Dreaming Up a Ministry in the DR

by Sharyn Kopf - Cedarville, OH

We search for our dreams. Some know what they are from childhood, others discover them in high school or college, but for many, it’s a lifelong pursuit. For Sharla Megilligan ’97, the dream came gradually, beginning the summer after her freshman year at CU.

It all started when Sharla spent a week in the Dominican Republic (DR), helping with a children’s program for a conference at which her father, a pastor, was speaking. In those seven days, she fell in love with the country and its people — so much so, in fact, that she returned to the DR her senior year through the student teaching overseas program.

After graduating, Sharla eagerly took a position at the same school where she did her student teaching and spent four years instructing middle school science. It was during that first year that God began speaking to her heart. “I noticed kids shining shoes and washing windshields in the middle of the day,” she said, “instead of going to school.” Because of the shortage of teachers in the DR, students only attend school for a half-day, but even that is often too expensive for many local families. Attending school is free, but they still have to pay for their uniforms, books, and, of course, transportation if they don’t live within walking distance.

“[School is] just not a priority when you need to eat,” Sharla said. “That was when the Lord started putting this on my heart — doing something to help with the educational needs of the poor.”

Not being someone to hesitate after feeling God’s nudge on her spirit, she began doing research. She discovered that, although there were groups working with the kids, she could find no nonprofit organization dedicated solely to educational development.

Should she start her own nonprofit? Sharla desired to be involved in actual teaching, not the administrative side of running a nonprofit. “And I was 25 at the time,” she recalled. “Who is going to think they should send money to me and trust me to do something with it?”

Sharla’s efforts to find an established organization to join or branch off of were unsuccessful. And those who were open to the idea actually encouraged Sharla to start her own ministry because of the obvious need.

“I am always up to a challenge,” she said, “but I wanted to be careful it wasn’t just me, but from God.”

Though she wasn’t looking forward to the work involved, Sharla finally dedicated herself to establishing a nonprofit ministry. She spent a year in Texas, establishing her residency for a graduate program and working at a resident counseling facility for struggling teens. In the meantime, she conducted interviews to get a better grasp of what was needed, took nonprofit classes as electives, and started raising funds. As part of receiving 501(c)(3) status, Sharla asked three people who had lived and worked in the DR to be on the board. And she chose a name — Makarios, which means “blessed” in Greek.

Sharla said, “I was looking for a name that could be pronounced in Spanish and English as well as a word that meant something. God impressed on me how we’ve been blessed as Americans and need to use those blessings to bless others.”

Today, Sharla spends most of her time in Austin, Texas, running the organization, raising support, networking, and growing the ministry. The first 18 months were difficult, especially financially, but a family who believed in her work let her live with them rent-free.

Now, three years later, her one-person staff has grown to a staff of 10 — three in Austin and seven in the DR. They’ve bought land in the DR, which they use to teach farming as well as grow and sell food at more affordable costs. The ministry also started importing coffee from the DR to America, leading to the opening of a coffee shop in Austin called “Dominican Joe.” The coffee can also be purchased through the ministry’s Web site (www.dominicanjoe.com).

Sharla is grateful to Cedarville, which she credits for preparing her spiritually for the work she is doing. “It’s a big part of what I’m doing,” she said. “Cedarville taught me how to think globally.”

With that in mind, Sharla is passionate about teaching Americans about missions. She organizes about 20 work teams a year to serve in the DR through her ministry.

“I know the effect it can have,” she said. “I went for one week and it completely changed the course of my life. That’s why we’re deliberate about establishing an intern program and short-term missions. I know how God can use it to change people’s perspective on the world ... and their responsibility to do something.”