind. 

“What can I give that will last?” she wondered. The answer eventually came: education.

To that end, Gabriella founded the nonprofit Mi Casa de Angeles in 2009, with the ultimate goal of building a primary school in Lima. Fundraising started with Gabriella selling her hand painted tennis shoes (1STEP). She has since held four major fundraisers: two garage sales, a movie night and a fashion show. 

Her next fundraiser will be a garage sale, on March 17, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Gabriella’s goal is to make $14,000; last year’s sale garnered $9,000, assisted by more than 50 volunteers, a number of them La Reina recruits. Altogether, her foundation has raised $40,000 and is in the process of partnering with an organization in Peru to build the school.  

Gabriella, however, has very particular ideas about what kind of school she wants. She wants to educate both children and parents about the importance of education. She wants to give parents jobs at the school so they won’t be tempted to pull their children out of school to sell candy, juggle on street corners, or work as day laborers. 

Gabriella also wants to change the minds and hearts of the more fortunate in Peru. Last year, she made a presentation about her foundation at a private school in Peru. She reached out to a group of students, to interest them in fundraising, or perhaps to start a chapter of Mi Casa de Angeles at their school.  

The response was heartening.  The students said, “We have always been aware of the problem of poverty, but we have never been encouraged to do anything about it. Seeing an American girl raise money for our country makes us want to do something, too.”  

The students and Gabriella brainstormed fundraising ideas. “They are really excited about fundraising,” she said. “The mentality of the wealthy in Peru is that we are at the top of society. That’s just the way it is. There’s no need to help others. The students felt that something wasn’t right, and are jumping at the opportunity to do something.” 

When she and her father go back to Peru in May, Gabriella is making plans to speak at five or six more schools. Indeed, her passion about giving back has been instilled in her by her family, particularly her father. As a former national table tennis champion of Peru, Carlo --- a principal with CresaPartners, a national corporate real estate advisory and brokerage firm --- had a chance to travel internationally, and ultimately decided to live in the United States.  

“My dad’s passion has been behind me from the beginning,” says Gabriella. “My dad is the one who comes with me to Peru; he is the one who gets up at 2 a.m. to help set up for the garage sale.”

Carlo works at all her fundraisers, and is currently president of the foundation (she cannot take over full leadership until she is 18). Her mother, Dionne, is the secretary/treasurer, and promotes and supports all of Mi Casa de Angeles’ endeavors, as does her seventh grade sister, Isabella, whom Gabriella describes as a creative force.

La Reina has also played a role in Gabriella’s desire to help. When Gabriella began her Christian Service requirement at La Reina, she found herself doing more than the requisite hours; she became passionate about her work at the Boys and Girls Club. She notes that many of the students at La Reina feel the same way; in fact a number of them help out at her fundraisers and serve on her youth board. 

Gabriella is determined that her foundation will not be affected by her going away to college.

Though she is going to Princeton in the fall, she says, “I am driven to see this through. I am taking the foundation with me and will fundraise wherever I am.”

For more information on Mi Casa de Angeles and ways you can help, go to its website, http://www.micasadeangeles.org.

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