Friday, February 5, 2010

The Beginning (at least for me)

So which one was it? you may ask. Which nonprofit finally made a difference for you, made you realize that there was a deep desire within you to help others?

It is not who you think it is.

My first experience which truly turned me on to fundraising was a field visit I made with a then-client of mine, Children International.

At this point in my career I had already been working exclusively with nonprofits for some time. But up until then, they were just marketing plans, profit/loss projections, forecasted performance, numbers on a page.

In 2002, I had the privilege of going to Honduras to see first-hand some of the work that Children International did, where the dollars that we were working so hard to raise were being spent. It was my first travel out of the country since a one-week trip to Europe in college, and I was excited and nervous at the same time. We were warned about malaria, about kidnappers, about the importance of safety and long slacks to keep the bugs (and the men) off your skin. My Spanish was (and unfortunately still is) nothing more than thank you's, please's, and an understanding of words here and there without the ability to respond.

I remember while traveling on various planes to our destination that someone from Children International who accompanied us said that poor people in the US did not know what it was to be poor.

"What a heartless statement," I thought to myself, "How can you say that?"

And then I met poor people.

People for whom there was no societal safety net, no welfare or public housing to be had, no food stamps to ration out. They made shelters of cardboard and garbage bags in the ditches of the roads. When it rained too hard their houses washed away. They simply watched them go, gathering up the important belongings like the pots and pans and the next day would find new rubbish to make a home from and start over.

These same homes had roofs made of the same cardboard or garbage bags, or, if they were lucky, they found a sheet of tin to put across the top of it. And while the tin was better at keeping the moisture out, the heat within these shelters during the day was unbearable.

I saw square miles of open land that had been claimed by squatters, people who built makeshift homes nearly on top of each other. The land was owned by someone else, someone who tolerated their presence but who had the right to clear away the houses and plant whatever crop he wanted, with no warning and no requirement to find new homes for those he displaced.

Our group broke into two smaller groups and were escorted by those who worked at the local CI affiliate, where we were ushered into the homes of various families and told of their plight. I remember during one of these visits a little girl who couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 cried the entire time, but was too prideful to be caught crying. She kept rubbing her eyes as if she had sand in them, and would look around the room at us white-faced visitors with a defiant face. A few within our group did speak Spanish, and the girl singled out a Spanish-speaking woman in our group and begged to come back with us, and told her that she would make her a wonderful daughter.

And despite their desperate poverty, the kinds of traumatic events that happen to us who have better tools to deal with such occurrences happen there too. We heard one woman speak of her husband who had died of cancer and the terrible pain he had been in in his last days, but there was no money for painkillers. In the meantime, their children were getting sick from the cesspool that was literally out their front step. When it rained all the garbage and raw sewage from the other families ran down to a low spot in front of their home, creating this cesspool.

Just imagine taking away everything you currently have, EVERYTHING, and you have no means of earning them back. I think I've painted the picture. I could go on for about 5 more posts.

Then we saw the communities that Children International was creating for these people. They would negotiate purchasing the land from the landowner so that the people living there did not have any fear of being forced out. They would put in sewer lines that connected all the homes, and a water tank on a nearby hill for fresh, drinkable water. And while a cement block home that's 12 feet by 12 feet doesn't sound like much to us who are accustomed to so much more, it was paradise to these people, because there was a BATHROOM  inside the house, and there was RUNNING WATER!

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch came through Honduras and devastated much of the country in the same way that other natural disasters have been more destructive to the poor than to the rich. Within 3 months, Children International had mostly finished construction on a community called "El Milagro" -- The Miracle. While Unicef, CARE and others were still figuring out what to do with the millions they had raised to bring relief to the area, CI had already mobilized their local affiliates, made the necessary negotiations and began construction.

Cost to sponsor a child through Children International at the time of my tour was $18 a month.

It truly was a miracle to see what those $18 could do. They were and still are the least expensive of all the child sponsorship organizations, and I believe that because of the dedication of the people they have on the ground in all the countries they operate, they make those 18 dollars do the work of 50.

I returned from the trip a changed woman.

I walked into my home after the trip, physically exhausted and emotionally drained, but my spirit had been filled anew. I thanked my higher power every time I turned on the water. I marveled at being able to turn on a light switch. I was grateful for my vehicle which allowed me transportation to get to a job.

And the marketings plans that I continued to work on for Children International were no longer filled with numbers. They were filled with faces, with images of children and families whose lives I could affect, I could change, just by convincing one more person that s/he could afford $18 a month.

That was the beginning for me.

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