Many local Rotary Clubs face the same dilemma. They want to get involved with an international project, but have a hard time finding the right one. That was the situation with the Elmbrook Rotary Club of District 6270 (Wisconsin) in 2010. Our president that year, an experienced professional in the world of nonprofit operations, asked the International Committee to find a project in another country that our members could become personally involved in.
The committee used that as the cornerstone of the search and added the RI expectations that the project be accountable as to how money was spent and programs operated. The third piece was that it had to be sustainable.
After intensive vetting of various organizations, four Rotarians traveled to Antigua, Guatemala in 2011. The group quickly learned that, as one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, Guatemala’s needs are great and resources are scarce.
Upon their return, the team recommended that we build an alliance with an NGO called Common Hope. CH is based in St. Paul, Minnesota and has been operating in the Antigua area for almost 30 years.
Briefly, Common Hope’s “business model” is based on the belief that the key to climbing out of poverty is education. The challenge is that very few children get past the sixth grade before being put to work in the fields or in domestic chores to help support the family. Even children as young as five years of age are seen as economic units and kept from school in order to help the family make ends meet.
To encourage parents to keep their children in school, CH provides the necessary school supplies and uniforms. In addition, affiliated and cooperating "Partner Schools" have the benefit of teacher’s aides being assigned to classrooms and other educational material (books, supplies) provided help all students.
Common Hope has learned that, with improved housing, health care, and social welfare aid, it is more likely that school attendance will be possible, and so the program focus is in those areas. Families of the affiliated students receive low-cost (in some cases no-cost) medical and dental care. There is a day-care center for working mothers and classes intended to enhance the quality of family life. Headquartered at a former coffee plantation and locally known as Familias de Esperanza (Families of Hope), the organization provides enrichment classes and other activities to help students reach the lofty goal of a high school education. Home visits are done regularly to make sure that problems are solved before they detract from the ability of children to attend school.
Families can earn a new home by putting in volunteer hours as “sweat equity” on Common Hope projects. The homes are two-room structures measuring 12-by-24 feet on concrete floors. They are very simple, but a huge step up from dwellings that often have corn-shuck or cardboard walls and leaky roofs.
A dedicated in-country staff, mostly Guatemalans, conducts the various programs at the headquarters site and satellite installations. The Partner School promoters are constantly at each of the seven schools in the program making sure best educational practices are being followed and that steady improvement is being made. This elevates the quality of the schools far beyond what characterizes unaffiliated schools.
Back in the U.S., the Common Hope staff provides the fund-raising, oversight and other activities that connect U.S. organizations and individuals with the Guatemalans being helped. Service clubs, churches and businesses are encouraged to send “Vision Teams” for a week of work and cultural immersion in Antigua. In 2012, our club sent its first Vision Team of a dozen people (including two from another club in our district). Each year since, the clubs have sent Vision Teams (actually two teams in 2016). One of our members was so impressed with the quality of the Common Hope program that she organizes Vision Teams from her church. Another visiting Rotarian became so enthusiastic that she has organized a Vision Team in her own club and is involving high school Interact members. Vision Team members step into a very well-organized template of service, making it easy for each team to be immediately productive and useful in advancing the positive impact on families served.
The week-long trips are organized all year, but Elmbrook Rotarians have traveled in February or early March. The high altitude with mild weather combine to create a welcome break from Wisconsin winters. Depending on the organization’s needs that week, the team may assemble wall panels for a home, work in affiliated schools, erect a new home or help with other activities needed to keep Familias de Esperanza operating. Everyone has the opportunity to accompany social workers to visit sponsored families.
As business and professional people, Rotarians often want to know “the numbers”. Here they are:
· As of late 2016, Common Hope is working with 11,000 children in 26 locations.
· By early 2017, the Elmbrook, Waukesha Sunrise, Mukwonago, and Port Washington-Saukville Rotary Clubs will have sent 53 individuals as part of Vision Teams. Some Rotarians have been multiple times, for a total of 87 people working on the project. Individuals in these clubs have personally contributed more than $135,000 to Common Hope programs.
· The cost of sending a Vision Team is $4,000 as a "fund raising" component. Each individual pays $800 for housing, meals, in-country transportation, and translation services, plus the cost of air fare to Guatemala.
· Since 2012, our club has sent $21,000 to Common Hope, supplemented by another $12,000 in District Grants and yet another $3,200 in private donations (much of the money has been used for textbooks and teaching materials).
· We are in discussions with the local Rotary Club in Antigua to work toward a Global Grant, which would be at least $30,000.
· As a measure of Common Hope’s accountability, it enjoys a Four Star rating from Charity Navigator, the watchdog organization that assesses the governance practices of charities. Only 3% of organizations receive that top rating.
We mentioned that some people have been to Antigua more than once. While it’s true that the climate is wonderful and Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s nice to avoid shoveling snow for a week, the real draw for us is the children. Simply put: they are beautiful. Moreover, they are so happy and grateful that someone in a faraway place cares about them.
Most of the 53 people (Rotarians, spouses, family members, and friends) who’ve been on our Vision Teams have come home with more than just the satisfaction of “Service Above Self”. Although there is never any pressure from Common Hope, many Vision Team members have become sponsors or co-sponsors of individual children. Sponsorship provides a student with all the materials needed for school, access to healthcare, social worker aid, and improved housing for those who earn it, thus ensuring that a sponsored child has all the elements in place to be successful in school.
During our Vision Team experience, we get to spend time with “our” kids in their homes. On those home visits, we can also thank the parents for the financial sacrifices they have made to keep their children in school rather than putting them to work. Then, throughout the year, we exchange letters with our sponsored children so we can encourage them to study hard and finish high school.
When the Elmbrook Rotary Club started looking for an international project, we never dreamed that this one would become such an integral part of what we do. Along with our other international projects and programs serving the local community, our Guatemala connection has helped the club grow to about 80 members. Many newer Rotarians comment that they were attracted to our club by the breadth of our service programs and the opportunities to become personally involved.