she is

strong, resilient, fun, active, determined, passionate


Katiana is 17, she is strong, resilient, fun, active, determined and super passionate. She is full of energy and have big dreams.

Born in the Dominican Republic to Haitians parents, Katiana is one of ten siblings. She lives in the beach town of Cabarete.

Girls in the DR are supposed to stay at home and help with cooking and cleaning. Boys go out and play. And even though the beach is right there for her, girls in Cabarete are not taught how to swim, let alone surf. But Katiana loves both and has had the opportunity to explore the amazing waters of her town — a little piece of paradise where hundreds of people gather every year to practice an array of water sports.

I met Katiana during the first year I collaborated with the Mariposa Foundation, an after-school center for girls that believes that investing in girls’ education is a powerful path out of poverty. Through the foundation, Katiana has been able to learn how to surf in a safe environment.

When I first met her, I could tell Katiana was special. She had so much energy, and she was “bossing” everyone around her. I found that fascinating.

She participated in an animation workshop I did, where we created a video as part of their campaign against violence towards women (link). The message was, “Yo no soy tu mamasita”—the equivalent of “I am not your baby”. As part of owning who they are instead of someone claiming them, these young women had to choose a word that represented who they are. I was not surprised when Katiana chose “leader” . . . because she really is.

On my last day of that first year at the foundation, I said goodbye to most of the girls, but wanted to stay behind with a few of them and talk some more. I ended up dropping some of them off at home. We talked and laughed on the way. When it was time to drop Katiana off and she was getting out of the car, I said a few things. I told her:

“Remember that you are a leader, and that you can do anything you want in life”

“But you need to focus your energy on the things that really matter”. I am not sure if she remembers that, or if that made any imprint on her . . . but it did in me.


As I drove off — this time all by myself driving through the beautiful mountains, making my way back to my family in Santo Domingo — I had a very special moment. The song “Brave” by Sara Bareilles came on, and tears started falling down my cheeks. I had to stop driving. This was an unfamiliar feeling, and for the first time in my life I felt JOY. This was a moment I was going to remember for the rest of my life. You see, while I was teaching at Mariposa, more than once I wondered if what I was doing really mattered; if this was of any help for any of them. And at this last moment, after it was all over, I knew it did.

Having the opportunity to be a good influence in the life of these girls made me realize that there is a lot of power in showing up and listening — especially me being a woman of color like them — and the impact this could have in how they see themselves in the future. In that moment, I realized I wanted to do more of that.

there is a lot of power in showing up and listening

I have re-lived that moment so many times now. It is imprinted in my memory and I can evoke that feeling of JOY any time I need to.

Since that first time at Mariposa, I have formed beautiful friendships with some of the girls there, including Katiana. This was my third year coming to the Foundation, and this time I was there on a very specific mission: to interview eight amazing girls for this project — and, of course, Katiana was one of them. I hope, after watching her video, you may see why.

Since I shot Katiana’s video, I have been thinking a lot about the girls in Cabarete and all the things standing between them and their dreams. Katiana may be a strong, resilient teenage girl, but (as it is for many girls like her in her community) teen pregnancy is a real issue.

A recent study shows that in the Caribbean region, 2 million children are born to mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 years old each year. The Dominican Republic and Guyana have the highest rates of teen pregnancy. Katiana lives in this reality, and she knows it.

But while Katiana may have many things against her, while she may lack resources and may not live in a healthy environment, she has support from the Foundation — and she has her determination and her capacity to dream big and work hard. I know it may not be easy for her to achieve what she wants, but I believe in her and I know she can achieve whatever she puts her mind to.

Katiana is determined and also very talented. On the day we went to shoot the gym footage, I asked her to be ready by 7:30 to film at a local gym close to her house. The owner, a nice and respectful man, saw all that she was capable of doing and was super impressed with her performance. When I asked him if he could mentor her and give her a few weeks of free membership for her to come and learn from him as well as do exercise, he said yes immediately. Katiana went for a few weeks — she even sends me videos she shoots of herself training!

Katiana, this is what I want you to know:

I am proud of you, I love you, I love your strength, your determination, your energy. I love that you are a leader, and my only hope is that every single dream of yours comes true.


Laura Peña


To learn more about the incredible work that the Mariposa Foundation is doing for girls in the Dominican Republic like Katiana, and to learn about opportunities to volunteer, please visit their website here:

Mariposa Foundation

And if you have ideas about how to help Katiana achieve her dreams, want to send her an encouraging message, or would like to connect her with someone who could help her out on her mission, send us a message here:

want to help? Contact us