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Column: A Small Organization Adopts Big Goals

Plainfield

Our most recent college reunion served as a reminder to my classmates and myself how much more valuable we can be if we start thinking less about ourselves or, put another way, start thinking more about others.

For too many years, a topic of conversation had been our longstanding collective grudge about the choice of speakers at our graduation long ago, a well-known writer who had forced us to sit too long in the sun while he read from his soon-to-be published novel. Our attention was finally diverted at our last reunion when the new president of the college, a member of our class, brought a friend from Africa. This woman had just quit her job as a Coca Cola executive and was trying to develop a water-filtration system that would not only bring clean water to her village in Kenya, but also serve as a basis for a business in that region. Suddenly, the collective skills, connections and influence we’d accumulated over the years had a focus, and we were able to take our eyes off of ourselves and use our talents for others.

A group of people at St. Denis Church in Hanover is establishing a similar service project in western Kenya. Previously, St. Denis had sent money to a church and a Dominican mission school there. Recently, the church has begun working with other Catholic groups to figure out how to tap into the skills, connections and talents of interested Upper Valley residents to undertake short-term community service work in the region east and south of Kisumu, Kenya’s third-largest city. The initiative, called Hearts Open to the World (HOW), supports two schools, one church that needs a building, a hospital, and a farmers cooperative in that largely rural area. The work involves community development (farming and business), education (primary and secondary schools) and health and hygiene.

The Upper Valley provides lots of opportunities to those who want to volunteer locally and help their neighbors; a number have been mentioned in this column over the last few years. But sometimes what seem like ordinary skills here at home become extraordinary tools when put to work in the right setting. A friend who is an agronomist makes a regular living here in the United States, but in the periods of time she spends in Mozambique, her basic knowledge helps influence and enhance planting methods for entire regions.

It’s amazing what one person or small group with a vision can accomplish. In 1999, Marian Noronha, a former Upper Valley resident and founder of New Hampshire-based Turbocam, bought seven families out of forced bondage in Nepal. In 2000, he liberated 35 more. Partially in response to the attention that generated, the king of Nepal abolished human slavery there later in 2000. Now, Noronha uses his Turbocam plant in India to teach vocational skills to former slaves.

In December, the Valley News published an article detailing the progress that retired professor Dr. Dean Seibert of Norwich has helped foster in his work with the Upper Valley-based Americans Caring, Teaching, Sharing (ACTS), which provides medical care and health training in rural Honduras. The United Methodist Church in Lebanon regularly sends a small group to Haiti for two-week periods to provide meals and help build a church in a neighborhood they’ve been working in for years. No doubt, there are numerous other local groups that are working and volunteering in other parts of the world but haven’t received media coverage.

A hallmark of successful cross-cultural work is the ability to get beyond the typical American response of seeing a problem and wanting to “fix” it. When the focus is strictly on the needs of a community, its members can feel like victims in need of rescue and those who help can feel like rescuers. There is nothing enduring in that sort of relationship. When the focus shifts to building upon the assets of a community, though, outside help can promote self-reliance. The ACTS group has been focusing on the long-term by taking the time to train local people to work in their own community. The Methodist church has been going to the same neighborhood for years in order to develop relationships while at the same time pitching in with the church-construction project.

Hearts Open to the World hopes to do the same, modeled on its motto of “Help for Self-help.” Note that many of these overseas community service projects have religious origins. Sometimes groups use volunteers from within their own religious community, and sometimes they simply make the initial contact and then recruit volunteers from all walks of life. The HOW program plans to serve people in western Kenya without regard to their religion or faith and plans to welcome volunteers in the same way — looking only for people willing to share their talents, as personal time and finances permit.

On Wednesday, March 6, the Hearts Open to the World group will be showing Seeds of Hope, a short documentary on their 2012 trip to Kenya. Afterward, they’ll talk about their immediate goals. Join them at 7 p.m. at Filene Auditorium in Moore Hall at Dartmouth College and see if you should be a part of the effort.

Going abroad to work on one of these community service projects often has a profound effect on the volunteers, too. As one St. Denis parishioner put it, “You come back changed forever.”

Margaret Drye lives in Plainfield.