International charity with a personal touch
Airline Ambassadors ask what is needed locally, deliver it themselves, and arrange for follow-up.
La Paz, Bolivia
Angelita Jura sits on the bed in her one-room home here, her head full of the things she wants to say to her visitors. She is tiny and weighs no more than 80 pounds. She is infirm, her hands and legs affected by disease, but an urgency lights her face: "I had a job before I got sick," she says through a translator. "I want to work again."Skip to next paragraph
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On this early November afternoon, Ms. Jura has many visitors. The nonprofit organization Airline Ambassadors International has sent a group of six Americans (including this writer) to deliver humanitarian aid to the poorest in Bolivia's capital.
Cut into the side of an Andean mountain valley at an altitude of 12,000 feet, La Paz is home to about 1 million people, most of them Aymara and Quechua Indians. Relatively few tourists, and even fewer resources, find their way here. Jura was identified as especially needy by local social workers, and the volunteers have traveled more than 4,000 miles to hear her story.
Bob Millonig, a Washington, D.C., patent attorney, sits next to her with his arm around her shoulders. A church volunteer tells the group that Jura can be treated medically, but not until she is better nourished. But because she cannot walk, she can no longer cook for herself. And because she has no family to help her, she eats only when people remember to bring her food. In the past, she says, she has gone four or five days without.
That's the breaking point for Mr. Millonig. "How much will it cost to buy meals from a restaurant every day and deliver them to Angelita?" he asks. "It's expensive," says the local volunteer, "around $1 to $2 a day."
By the end of the visit, Airline Ambassadors has agreed to donate enough money to feed Jura for three months, after which she will likely be strong enough to take treatment.
Founded by American Airlines flight attendant Nancy Rivard as a nonprofit in 1996, Airline Ambassadors International now works with thousands of volunteers to run missions in 45 countries.
"Many people want to help, but they don't know how," says Ms. Rivard by phone from her home in Moss Beach, Calif. Where many organizations rely on professional aid workers, Rivard's organization accepts anyone willing to help. "We give ordinary people the opportunity to personally touch the lives of others; to see their money delivered," she says.
The organization began as a network of airline employees using their pass privileges to bring aid to others. Rivard expanded the program to include nonairline personnel when she discovered that delivering aid enriches the lives of both recipient and giver: "If more people had the experiences I had, they would understand viscerally we are all one; they'd understand cultural differences."
Sending volunteers, rather than simply sending money, has a double advantage, says Dwight Burlingame, associate executive director of The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University in Indianapolis. "There's a social exchange in philanthropy, not just a monetary one," Dr. Burlingame explains. "[Sending volunteers] engages people in issues the recipients are facing. When you are engaged in a personal way, you know the issues much better, and are more apt to follow with financial support."
Volunteers pay their own way (airfare, hotel, and food), leaving valuable tourist dollars behind, and may donate cash aid during the course of their trip. They also bring expertise – patent law or dentistry, for example – that's beyond the scope of most airline employees.