This mom’s work life strives to mentor youth and teach them to be philanthropists. So, you can only imagine how she brings up her own children! Manuela Testolini launched the In A Perfect World Foundation to help at risk kids in high-needs communities. Now, the foundation supports dozens of initiatives locally and around the world to bring schooling and support to thousands of youth. We’re excited to dive in to Manuela’s home & work life and see how the working mom does it – aren’t you? Here, she chats about how it all started and how she’s raising her two daughters to give back to their community.
1. First things first, how did the idea for In a Perfect World Foundation come about?
I was on track to be an attorney and soon decided it wasn’t for me. So, I took time off, volunteered in a homeless shelter, and immediately knew that this was the type of work I wanted to do. I wanted to work hands on with high-need communities. I found myself doing consulting for different foundations, connecting them with partner facilities that needed their support. That experience led me to create In a Perfect World, so that I could design and implement the exact programs where I saw the greatest need.
Now my work is rooted in efforts to shape and cultivate youth empowerment both in the U.S. and globally. Through an impact-driven, solutions-oriented approach, In A Perfect World focuses on improving education, providing mentoring, and offering service learning to at-risk youth. Our programs and initiatives have built more than 25 schools around the world to help more than 5,000 students. We mentor young people in places like Los Angeles and Washington, DC and teach them how to become philanthropists. We also support mentoring programs that bring the healing powers of artistic expression to the homeless and runaway youth in the U.S. Additionally, we provide grants to under-resourced school classrooms, and more!
2. Have you always had a passion for empowering youth? Where did you get your start in philanthropy?
My journey through the philanthropy world naturally drew me to working with youth. Through my time consulting with various foundations, I found the most rewarding efforts resided in the youth empowerment space. I started working with young people in disadvantaged circumstances, some were homeless or living in transitional housing, others were in foster homes. I would ask them what their vision of a perfect world looked like. And in their responses, I could often find an opportunity for this young person to take some initiative and change their circumstances to a certain degree. They just needed to be given the tools and resources to do so.
3. It’s incredible to see all the foundation has been able to provide around the world. Is there a particular project you’re currently working on that you want to drive awareness to?
I’m so proud of all of the projects In A Perfect World is working on, it’s hard to choose just one to highlight! But I would love to drive attention to our amazing Youth Ambassador program. The Ambassador program is designed to inspire our young people to become compassionate, socially conscious and responsible leaders. Teens 14-18 in Los Angeles and DC are making their mark by coordinating projects that run the gamut of backpack drives, beach cleanups, food drives, care kits for homeless teens, community clean ups, and book drives. Our last group of ambassadors graduated and we are actively recruiting for the next class of Ambassadors.
4. Tell us a little bit about your beautiful family!
I met my husband Eric at a charity event, so I guess you could say it was fate for our family to be so immersed in philanthropy. Eric has really been one of the greatest supporters of In a Perfect World, whether it’s been hosting an event with me here in LA or traveling to Haiti to help build a school. Together we have two beautiful daughters Lucia, who is 5, and Luna who is almost 3. While Luna is still a bit young, Lucia actually serves as a Junior Youth Ambassador with In a Perfect World, and contributes to a variety of activations with us alongside the Youth Ambassador Program. My family is my bedrock and everyday I’m so grateful that our In a Perfect World work truly is a family affair.
5. As a mom, how do you instill the same globally conscious view in your daughters?
Even though they are still so young, I really do encourage my daughters to be critical thinkers and to consider the world around them. Lucia recently had her 5th birthday, and as it was approaching she started to ask about what her party would be like. I decided to share with her that some children aren’t so fortunate to have birthday parties of their own, and that really struck a cord with Lucia. Lucia, as I mentioned, is also a Junior Youth Ambassador with In a Perfect World, so it is in her heart to create impact where she can. Lucia took it upon herself to donate her birthday, asking friends and family to contribute to a fundraising campaign so that kids just like her, who happen to live in shelters, could have birthday parties too. She managed to raise over $4000!
6. Your home is full of marks of your travels. Do you have a particular piece that is especially meaningful?
I try to bring something home from every trip that represents the traditional arts of the culture of the country. I have so many meaningful pieces, though my favorite at the moment is a carved wooden statue that I brought home from Malawi. It was my last day in the country and I was walking through an artisan market and found this beautiful statue of a traditional Malawian woman. I gave away other pieces I bought so that I could fit her in my suitcase!
7. How do you balance being a mom, activist, and business owner?
Working full-time and being a hands-on mom is certainly a challenge, but so rewarding! It means having to juggle pre-school drop offs, trips to the park and story time with business meetings, answering emails and visiting partner programs. The key is to take it day by day. I know when I will be with my kids and in mom-mode, but then I also schedule my time to focus on business and dedicate my attention to work. Each day is always a bit chaotic, but I’d like to think of it as organized chaos!
8. We’re sure anyone reading this is inspired to make a difference of their own. If you could leave them with one piece of encouragement, what would it be?
It’s important to remember that anyone can make a difference. I would encourage anyone reading this to think about what drives you, what are your passions that call you to do more? Take a look at what organizations are out there giving back that excite you. There are so many ways to give back, whether by lending your time and talents, donating to a cause that inspires you, or simply spreading the word. Every act of service makes a difference.