The epiphany came mid-air.
In June 2012, Tina Cornely was on a flight home from Mali in West Africa, where she’d brought baby formula and toys to an orphanage in the capital. The Coconut Grove resident spent a week each year volunteering at orphanages in the Caribbean and Latin America, but this visit pierced her. In the aftermath of a coup d’état, she’d seen newborns left in hospitals, in tomato crates and on roadsides.
“Nothing would’ve prepared me for what I saw. When you see these kids, they melt your heart and they have nothing,” she recalled. “I said you know what, this is my calling.”
At 52, Cornely decided to leave her career in technology and museum administration and start a non-profit to help orphans and others living in poverty.
By the time she landed, Bridging Humanity was born.
More than a year later, the organization seems an extension of Cornely herself — a cross between eco-friendliness, DIY tinkering and humanitarianism.
Her goal is to show orphans and destitute people around the world how to improve their lives by turning everyday materials into art or useful items. She has taught orphans how to weave network cable, fix tents with ironed garbage bags and forge batteries out of charcoal and lye. Eventually, she hopes to spread her tips to nonprofit organizations across the globe.
In mid-October, Cornely had just returned home after a month and a half in Nepal. In the modest apartment that doubles as the non-profit’s headquarters, evidence of her love of art and recycling were everywhere: a broken vase veneered with Hershey’s wrappers, cups made of dried avocado rinds, a giant rock wedged to make her toilet low-flow.
“I’m like the queen of repurposing,” she said.
Cornely has wispy gray hair, lively eyes and an air of practiced, unyielding optimism. She lost so much weight in Nepal that by the end she needed a pin to keep her pants up.
Malnutrition was one of the main concerns Cornely addressed at Pema Ts’al Sakya Monastic Institute in Pokhara, where she volunteered for more than a month. The monastery educates young monks, mostly orphans or children of poor families from Tibet or Nepal’s impoverished Mustang region. A diet consisting largely of rice and watered-down lentils was leaving children susceptible to scalp fungus and other illnesses.
“If you have a deficient diet, it’s going to impact their ability to learn, and these are kids who are spending all day learning, so it’s almost like torture,” Cornely said.
She showed the young monks how to use leftovers for compost and grow cauliflower, spinach, broccoli, carrots and other vegetables. Monkeys and monsoon rains had foiled an earlier attempt at a garden, so Cornely taught them how to do container gardening in garbage bags that could be folded closed.
With support from one of her sponsors, the art collector Ingvild “Jeanny” Goetz, Cornely was also able to permanently hire a full-time chef trained as a nutritionist.
Cornely taught the monks how to crochet belts and bags using disposable chopsticks and “plarn,” yarn made out of plastic bags. She also showed them how to repair broken clay pots and collage them with fabric left over from ceremonial costumes. They plan to sell the wares in the monastery’s gift shop.
Cornely spent most of her time teaching science, English, art and other subjects. She taught five classes a day, six days a week. The monks spoke English, but she spent her scant free time learning Nepali and Tibetan.
“I feel that I was able to make some significant contribution to make their lives easier and better. It cemented that I’m on the right track, and I just want to keep moving forward,” Cornely said.
Besides her time at the monastery, Cornely led workshops for women in several villages. She trained them to make family planning necklaces, multi-colored strings of beads that help women track their menstrual cycles and the likelihood of getting pregnant.
“This is a way for these ladies to get control of their life by being able to have something as simple as this, something they can make, something that’s attractive,” she said.
Like most of the non-profit’s ventures so far, this trip was backed by goodwill and ingenuity rather than grants. Friends and local businesses chipped in more than $1,000 in donations, including school gear, art supplies and clothing, which Cornely distributed at the monastery and the Kevin Rohan Memorial Eco Foundation.
Cornely herself doesn’t draw a salary and covers administrative costs out of pocket — she says she wants all her funding to go to those in need. The non-profit has no paid staff, though her 20-year-old daughter and friends volunteer. Cornely is applying for grants, but in the meantime supports herself by selling crafts and doing billing for her brother’s business.
Despite the non-profit’s small scale, Cornely has vast ambitions.
“My goal is to reach every single person that is destitute,” she said. “I can do a lot.”
Her main method to spread the word: YouTube videos. Cornely avidly posts scenes from her visits to orphanages, some of which can evoke tears from miles away. One of her videos from the Mali trip screened at the De La Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space during Art Basel.
She also makes tutorials on everything from purifying water with cornhusks to using a car dashboard as a solar cooker. She hopes her videos will catch the eyes of NGOs and international development organizations. (In the meantime, she’s developed a following among doomsday preppers.)
Cornely has always believed in the power of creativity and technology. Living in Miami in her 20s, she learned to program computers when they were just reaching the market. She taught at the University of Miami for 16 years before becoming director of technology at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. In 2003, she moved back to Miami and eventually became director of operations at the Miami Art Museum.
Cornely’s commitment to helping orphans began when she moved in with her father at age 10 after her mother lost custody of her because of alcoholism. Her father moved the family from Jacksonville to Honduras and opened a car dealership.
“I know what it’s like not to have a connection with your mother growing up,” she said, her eyes tearing up.
When Cornely saw children living and begging on the streets, she’d often bring them food or clothes, take them to orphanages or even bring them home with her.
As she got older, she spent a week of her vacation each year volunteering with orphans in Mexico, El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala and other countries.
Closer to home, she chaired the local chapter of Friends of the Orphans. Although Cornely still gets offers for more stable and lucrative museum jobs, she said she’s never been happier than in her new role. She plans to return to Nepal in March to volunteer with a group that helps victims of sex trafficking. After that, she’s off to Cambodia, Myanmar and back to Mali.
“I wish I could take all the kids in the world,” she said.
If her apartment could fit them, she probably would.