GURNEE – A Dominican now living in Gurnee, Luis Lopez has made it his mission to help at-risk youth in his native country.
Lopez and his wife, Jennifer, simply see their efforts as “the right thing to do.”
Others say they’ve gone above and beyond.
“Luis’ story is just remarkable, and what he’s done and the amount of time and resources he’s spent supporting this cause is just an inspiration,” said Tom Dominguez, a spokesman for ComEd.
When he’s not traveling on mission trips to the Dominican Republic, as he’s done for the past 13 years, Lopez works as a construction supervisor for ComEd.
Through its foundation, ComEd parent company Exelon recently recognized Lopez at its annual Employee Volunteer Awards. Lopez earned a donation of $5,000 for Pastors International.
Lopez and his ministry, Their Tree Ministries, joined forces with Pastors International to identify youth in the Dominican Republic impacted by homelessness, experiencing extreme poverty, aging out of an orphanage or lacking legal documentation.
Lopez works with a team of Their Tree pastors, all rescued themselves, to disciple and help the teens. The name “Their Tree” symbolizes efforts to provide all the teens need.
“A tree is where we go for rescue, for food. The tree produces everything for us,” Lopez said. “That’s where we came up with that.”
The teens are taught life skills and given job assistance, education and training, he said. Many living in orphanages don’t have birth certificates.
“At the age of 18, they throw you out in the street because they consider you an adult,” he said. “Females and males in the streets with no birth certificates, no job skills and no education. It leads them to sex trafficking and prostitution, which is legal there.”
Others are forced to work in agriculture, domestic work, street vending or begging.
Lopez and his team work to stop this. Obtaining birth certificates – a process than can cost more than $1,000 a case in legal fees and last a couple of years – allows the teens to receive education and IDs, including high school diplomas, Lopez said.
Without birth certificates, they’re not allowed to go beyond the seventh grade, get a job, be legally married or open bank accounts.
Lopez works with those ages 14 to 28. They’re not only housed, fed and “given opportunities to dream again,” they’re ministered through daily discipleship and taught how to reach back and help others like them.
Pastors International helps oversee the paperwork side of things, Lopez said, while, “I talk to them about my Lord and Savior.”
“I’ve been blessed. My family has been blessed,” said Lopez, who spent 26 years on activity duty in the U.S. Army before obtaining the ComEd job. “My Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, he put it in our hearts that it’s time to give back and share with others what we’re blessed to have in the United States.”
Born in the Dominican Republic, Lopez lived there until he was 8. His father came to the U.S. “to get a better life for us.”
While Lopez was deployed in Afghanistan, his wife, Jennifer, went to the Dominican Republic to volunteer at an orphanage. Her experience served as a wake-up call for both of them about the troubles faced by teens there.
The couple began to volunteer on their own, using vacation days to help out in orphanages before forming Their Tree Ministries in 2016. Last year, ComEd allowed Luis Lopez to take a six-month leave so he could go on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic.
“It was amazing how much connection I was able to build in those six months,” he said.
He hopes to return again once the pandemic subsides, but continues to regularly work with his Their Tree Ministries team.
“We keep in touch nonstop,” Lopez said. “Every day we speak to them and they give us an update with the process.”
The group houses teens in one home and is working to open a second home, Lopez said.
The recent $5,000 donation will have a big effect on those efforts, he said.
“I was very surprised,” he said of the recognition. “We’ve been doing this by ourselves. We never thought this even was possible. It enables us to show people, the volunteers, that they’re supported.”