MPI Nicaragua Country Director Receives Gillings Merit Scholarship

MPI Nicaragua Country Director Christina Palazzo has received the prestigious Gillings Merit Scholarship from the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. The Gillings Scholarship is awarded to select graduate students who show exceptional promise and potential.

The Gillings Merit Scholarship will allow me to gain up-to-date knowledge I can put into practice immediately in my work in Nicaragua.
— Christina Palazzo

Christina is currently pursuing a distance-based Masters in Public Health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, the top public school of public health (US News & World Report, 2016). Christina is part of the Public Health Leadership Program, which prepares leaders with skills to assess community health needs and develop new policies and programs to address those needs.

Christina’s research focuses on mosquito-borne illnesses and community-based preventative initiatives in under-resourced countries in Latin America, as well as the socio-economic factors that contribute to mosquito-borne diseases. Her research is particularly relevant due to the maternal and pediatric health effects of the current Zika outbreak. “I am passionate about finding community-based solutions for health issues affecting vulnerable populations in Latin America,” Christina said. “The Gillings Merit Scholarship will allow me to gain up-to-date knowledge I can put into practice immediately in my work in Nicaragua.”

Christina Palazzo, MPI Nicaragua Country Director

Christina Palazzo, MPI Nicaragua Country Director

This research is highly relevant for MPI’s work in Nicaragua, where mosquito-borne illnesses including Dengue fever, Chikungunya virus, and Zika virus impact tens of thousands of people each year. 

Although these illnesses impact individuals from all socioeconomic backgrounds, the burden tends to be highest among poorer communities with limited access to clean water, solid waste infrastructure, and where conditions are most favorable for mosquito breeding. Due to these factors, the communities MPI serves in Nicaragua are at particularly high risk for mosquito-borne illnesses. Christina's research will help us to better equip clinic staff and further educate community members about ways they can protect themselves. Christina will graduate in December 2017.

You can read the Gilling School's announcement here.

Congratulations, Christina!

We are so grateful for your dedication to the health of at-risk communities!

The prevalence of Zika virus has led to a sharp increase in patient numbers at MPI's clinics in Nicaragua. Your donation has an immediate impact for communities in need of health care. Please donate today!

Meet MPI's New Executive Director

An Interview with Sam Church

After an exhaustive search for the next Executive Director of Manna Project International, the hiring committee reached the unanimous decision to offer the position to Samantha Church. We are pleased to introduce you to Sam. She brings a wealth of knowledge, experience and vision to lead this community into our next phase of growth. We are thrilled to have her on board! Who is Sam Church? Get to know her in the exclusive interview!



Sam, we’re so glad you have joined the team! Many in our community have anxiously awaited the announcement of our new Executive Director. Will you tell our community how the story of Manna Project intersects with your life?

Yes! First, I’d like to thank the Manna Project community for your warm welcome. I have a passion for international development and nonprofit program excellence and am excited to step into the role of Executive Director.

Sam with her students in the Philippines

I was drawn to Manna Project because of the organization’s emphasis on capacity building, training and building relationships, so that community change happens from within. My first cross-cultural experience was studying as an undergraduate student in South Africa, and my time there ignited a passion for collaborative community development. It showed me how immersing yourself in an entirely new culture can have a profound impact on your life and future.

After South Africa, I went on to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines, where I learned the importance of establishing strong relationships with community members. Creating programs by building upon the strengths of the local community solidified my desire to work at the grassroots level of development.

Where did you go from there? How did it prepare you to lead the Manna Project community?

After more than two years in the Philippines, I worked with the Peace Corps as a Strategic Recruiter at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Since that time, I have gained extensive managerial and nonprofit program development experience. Like Manna Project’s volunteers and staff, I have seen firsthand and believe that working with community groups leads to sustainable change.

It’s incredible to see how much Manna Project has grown and I’m thrilled to collaborate with our stakeholders to launch the organization into our next phase.
— Sam Church

As the HIV Planning Manager at Suncoast Health Council, I worked with a group of community leaders to disseminate $10.5 million in funding to HIV care service partners in Central Florida. In my role as Executive Director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Hawaii, I learned a variety of nonprofit leadership skills including strategic planning, grant writing, fiscal accountability, and evidenced-based programming. I’m excited to partner with Manna Project’s stakeholders to develop strategic long-term goals for the organization.

What excites you about MPI’s mission?

Since joining Manna Project, I’ve spoken with some of our alumni. Though this is a diverse group of people spread out around the world, they all have one thing in common: working with a developing community abroad completely changed their lives and worldview. My time abroad has done the same for me. International service helps develop empathy and grit and has the power to transform young people into leaders with the skills and understanding to bring about social change.

How has international service shaped your career?

International service taught me how to be creative, humble, adaptable, and collaborative. It taught me to step outside my comfort zone and experience life to its fullest. It has proven that real-world experiences are just as important as academic achievements.

What do you do when you are not working?

I love the ocean. I always seem to surround myself with beautiful beaches having lived in Florida, Hawaii, and the Philippines. I try and travel as much as I can. My most recent trip was to Costa Rica for my honeymoon! I enjoy spending time with my two rescue dogs...they are very spoiled. I also teach a weekly art class at the YMCA.

What are your top priorities during the leadership transition?

I am quickly learning that Manna Project has the best team. The staff, Board, alumni, donors, and volunteers are incredible. Getting to know our team is one of my top priorities in the coming months. I love hearing alumni stories as well as stories from our sites about our impact in the community. I can’t wait to travel to both Ecuador and Nicaragua to gain a deeper understanding of our organizational impact. I’m also partnering with our outgoing Executive Director, Lori Scharffenberg, to learn the day-to-day operations of the organization. Lori has devoted years to building Manna Project into what it is today and has been a tremendous asset to the organization.

What do you believe are Manna Project’s strengths?

I think Manna Project’s greatest strength is its mission to foster communities of talented young leaders to become the next generation of social change agents. I also believe we have an amazing staff who work tirelessly to fulfill our mission. The Manna staff deserve a lot of praise!

Given these strengths, what are the top three opportunities you see for Manna Project in the coming year?



Boost our recruitment efforts
so we can continue to grow
our top-notch, short-term
and long-term
volunteer teams.



Continue to build
strong relationships
with community partners
as well as potential corporate partners.



To Increase the organization's fiscal resources, helping us improve existing programs as well as provide greater support for our staff and volunteers.

Is there a quote that inspires you?

“Be somebody who makes everybody feel like a somebody.” - Kid President

Thank you, Sam, for Joining the Manna project family!

Highlights from Sam's Résumé

Professional accomplishments

  • Epilepsy Foundation of Hawaii Designed and managed educational programs and support services, increased annual revenue as Executive Director

  • Suncoast Health Council Disseminated $10.5 million in funding to HIV care service partners in Central Florida as HIV Planning Manager

  • Hawaii and Pacific Islands Campus Compact (HIPICC) Facilitated strategic planning to develop mission, vision, values and organizational goals  

  • Peace Corps Led life skills and therapeutic intervention programs in Baguio City, Philippines for 27 months; continued as Strategic Recruiter in Hawaii

  • West Central Florida Ryan White Care Council Recruited, trained, supervised, and evaluated 40+ members

  • University of Hawaii at Manoa Guest lecturer; planned and implemented college preparation program for youth from educationally/economically underrepresented backgrounds

Academic Accomplishments

  • Master of Social Work, University of Hawaii at Manoa

  • Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management, University of Hawaii at Manoa

  • Certificate in Volunteer Management, Nonprofit Leadership Center

  • Leadership Development Certificate, United Way

  • Bachelor of Social Work, Florida State University

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in progress, Florida Board of Clinical Social Work, Marriage and Family Therapy and Mental Health Counseling

Will you help us welcome Sam? She would love to hear from you!

MPI Board Announces New Executive Director

Dear MPI Partners,

I am excited and pleased to introduce you to Samantha Church, the new Executive Director of Manna Project International!

Samantha's impressive background includes leadership positions with notable organizations including the Peace Corps, the Epilepsy Foundation of Hawaii, Suncoast Health Council, Hawaii and Pacific Islands Campus Compact (HIPICC), and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She has a Master’s Degree in Social Work and certificates in Leadership Development, Nonprofit Management and Volunteer Management. 

Samantha is extremely passionate about international development and has a proven track record of successfully implementing organizational vision, values and goals. We hope you will join us in wholeheartedly welcoming her to the team.

The Board conducted a vigorous and thorough selection process that vetted many, very well-qualified applicants for this position. The selection committee was unanimous in its decision to extend an offer to Samantha based on her results-driven experience, strong leadership skills, and a strong fit with Manna Project's unique culture.

I would be remiss not to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of Lori Scharffenberg, our current Executive Director and one of Manna Project’s founders. Lori is the reason this organization is in a strong place today, ready and able to navigate this significant transition. The solid foundation established by Lori ensures the Board’s confidence through this leadership transition. With your continued partnership, we expect that Samantha will take the organization to great places.

Thank you for your continued support of Manna Project through the years. It is because of you that we are able to provide incredible, life-changing opportunities to young leaders and community members at our international sites. 

As one of our core partners, we hope you will join us in welcoming Samantha to our community. Will you take a moment to let her know how Manna Project has impacted your life? You can reach her at

With gratitude,
Jocelyn Lancaster
MPI Chairman of the Board
Program Director, 2008-2009 (Ecuador)