Actress Meryl Streep once said that “motherhood has a very humanizing effect. It gets reduced to the essentials.” And Catalina Escobar Restrepo—the award-winning businesswoman and entrepreneur with the soul of a social activist—literally brought this concept to life in 2001 when she conceived the Juan Felipe Gómez Foundation, an organization with the sole mission to support adolescent mothers through their arduous journey.

The last thing she imagined then was that a decade later her work would land her as one of ten from among 45,000 CNN Hero candidates—and ultimately as the only Latina candidate in the group.

Escobar had been volunteering in the maternity department of a hospital in Cartagena, Colombia when a 12-year-old boy took his last breaths of life right in her arms. It was a catalytic moment that suddenly and forcefully opened her eyes. When she took a good look around, she encountered an over-crowded and undermanaged hospital, terrified patients (many of them young pregnant girls)—the whole scene underscored by misery and squalor. She couldn’t bear it.

As she explains it today—after 11 years of hard work on the foundation, which has to date saved the lives of 3,000 children, taken 2,000 adolescents out of poverty and affected more than 25,000 families—Cartagena is a paradox. It is a city that most of us know for its tourism, Old World romance and charm, with colorful sweeping terraces and excellent music. But what many people don’t see is the radical social disparity that exists there, and the harsh reality that so many of its locals must endure every day.

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One of the first things that deeply struck Ms. Escobar was the city’s shockingly high infant mortality rate, which she learned was the highest in the country by a long shot. When she began assessing the reality of this statistic at the public hospital where half the city’s population is (and has always been) born, she was shocked to see that on average, at least two babies were indeed dying on a daily basis. She also learned that 30% of the births in Cartagena were from teen moms between the ages of 12 and 18. “It was great that we were starting to deal with the infant mortality rate, because these babies were going to die and we needed to find solutions; but in doing so we quickly realized we had a bigger problem—and that we would need to come up with a preventative plan for the mothers.” And with this crucial need at the forefront, the Juan Feline Gómez Foundation was born.

“We became an organization that works with teen mothers between the ages of 12 and 18, 70% of whom come to us between the ages of 14 and 16—all of them completely poor and vulnerable and many of them having suffered sexual abuse at the hands of family, relatives and friends.”

The Foundation work with the girls on a 3-4 year program that treats them on four levels:

Empowerment: This is the key that allows them to take the first step towards personal growth and progress.
Personal Achievement: This is done by providing the girls with tools such as education and job training.
Psychosocial: This is critical because in many cases, the girls are coming from extreme trauma.
Spiritual: This is the glue that keeps the whole thing together, a framework of safety and strength to which the girls can always defer.

“My whole message is that poverty is something that we have to take very seriously—it is a very real world problem,” says Escobar. Her goal is to affect public policy and replicate the Cartagena model elsewhere in the world where such issues persist. She is currently rolling out centers in Medellin and Bolivar, and obtaining non-for-profit status and a base in New York City.

“Personally, I feel so satisfied. To me, what began as a profoundly sad story eventually transformed into a love story.”