Woman helping Guatemalan orphange

March 14, 2008 8:29:36 PM PDT
You may have heard this Chinese proverb: give a man a fish and you have fed him today. But teach a man to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime. One Bay Area non-profit has taken that proverb to heart. Ties to the World wants to help one orphanage in Guatemala become more sustainable in order to survive. Their work and plan is inspiring dozens of college students in America.

These are orphan boys living at the Hogar San Francisco Xavier. The town is Mixco, near Guatemala City.

Engaging with these 100 or so boys is easy. The challenging part is coming up with ways to continue supporting them.

"If you give somebody money they're just going to spend it and ask for more," says Ibis Schlesinger, founder of Lafayette-based Ties to the World.

Schlesinger's mission is to help the orphanage become self-sufficient. She and some students from her church and from the University of the Pacific went to work. Their first stop? The orphanage itself.

"You could want to help people but then when you really become a part of that and you see who you are helping and how you are going to help them and to see how that continues I think that's a big part of it," says Hunter Tanous.

Hunter Tanous is a university student. While at the orphanage he learned how poverty can break up families after talking to a little boy who said he was there because he didn't fit.

"What do you mean 'I didn't fit?' The kid couldn't explain. But you start to realize the severity of poverty in some of these situations that you have to give up a child," says Tanous.

They knew they had to come up with a business plan to help the orphanage become.

"My father used to say people are truly not free until they are economically free," says Schlesinger.

Their plan is to use the land to grow mushrooms, flowers and orchids.

The project will be supervised by Manuel Luz, a successful Guatemalan farmer. His land is entirely self-sustaining from the animals they raise, the water they collect and drink, to the food they eat.

Domenica Peterson is part of Ties to the World.

"The idea of social entrepreneurship is to help people to help themselves to empower themselves so they can feel they can support themselves and do well in the world," says Peterson.

It will take years before the orphanage can function on its own. In the meantime, it will rely on donations. The money collected helps pay for two full-time teachers, a computer lab instructor and three tutors. The cost is $1,000 dollars a month.

Helping orphans has been Schlesinger's dream since she was a teenager growing up in Guatemala.

"I kept on thinking what would happen if these boys and girls had the opportunities that we've had and that has always been with me," says Schlesinger.

Today, Schlesinger and her team have the help of a group of students from the University of Pennsylvania, all working on the sustainability plan. The dream is to someday help more orphanages become self-sufficient.

"Not only have we learned about Guatemala and working with children and orphans and education but we've learned about how to create a business and all the work that goes into researching business ideas, establishing a business in a foreign country," says Peterson.

"I see hope for the future. I just believe we need to do it together with them," says Schlesinger.