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Change Agent

Charitable works, NGOs, nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and ordinary people with great ideas on how to make a positive change in their communities and around the globe.

An NGO called Zardozi is helping Afghan women to start their own businesses, even if they are tiny ones, using a skill most of them already know: sewing. (Lalage Snow/Oxfam 2012)

Zardozi helps Afghan women stitch together their own businesses

By Paige McClanahanCorrespondent / 03.06.13

Kamila Haidary is just 24 years old, but she has already given birth to seven children, only four of whom are alive today.

Money is tight for her family, who live in this poor, dusty neighborhood on the outskirts of Kabul. So she has started a business – just a small one – to help supplement her husband’s income.

That’s a story that you don’t hear very often in Afghanistan. In this country, women, especially women in poverty, usually have no options beyond marriage and motherhood. But a nongovernmental organization called Zardozi is trying to change that, at least for the roughly 1,000 women that the project is able to reach. The idea is to help the women start their own businesses, even if tiny ones, by using a skill that most of them already know: sewing.

“One of my friends heard about Zardozi, and she told me about it. Now I’m earning good money,” says Ms. Haidary as she sits cross-legged on the floor of Zardozi’s regional office, where a small crowd of women are gathered to sew and chat on a recent weekday morning. “I used to just do sewing work on my own, but since I joined Zardozi I have so many orders that I can afford to hire homeworkers to help me.”

Working in Kabul and three other Afghan cities – Mazar, Jalalabad, and Herat – Zardozi offers women training on topics such as design, quality assurance, pricing, leadership skills, and business planning.

The organization – which is funded by the Dutch nonprofit group Oxfam Novib and the governments of Britain and Sweden – then connects the women with shopkeepers who buy their shirts, pants, pillowcases, and the like. Sometimes the organization offers the women small loans, as little as $100, to help them expand their fledgling businesses. In return, the women pay a membership fee of just $1 per month.

It may seem like a fairly straightforward business model, but the women who join the project tend to need a lot of support on even the simplest tasks.

“These women are like prisoners who have just gotten out of jail,” says Kerry Jane Wilson, the director of Zardozi, adding that most of the women are illiterate and have trouble doing very basic things like talking to shopkeepers or finding their way around their own city. “They don’t even know where they live,” she says.

That is why the training is so critical. The Zardozi staff teach the women how to build their businesses and access local markets on their own.

You can already see a difference in the women’s attitudes and abilities, says Storai Ahmadi, a Zardozi employee. The changes are especially evident among those women who have taken on positions within Zardozi’s executive committee, a small leadership group that represents the rest of the members.

“You can see a big change in their attitudes and their behavior – the way they talk, the way they interact with each other,” Ms. Ahmadi says. “You can see a big change in their levels of confidence from before.”

But for most of the women, the chance to earn a little extra income seems to be the main appeal of the project.

Haidary says that she now makes about $30 per month on her sewing work, more than she has ever earned before. That is no small feat in a country where more than one-third of the population lives in absolute poverty, and where unemployment hovers around 35 percent.

Haidary hopes to keep up her work with Zardozi, a goal that she says her husband supports.

“I want to keep attending the trainings to get more skills,” Haidary says, her soft words rising above the jumble of women’s voices behind her. “I hope to hire more workers and make my business bigger.”

Chuck Slaughter poses with some of the Living Goods team of sales representatives. The nonprofit group uses an Avon-like door-to-door sales model to deliver low-cost, high-impact drugs and much-needed basic household goods to families in Uganda and Kenya. (Courtesy of Living Goods)

Ding-dong! Living Goods calling with life-changing products

By Staff writer / 03.05.13

Before founding Living Goods, Chuck Slaughter did his homework. That included spending time as an Avon lady.

The nonprofit organization Living Goods uses an Avon-like door-to-door model to deliver low-cost, high-impact drugs and much-needed basic household goods to families in Uganda and Kenya. Last year 975 of these traveling micro-entrepreneurs treated more 200,000 children for deadly diseases, provided products and support for 28,000 pregnant women, and sold more than 17,000 clean-burning cook stoves.

The mission of Living Goods, to deliver "life-changing products to the doorsteps of the poor," also means providing anti-malaria treatments, fortified foods, and even solar lamps, reading glasses, soaps, and sanitary pads that can dramatically improve the health and well-being of families who live on a few hundred dollars per year.

At the same time, Living Goods views its clients not as helpless victims but as resilient entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers.  

Mr. Slaughter comes from a background in business and entrepreneurship, having founded and run TravelSmith, the travel clothing and accessories company. He sold it in 2004 and began to look for a new challenge.

He didn't have long to wait. The problem of helping underserved people in Africa soon caught his attention. His "ah ha" moment came when he realized many Africans had trouble getting from remote villages to a store. They needed the store to come to them.

His idea: "Let's get [sales] people out of their chairs, out of their stores, out into the community, knocking on doors, going to schools, churches, so forth," he says.

That's when Avon's long-running, highly successful model came to mind. Much of Africa today, he realized, bears resemblance to late 19th-century America, when Avon was founded. In rural America 120 years ago the "poor had little access to [high-]quality products," he says. It was also a time and place "where women wanted a source of cash income, but they couldn't go down to WalMart. And there were strong social connections."

Slaughter decided to become an Avon lady himself for a time to learn the model. "That was the beginning of my research," he says. "We shamelessly borrowed from Avon."

Today Living Goods representatives, usually local women, earn important income for their families while providing useful products and health information to other African women. Its approach has proved so promising that this year Slaughter and Living Goods were named as one of 24 global social entrepreneurs of the year by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship in Geneva, Switzerland.

While the Avon model may be more than a century old, a relatively new piece of technology – the mobile phone – is putting a new twist on Living Goods' door-to-door sales. Just a few years ago only about 35 percent of the people in Uganda had mobile phones; today it's about 80 percent. And per-minute calling charges have dropped drastically too.

Customers can call their Living Goods representative and make orders for delivery to their door; just as important, Living Goods can text its customers with news about its products and how to use them properly.

Living Goods representatives receive two and a half weeks of training, along with regular refresher courses. Each is issued a "Business in a Bag" that includes a uniform, T-shirt, hat, and apron, all with the Living Goods logo. They also receive a display case to put in their homes to create a home store, and a Living Goods sign to put on their door. Each representative wears a badge with her phone number so that clients can easily jot it down.

As it grows Living Goods also expects to become known as a highly trusted "brand." Africa confronts two major problems in delivering drugs to patients. At local clinics popular drugs are often out of stock. And many of the drugs in circulation are counterfeits. Living Goods has addressed both problems by setting up its own distribution network and doing independent testing on the drugs it sells.

While Living Goods maintains an office in San Francisco, staff members spend 30 to 60 percent of their time in Africa. The organization spends little time or resources on fund-raising. No Kickstarter campaigns.

"We don't do grass-roots fundraising," Slaughter says. Instead, it goes to a few big donors "who are energized like we are about addressing social problems at great scale using the tools of business.

"Almost all of them are successful business people" who want to apply their money and business skills to solving social problems, he says.

Living Goods, Slaughter says, doesn't even think of itself a charity, though it is a registered nonprofit. 

"Nothing about what we do is a handout," he says. "It's really about empowerment. It's about giving people the tools they need to improve on their own."

It's also a proponent of the "please steal this idea" philosophy. Slaughter knows that Living Goods can't solve the immense problems of Africa on its own. But he hopes it can become a successful model that other organizations will want to adopt and adapt for themselves.

"If you want to make a difference on a big scale," he says, "that's the only way to go about it."

A woman mason in Kenya tends to a biogas system. Biogas, produced from the bacterial breakdown of animal waste in airtight containers, is used mainly for cooking. It replaces wood, gas, or kerosene, and reduces deforestation, a big problem in rural Kenya. (James Karuga/AlertNet)

Push for biogas in Kenya asks women to get their hands dirty

By James KarugaAlertNet / 03.04.13

Lydia Owenga is a rarity among young career women in Kenya – a trained installer of biogas systems who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty.

She is at ease doing masonry and ensuring her farmer clients mix cow dung and water in the right proportions. Nor does she shy away from handling manure or concrete when checking whether a biogas digester is working properly.

Owenga, 27, runs her own company and is passionate about providing African households with clean energy, and helping slow climate change in the bargain.

Biogas, produced from the bacterial breakdown of animal waste in airtight containers, is used mainly for cooking. It can replace wood, gas, or kerosene, and reduce deforestation, which is a big problem in rural Kenya.

Ms. Owenga is one of fewer than 40 women among 560 Kenyans trained to build biogas systems under the Africa Biogas Partnership Program (ABPP). The project is funded by a 30 million euro ($39 million) grant from the Dutch government and uses technical expertise from SNV, a Dutch development organization.

The ABPP network has installed more than 25,000 biogas digesters since 2008 in five countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Burkina Faso, with a target of 70,000 by the end of 2014.

Caroline Toroitich, SNV’s senior renewable energy adviser, says around half the 2,000 biogas digesters built in Kenya since the 1950s had stopped working by 2008, mainly because they were poorly built and maintained.

The ABPP wants to improve this record by bringing in new partners, reducing costs, offering credit and training, and promoting the use of biogas as an alternative clean energy source. “Other biogas projects never factored in this collective approach,” said Toroitich, resulting in high failure rates.

To reach more people, especially rural farmers, SNV teamed up with the Kenya National Federation of Agricultural Producers (KENFAP), which has 65 field offices around the country and works with more than 150 partners in regions where farming has a good chance of success.

KENFAP in turn set up the Kenya National Domestic Biogas Program (KENDBIP), which aims to “develop a biogas sector that departs from donor dependency, and is driven by demand and supply where each actor is rewarded,” according to its coordinator, George Nyamu.

Almost 7,000 biogas digesters have been built so far under the KENDBIP scheme. The target is 11,000, which it estimates will avoid nearly 94,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

In the Kenyan context, that is not a lot, however. A 2010 report prepared by Practical Action for the International Institute for Environment and Development noted that an estimated 52,000 hectares (128,000 acres) of woodland is cut down in Kenya each year, resulting in annual emissions of 14.4 million tons of carbon dioxide.

Nyamu considers it important to keep the biogas sector growing by protecting the interests of both the service providers, like masons, and the farmers who are the main consumers.

SNV helps trained masons to set up biogas installation companies by providing marketing, branding, and expertise as they build their first digesters. So far, 40 of the 560 trained constructors have established companies, five of them run by women.

Owenga founded Byestar Limited Biogas Systems (BLBS) in 2009, after two years working for other biogas firms. Her own business has now built 15 biogas systems – four for institutions and the rest for households. It employs seven permanent staff and 10 casual workers.

Few women have made so much progress. Owenga remembers that, in her first masonry class, there were 30 men and four women. She is the only one of the four women working in the sector today.

A study last year by the ABPP and the International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy reported that in the five countries where the ABPP is active, Kenya had the highest proportion of trained women masons,  8 percent of the total, and Ethiopia the lowest, 1 percent.  

To stay competitive in a society that often does not take women seriously in business, Owenga promotes BLBS aggressively at major events such as  agricultural shows. She also ensures that presentations to potential clients are polished and follows up promptly on enquiries.

The KENDBIP has a flexible gender policy to encourage more women to join all activities from marketing to construction and does not require them to have prior masonry training like men.

Women begin with basic construction training and build up their skills through refresher courses to give them confidence. They also go to established biogas companies as interns, working under expert masons and learning the trade, as Owenga did.

Simon Mwangi, a farmer from Ruai, 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Nairobi, is one user who appreciates the impact biogas has made on his life since he installed a digester a year ago.

He used to spend almost $100 a year on four Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) tanks. “I quarreled a lot, urging my family to economize,” he said. Now, his 12 cubic-meter (424 cubic foot) biogas system saves him time and money, and he even heats water for showers without wincing at the cost, as he did when using LPG.

He adds 200 liters (7 cubic feet) of dung and water for more gas when needed. “It has made my life so easy I rarely use firewood to cook,” he said. A fish farmer, he puts the slurry that is a biogas by-product into his ponds to grow food for his tilapia.

Kenyans applying to the ABPP for a biogas system must have at least two cows and an adequate water supply. To qualify for a Dutch subsidy of 25,000 shillings (around $300), SNV requires a farmer to show commitment by first building a digester tank.

Banks and micro finance institutions help farmers get credit to raise the remaining amount and arrange for repayments over an agreed period.

The Visionary Empowerment Program, a 7,000-member micro-finance organization based in Thika, 40 km (25 miles) from Nairobi, began making biogas loans in 2010, and targets farmers and women entrepreneur groups. The number of women applying for loans has increased by an annual average of 13 percent, it says.

Of the 1,111 biogas plants it has helped finance, 733 have been for women. Women’s groups act as guarantors to a woman getting a loan, and repayment rates average 98.5 percent. Repayments are made in equal monthly instalments over two years, plus 1 percent per month interest on the reducing balance.

• James Karuga is a Nairobi-based journalist interested in agriculture and climate change issues.

This article originally appeared at AlertNet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Students at Dixie Bee Elementary School in Terre Haute, Ind., post positive messages about fellow classmates and the school's staff. SPPRAK, a local not-for-profit, unveiled a new program this week that literally 'notes' random acts of kindness by students, teachers, and staff. (Joseph C. Garza/The Tribune-Star/AP)

Sticky notes promote acts of kindness in schools

By Arthur FoulkesAssociated Press / 03.01.13

Kids love receiving positive feedback, and a group calling itself Special People Performing Random Acts of Kindness — SPPRAK for short — is helping them get plenty of it.

SPPRAK, a not-for-profit in Terre Haute, Ind., unveiled a new program Feb. 28 at Dixie Bee Elementary School that literally "notes" random acts of kindness by students, teachers, and staff.

By placing sticky notes on a large banner, students at Dixie Bee joined the "SPPRAK Pack" campaign. Similar banners and SPPRAK-provided sticky notes are expected to be in all 28 Vigo County (Ind.) schools within the next couple of weeks, SPPRAK officials said.

Each sticky note represented something kind a student at the school had done.

"Ajay held the door for everybody," stated one sticky note, written by a thankful Dixie Bee student. "Priscilla helped me draw a picture," stated another.

Other notes called attention to students who shared their lunches, helped put away "recess games," or in other ways showed kindness during the course of the day.

In just a few seconds, Dixie Bee students had posted about two-dozen "random acts of kindness" on the banner, which is in the school's front hallway.

"We're honored to be a part of this program," said Mika Cassell, principal of Dixie Bee, a southern Vigo County elementary school. Cassell was joined at the program launch by members of the Dixie Bee student council, Vigo County School Superintendent Danny Tanoos, and other school and school corporation officials.

Performing random acts of kindness "starts when they're young and just continues to grow," said Robin Heng, who founded SPPRAK along with Kim Grubb and Susan Short. While the program is currently limited to Vigo County public schools, "We'd like to see this grow," she told the Tribune-Star.

SPPRAK is a 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to improve the Wabash Valley community by supporting groups that can use extra funding. The organization has worked to reduce graffiti in Terre Haute and has raised money for the purchase of a "bite suit" for the Terre Haute Police Department K-9 unit.

Other organizations assisted by SPPRAK since its founding in 2009 include the 14th and Chestnut Community Center, Light House Mission, Happiness Bag, and Altrusa International.

Duke Energy, Indiana American Water Co., Woodburn Graphics, and MillerWhite Marketing all helped bring about the "Join the SPPRAK Pack" program, Heng said.

To learn more about SPPRAK, visit their Facebook page or send them an email at spprak(at)

• Information from: Tribune-Star,

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is featured on a new video urging more US schools to teach computer programming. The video is produced by Hadi and Ali Partovi, brothers who arrived in the US as immigrants from Iran and became wealthy Silicon Valley investors. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Gates, Zuckerberg champion computer programming in a new nonprofit video

By Gerry ShihReuters / 02.28.13

When Hadi and Ali Partovi immigrated to America from Iran in 1984, they slept in the same cramped bedroom as their parents, who exhausted their life savings on the teenage boys' education.

Nearly 30 years later, the twin brothers are firmly planted in the tech industry's elite circles, after selling companies to Microsoft and News Corp's MySpace, and tapping the rare connections to invest early on in Facebook, Dropbox, and Zappos.

Hadi Partovi says the arc of his own successful rise in the tech world was shaped by an early interest in computers and a formal education in writing software, or coding, which enabled that spark to flourish into a career.

Along the way, the twins made influential friends.

Bill Gates, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey – three people who became billionaire tech industry luminaries thanks to their computer programming abilities – appear in a new video released Feb. 26 by the Partovi brothers as part of their new computer science-education nonprofit,

The goal of the online video campaign is to encourage parents to demand more schools to teach computer programming – a potentially lucrative skill that "equalizes opportunity" but is only available to a fraction of US high school students, Hadi Partovi said.

"Computer programming, right now, is the best embodiment of the American Dream," Partovi said. "The American Dream is to be the next Mark Zuckerberg."

"The tragedy is the skills it takes are not hard to learn, but only 10 percent of schools offer [computer science] courses, and these are usually the privileged schools."

After graduating with computer science degrees from Harvard University in 1994, the Partovi brothers founded LinkExchange and sold it to Microsoft in 1998 for $250 million. Hadi helped co-found Tellme Networks, a telephony company, while Ali went on to found iLike, a music service that became one of the first apps to integrate with Facebook.

The Partovis' campaign comes at a time tech executives warn of a new digital divide emerging between job-seekers who possess programming skills and those who do not. They also point to statistics showing that while coding jobs are among some of the most well-paid, especially in Silicon Valley, there remains a dearth of computer engineers, who are recruited aggressively by companies like Google and Facebook.

But there have also been strong signs recently that government officials are increasingly raising the issue of technical education, beginning at the secondary level.

In his state of the union speech this month, President Obama vowed to redesign US high schools to meet "the demands of a high-tech economy," while New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg this week introduced a new computer programming pilot program for 20 schools.

Hadi Partovi, who financed the video with his brother, lined up endorsements from Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and American Federation of Teachers union leader Randi Weingarten, although they did not appear on camera. The 10-minute video was directed by Lesley Chilcott, the producer behind the documentaries "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Waiting for Superman."

Partovi said he hoped to eventually raise money to fund programming courses in low-income school districts and perhaps even advocate for certain policy reforms that champion computer science education. In California, he noted for example, computer science courses are not counted toward high school graduation requirements.

"We owe our success in business to having learned to code," Hadi Partovi said.

Although the video mostly contains interviews with tech entrepreneurs and has familiar startup scenes – like shots of young employees skateboarding inside startup offices – there are some unexpected appearances by pop celebrities, including Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh and, a part-time startup investor himself.

"Great coders are today's rock stars," the music producer, sitting in his recording studio, says into the camera.

But what is considered a truism in Silicon Valley may not be apparent elsewhere, Hadi Partovi said.

"Middle America doesn't realize it's an issue," he said. "We can't solve the problem until we realize it exists."

(Reporting By Gerry Shih; Editing by Bernard Orr)

Andrea Nix Fine (left) and Sean Fine, makers of the documentary short film 'Innocente,' arrive at an event featuring this year's Oscar-nominated documentaries at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, Calif., last week. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters )

Arts program for the homeless hopes to gain from Oscar success of 'Innocente'

By Raymund FlandezThe Chronicle of Philanthropy / 02.27.13

[Editor's note: This story was written before “Inocente” won the Oscar for best documentary short at the Academy Awards ceremony Feb.  24.]

This Sunday at the Academy Awards, Matt D’Arrigo will be rubbing shoulders with celebrities like Ben Affleck and walking the red carpet with the teenager his charity helped to become a star through “Inocente,” nominated for best documentary short film.

The movie, which followed Inocente Izucar when she was 15 and homeless, poignantly demonstrates how the vibrant paintings she makes at Mr. D’Arrigo’s San Diego nonprofit, ARTS (A Reason to Survive), helped her cope with extraordinary challenges.

If the film wins top honors Sunday, Mr. D’Arrigo hopes it will be easier for him to make the case to grant makers and wealthy donors about the power of the arts to help needy kids. Already the film has prompted a $10,000 donation from a couple in New York who were moved by the film, but Mr. D’Arrigo has bigger ambitions as he runs a campaign to raise nearly $5 million for his group.

RECOMMENDED: Homeless in Europe

Mr. D’Arrigo recommended Inocente’s story to Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine when the directors were searching for a subject to put a face on a striking statistic: One out of every 45 kids in America is homeless, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.

The 40-minute documentary shows Inocente starting out each day painting her face in an elaborate style that shows her artistic flair. But such light moments are few as the filmmakers capture the realities of homelessness. For a long period in her life, viewers learn that she never stayed in a place for longer than three months, even sleeping under a highway overpass while her mother stayed awake to make sure no one harmed Inocente and her brothers.

The film also discusses tough issues like child abuse and poverty.

Those kinds of troubles are common among the youngsters Mr. D’Arrigo’s program serves, he says, but his group is financially pinched to do all it can for children in need.

After the documentary appeared in film festivals and on MTV, a few donations trickled in from people who learned about his organization from Inocente’s story. But he says he worries that most viewers figure that the charity is financially strong because of the attention "Inocente" has received.

His challenge, he says, is to show potential donors “we’re not rolling in money. It’s a little misperception. A lot of exposure doesn’t necessarily translate into funding.”

Last fall, Mr. D’Arrigo started a three-year fundraising campaign to bring in $4.68 million.

So far, the drive has attracted $400,000. He says he is reaching out to foundations and wealthy donors to bolster the group’s programs and to be in a financial position to train and advise arts organizations across the country to copy its approach.

The buzz around the film started growing once it was nominated for an Oscar in mid-January, but Mr. D’Arrigo hopes the greatest potential for fundraising and attracting new supporters still lie ahead for the 12-year-old nonprofit.

RECOMMENDED: Homeless in Europe

“We’re giving it our best shot,” he says. “In the organization’s history, this is the best opportunity we have.”

Already, though, Inocente’s life has become a Cinderella story: She now has an apartment to return to after her stroll on the red carpet Sunday.

Dig deeper: Inocente is now available on iTunes.

This story originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The Heroes to Heroes group meets with Israeli soldiers an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights in September 2012. (Courtesy of Heroes to Heroes)

Heroes to Heroes helps wounded US vets recover

By Margaret PriceCorrespondent / 02.26.13

He’d suffered from nightmares and had used alcohol to blot out depression. After leaving Iraq as a wounded soldier in 2004, Harrison Manyoma of Humble, Texas, remained haunted by his experiences, which had culminated in a roadside car bomb explosion.

And then, last year, through another veterans’ program, he learned of Heroes to Heroes. The Ft. Lee, N.J.-based organization takes groups of wounded US war veterans, especially those diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, on a trip to Israel.

For Mr. Manyoma, that journey proved transformative. Over the course of the 10-day trip, taken late last summer, he connected with Israeli war vets and visited the nation’s monuments to history and religion.

“I got to see the place where Jesus was born,” he recalls.

For him, the experiences produced an emotional bridge to healing.

“This trip was a miracle,” says Manyoma, who’d been awarded the Purple Heart. Since returning from Israel, his nightmares have disappeared. “And I’ve gotten a sense of peace that I’d thought I’d never find again.”

Evidently, other ex-GIs have also found an emotional lifeline through Heroes to Heroes. Founded some three years ago by New Jersey resident Judy Schaffer – who had been seeking ways to help wounded vets – that program takes groups of traumatized US veterans on a journey meant to restore their sense of humanity and civility.

Why Israel? Many American soldiers, returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan shaken and numbed by bloody conflict, have found their communities – and sometimes their families – can’t relate to their condition, Ms. Schaffer says. But in Israel, she explains, much of the population has been more closely involved with war.

“These people can provide the emotional and spiritual support needed to help traumatized vets,” she says.

Veterans are recommended for the Heroes to Heroes program by their therapists and veterans’ organizations. They travel as a group – usually about 10 people at a time – to Israel. They’re accompanied by Schaeffer and volunteer coaches, who are military veterans.

Most of the participants’ expenses are covered by Heroes to Heroes. The nonprofit group is funded by private donations.

During their stay in Israel, the ex-GIs visit major religious and historical sites such as Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the cities of Nazareth and Bethlehem, and the Golan Heights. Those who wish to can even be baptized in the Jordan River.

Throughout the trip, the American vets – so far, none of whom has been Jewish – travel with several current and former Israeli soldiers, building bonds as they share experiences.

On the 2012 trip the group participated in a 30-minute visit with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During that session, the Israeli leader “spoke to each vet individually, and he encouraged them to ask questions,” Schaffer recalls.

For the ex-GIs, it was “a moment of awe,” she says, and a high-level “validation” of their contributions to their country.

After returning from Israel, participants remain in Heroes to Heroes for at least a year. During that time, they stay in touch, checking up on each other through quarterly phone, Skype, or in-person get-togethers. They also regularly e-mail, both each other and the Israelis they met on their trip.

So far, Heroes to Heroes has organized two trips that have brought 20 former GIs to Israel. If donations permit it, Schaffer hopes to step up these annual journeys.

To her, the program has already produced compelling results. She’s seen “people who finally smile for the first time in ages,” she says. And in the welcoming environment of Heroes to Heroes, some participants have quickly emerged from their emotional shell.

For instance, one veteran from Virginia “had been in such bad shape when he started out on the trip that he couldn’t interact well with the group and barely spoke to me,” Schaffer says. But on his fifth day in Israel, he had breakthrough. “This 6 ft. 5 in. man walked up to me and started teasing,” she says.

From there, he began chatting with other vets and sharing his story. Among his next steps: The newly jocular ex-GI went with some of the others to get his first tattoo.

• For more information visit

Karen Olson speaks at a Family Promise breakfast. 'I think one of the reasons we have been able to grow is because people really do yearn to make a difference,' she says. (Courtesy of Karen Olson)

Karen Olson taps religious groups to help the homeless

By David KarasContributor / 02.25.13

In the early 1980s Karen Olson was in a job she enjoyed, working on marketing projects for a pharmaceutical company.

Then she met Millie.

The 70-something woman was living on the street in New York City when Ms. Olson encountered her on her way to a business luncheon. Olson's awareness of the homeless problem in the city already had been heightened by those she had come across previously. She decided to buy Millie a sandwich and orange juice.

The two began to talk and learn more about each other. In the months that followed, Olson began to prepare sandwiches with her two sons to bring to New York City for the homeless population on alternate Sundays.

Fast forward two years, and Olson launched a national organization geared toward taking homeless families off the streets and helping them to achieve self-sufficiency.

Today Olson is founder and president of Family Promise, formerly the National Interfaith Hospitality Network, a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization that works to provide shelter, meals, and support services to homeless families, along with family-mentoring services and job-training programs.

The organization, celebrating its 25th anniversary, now has 182 affiliates in 41 states, with new affiliates joining every year. Its mission, helping those most in need to achieve independence and self-sufficiency, stems from Olson’s personal volunteer work.

“I always had a desire to make a difference in people’s lives,” she says. “I felt strongly that I should involve the religious community – not just churches, but churches, synagogues, and mosques.”

After volunteering on her own to help the homeless in New York City and near her home in Union County, N.J., Olson held a conference that drew 200 guests and helped to raise awareness of the issue.

In the process of meeting regularly to find ways to help those in need, Olson says, the idea was hatched to establish a network of congregations in a variety of faith communities to provide shelter to homeless families. Since running a shelter requires extensive resources, a group of faith communities would share the task, rotating on a weekly basis to provide coverage throughout the year.

The 11 congregations rotated to provide shelter and meals. A van was acquired to transport families to a day program at the local YMCA. Within six weeks, Olson says the families wound up finding affordable housing.

The idea has spread ever since, and now involves more than 6,000 congregations.

Olson says the model of rotating congregations makes the program manageable for small faith communities.

“It allows many congregations to participate, and many volunteers to get involved,” she says. “Families not only feel supported, but many contacts grow out of the involvement.”

And the program has seen results – 77 percent of families served find affordable housing, many in a matter of weeks.

Over the quarter-century history of Family Promise, Olson says, the root of homelessness – poverty – has remained the same.

“Unfortunately, you cannot talk about homelessness without talking about housing,” she says. “Most of the families who come to our program are spending 50 percent or more of their income on rent.”

One medical bill or car repair, she points out, can put a family on the street.

But what has also remained constant is the group of volunteers – currently 160,000 strong – that participate in the organization’s mission through its affiliates.

While it is slightly more challenging now to recruit volunteers – due in large part to declining membership in some congregations – the organization’s congregation-based model makes it relatively easy to find a helping hand.

“I think one of the reasons we have been able to grow is because people really do yearn to make a difference,” she says.

Even after 25 years, her job is still incredibly rewarding. And with more than a half-million beneficiaries of Family Promise – 60 percent of them children – Olson says that tangible differences are being made.

“I know lives are changed,” she says.

And it's not just the lives of those who have regained their independence and found housing. It is also the lives of those who volunteer, the congregants who link faith and social justice together. Every now and then, Olson will hear from a pastor who shares how the spirit of his or her congregation was transformed through the service opportunities.

“The most rewarding part is seeing people caring about people,” Olson says. “You just have to provide a way for people to get involved and make a difference in peoples’ lives.”

Olson sees a very basic lesson in Family Promise: “It shows that we really do care about one another.”

• For more information, visit

Paul Masila, a member of the Woni Wa Mbee self-help group, shows off a sand dam his community built on the Kaiti River in semi-arid eastern Kenya, providing the once-parched community with water for domestic use and irrigation throughout the year. (Isaiah Esipisu/AlertNet)

'Sand dams' store water for dry season in semi-arid Kenya

By Isaiah EsipisuAlertNet / 02.22.13

Barely a month after heavy rains pounded Kenya, many seasonal rivers in the country’s semi-arid east are already drying up, and residents are preparing for the months-long dry season.

But some, like Paul Masila and other members of the Woni Wa Mbee self-help group, are not worried about the looming dry spell. Instead, they are preparing to plant crops or are harvesting fields they planted before the rains.

The group – the name means “progressive vision” in Kamba, the local langage – have revolutionized the region’s fortunes by finding a way to store millions of liters of water under the bed of the Kaiti River, providing the once-parched community with water for domestic use and irrigation throughout the year.

“Drought will never again be a problem, particularly for future generations,” said Titus Mwendo, a 31-year-old farmer in Miambwani, in the Eastern region’s Makueni County.

The Kaiti, like other seasonal rivers in the region, fills with water only during the rainy season, which usually arrives in December.

“The rest of the year is characterized by scorching sun, dry rivers, dusty roads – only those who are fit can survive,” said Masila, a member of Woni Wa Mbee.

But Woni Wa Mbee and other self-help groups in the area, aided by local non-governmental organizations, have found a way to trap and store the Kaiti’s water in its own sandy riverbed, keeping water available for months after the river has disappeared.

“The water reservoirs are called sand dams,” said Kevin Muneene, chief executive officer of the Utooni Development Organization, one of the supporting NGOs. Over the past two years, the organization has helped 80 self-help groups construct 1,528 sand dams in arid and semi-arid areas of Kenya’s Rift Valley and eastern region.

To make a dam, he said, a high concrete barrier is constructed across a seasonal river. When it rains, the water carries sand downstream, depositing it up to the level of the barrier. When the rains finish, water remains trapped in the piled-up sand for up to a kilometer (0.6 miles) upstream of the dam, depending on the dam’s height.

“A well-constructed sand dam has 60 percent of its volume as sand, while the remaining 40 percent is always water,” said Mr. Muneene, an expert in sand dam construction.

In terms of volume, it is estimated that an average sand dam in a relatively wide stream such as the Kaiti River can hold up to 5,000 cubic meters of water, equivalent to 5 million liters (1.3 million gallons). To boost the volume of water stored, several sand dams can be built along one river.

Those numbers suggest that the 1,528 sand dams already built as part of the project will be able to store up to 7.7 billion liters (2 billion gallons) of water, which can be used to irrigate thousands of hectares of land and supply thousands of households for months after the rains stop.

To use the water, community members scoop out sand from the river bed to expose it. It can then be pumped out for irrigation or other uses.

Over 3,000 households are now using water from the dams to grow vegetables, tomatoes, drought-resistant legumes, fruit trees such as grafted mangoes and oranges, and other crops.

“For the first time, we have had water throughout two years. This is not a common phenomenon in this area,” said Florence Munyoki, the treasurer of Woni Wa Mbee and a smallholder farmer in Utaati village.

“Before the dams were constructed, we could walk up to 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) downstream in search of a place to sink a shallow well. This was time-consuming and very tiring,” said the 52-year-old mother of four.

The sand dam technology is believed to be indigenous to Kenya, though it is now being used in other countries around the world, from Zimbabwe to Brazil to Thailand. The Kenya project is the first time the dams have been built in such large numbers and as permanent structures.

“When we initiated this project, we had our own ideas, such as sinking boreholes. But on consulting community members, they insisted that harvesting and storing rainwater would be a better answer to their prevailing water problems,” said Annie Murimi, the Utooni organization’s development officer.

The NGO donates cement to eligible groups and offers technical assistance. The self-help group members then have to collect construction materials such as stones, which are locally available, and offer unskilled manual labor during construction. Experts say that 250 people can build a sand dam in one day.

“To be eligible for support by our organization, there must be a registered group with objectives geared toward water conservation, food security, and income generation,” Murimi said.

All community members are allowed to access the water for domestic use and for their animals but “irrigation is strictly reserved for group members,” said David Nyala, a member of another self-help group known as Wekwatio wa Kanzoka, or “hope of Kanzoka” in the Kamba language.

The Utooni Development Organization also collaborates with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute to provide local farmers with a range of certified drought-tolerant seeds and seedlings.

• Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared at AlertNet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

'Art opens a window into other cultures and gets the children talking about other things,' says Alan Stecker, the founder and CEO of Creative Connections in Norwalk, Conn. The nonprofit group helps classrooms in the US and abroad exchange student artworks and then discuss them via a videoconference. (Cathryn J. Prince)

Creative Connections links kids worldwide through art

By Cathryn J. PrinceCorrespondent / 02.21.13

Nine-year-old Luise’s painting is about more than the wooly white sheep and verdant fields that distinguish her family’s farm in Latvia. It’s about patience and diligence.

And if the students in Connecticut who see her painting understand this, then Creative Connections has succeeded, says Alan Steckler, founder and CEO of the Norwalk, Conn.-based nonprofit organization.

Through ArtLink, Creative Connection’s main program, American students are partnered with children from one of nearly 50 other countries. The children are asked to draw or paint a picture of what they most value in their daily life or culture. After exchanging the artworks, the classes participate in a videoconference, which allows students to share ideas face-to-face in real time.

“The art opens a window into other cultures and gets the children talking about other things,” Mr. Steckler says from his office beneath the Stepping Stones Museum for Children. “The students walk away thinking the children they ‘meet’ are real kids, and they are a lot like me. There are some special differences, but we are more alike than we thought.”

Recently, students from the Weston Middle School in Weston, Conn., participated in a videoconference with the Ahliyyah School for Girls in Amman, Jordan. Students discussed the meaning of freedom of choice during the hour-long session.

“It was a real mind opener. They were looking at a picture of the Statue of Liberty, and that led to a discussion about the choice to wear a head covering, or not, if you are Muslim in Jordan,” Steckler says. “The art allowed the students to get into the values, and the issues, of a different culture.”

That’s an invaluable lesson for teachers like Amanda Quaintance, who teaches social studies at Weston Middle School.

“I’m always keeping my eyes open to connect my students with the lands they are studying in a modern way,” Ms. Quaintance says. “I thought this was an ingenious idea. And when the students in Jordan got to see us holding their artwork, and we saw they were holding our artwork – across the world – it was just a magical moment.”

Steckler founded Creative Connections in 1992. More than 220 classrooms take part in ArtLink each year. This includes the classes participating in Rainforest ArtLink, which pairs US students with students in the rainforest regions of Latin America.

Steckler, an American, graduated from college in the United States, but got a job teaching in England, where he stayed for 11 years. Upon returning to the US, he says, he was surprised how insular his students seemed. After teaching at public and private US schools he studied for a master’s degree at Bank Street College in New York City.

But instead of teaching again, Steckler says, he wanted to develop a program where children around the world could meet as equals and have a real exchange.
For him, art proved to be the great equalizer. This is important for US children, who may have more material wealth than a student in Guatemala or somewhere in Africa, he says.

The American students learn about a different kind of "richness of their lives that’s pretty neat,” he says.

Creative Connections now has more than 3,000 pieces of student art in its collection. Each piece is protected under plastic. A short biography, an explanation of the piece, and photo of the artist is taped to the back of each one.

“There is a great joy for all of us when the art comes in. It’s always so charming to read about [the children's] likes and dislikes, what they want to be when they grow up,” says Polly Loughran, Creative Connection’s program director.

While the international schools don’t pay a fee to participate in ArtLink, American schools pay between $600 and $700. Grants and donations help fund the program in underprivileged US schools. About 40 percent of the exchanges are fully or partially funded, Steckler says.

Creative Connections also sponsors the International Young Performers’ Tour, which introduces American youths to dancers and musicians from other countries. In the past artists from Russia, China, India, Colombia, Ireland, and Cambodia have performed on area stages.

But it’s more than just a performance. The tour provides a look behind the curtain of what life is like for the visiting performers in their home country.

Abantu Mu Buntu, a Ugandan Children’s Music Troupe, will visit Connecticut and Westchester, N.Y., this April. After the performance students will watch videos about what school and home life is like for the dancers.

“We’re not an arts program,” Steckler says. “We’re about changing attitudes and minds.”

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