A S.H.A.R.E.'d JOURNEY

Amidst the ongoing discussion of many of Canada’s charities’ spending practices and administrative costs, it is easy to forget that the overwhelming majority are grass roots organizations which are dedicated in their work and penny wise in their spending practices.

I would like to introduce you to one such charitable NGO (non governmental organization), S.H.A.R.E. Agricultural Foundation, and invite you to join me on a vicarious journey with me as I travel to Belize in Central America in order to observe and monitor S.H.A.R.E.’s student scholarship program and other projects. And hopefully, by taking this vicarious trip with me, you will be able answer the question for yourself; “Why has S.H.A.R.E.’ been so success as a charitable organization?” Similarly, by accompanying me, you will gain a better understanding and appreciation of the work of Canada’s grass roots charitable organizations in general.

BACKGROUND

S.H.A.R.E. actually stands for Sending Help And Resources Everywhere. It had its genius in the minds and dedication of a small group of farmer in the region of Peel to the northwest of Toronto. Their goal was to improve the lives of the poor farmers and families in selected rural areas of Latin America. Their fundamental modus operandi was to offer a “Hand Up Not a Hand Out”. The first project started in 1976 and involved shipping a herd of 30 dairy cows to an agricultural college near the city of Mossoro in the very poor northeastern region of Brazil. The offspring from the herd were made available to the farmers in the region to raise and keep. In turn, each farmer agreed to give the first female offspring to another farmer. The multiplier effects of this ingenious practice were enormous. Each village’s herd tripled along with the farmers’ incomes. The health of the families in the village improved dramatically. The children now had fresh milk and meat and the parents could do the previously unimaginable - send their kids to school. What is more, Sister Ellen, a Franciscan nun, who has dedicated her life to working with Brazils abandoned children, estimates that in the last 3o years, “over 20,000 kids from orphanages” in northeastern Brazil have got to enjoy the luxury of daily fresh milk from the “Canadian cows.” Today, S.H.A.R.E. has “southern partners” in Believe, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatamala, as well as Nicaragua, Haiti, Bolivia and Cambodia. S.H.A.R.E. is still involved in cattle projects using only local breeding stock. Now, however, the scope of its operation has expanded into a number of other areas. S.H.A.R.E. is actively involved “in giving a hand up” with women’s co-ops, student scholarships, adult and teen literacy, agro-technological support, computer training, micro credit, and small enterprise development.

S.H.A.R.E.’s reputation and credibility as a NGO has grown over the last ten years that the Canadian International Development Agency has become one of its chief project partners. You can get all the details on S.H.A.R.E.’s various projects and partnerships by referring to www.shareagfoundation.org on the web.

ON OUR WAY

Today, our destination is Belize. We are going with Les and Marg Frayne from Fergus, Ontario. Les has been S.H.A.R.E.’s Project Manager for Central America since 1996, while Bob Thomas continues to oversee its projects in Brazil. It is a frosty February the 2nd night when Marg and Les pick me up. We are staying at a motel near Toronto’s Pearson airport in anticipation of our 5:30 A.M. fight the next morning. Space is at a premium in the minivan. Seven hockey bags and personal luggage leave little room. Each bag has been careful packed to the 50 lb limit. Marg and other friends of S.H.A.R.E. have spent the past year collecting and buying, school supplies, sewing supplies, art items, sports gear, laptops and three sewing machines. We will be dropping off the materials at specific schools, women’s co-ops and villages as we travel to various rural regions throughout Belize.

The next day, Febuary 3rd, is spent in custom lineups and flying over the Caribbean Sea. No small exercise of one’s patience and nerves to be sure. Nevertheless, five hours on, we are greeted by Belize’ sun and warmth. The cold of Toronto’s winter already seems like a distant memory. After picking up our van, we will spend the next 3 hours traveling up into to the interior “Cayo” District. The countryside we travel through is as varied and beautiful as the people of Belize. Starting in the low lying marshlands around Belize City we raise to the interior plains passed the capital city of Belmopan. From there, we climb up into the hills of south central Belize to the regional city of San Ignatio. The hotel of the same name is to be our home base for the next two days. Now we can relax on the hotel patio with a Belikin Beer or two, while the birds entertain us with their beautiful atire and songs. Tomorrow’s adventures await. Tonight we can just enjoy the moment of being in beautiful Belize.

MEETING THE STUDENTS AND STAFF

Our first destination today, February 4th, is the village of Arenal along the border with Guatemala. The road we have to travel on is like a roller coaster, up and down twisting around every which way. As we make our way towards Arenal, we see crops cover the steep hillsides on one side of the road and fenced fields on the other. Arenal had received ten cattle from S.H.A R.E. as part of its cattle program over 10 years ago. In turn, the village farmers cleared the hills with their machetes to plant crops and put up fences to pasture the Brahman cows they received. Now, the villagers have a herd of more than 30 cattle and crops from their cultivated fields. The village of Arenal is much better off today thanks to the hard work of its families and S.H.A.R.E.’s hand up.

On our arrival, we head for the village’s elementary school and hand over one of the hockey bags to the teachers. They in turn will distribute the school supplies amongst the students. Pens, papers, coloring books, readers are welcome luxuries in Belize’s rural schools. Indeed, teachers often have to use their own money to buy supplies for their students-but not today.

Arenal Classroom

As in the case with most schools we will visit on our trip, Les already knows the principal from previous visits and stays in contact during the year via the magic of the internet. Unfortunately, the principal at Arenal is off attending a conference. Not to be dissuaded, Les arranges to meet him back at our hotel in San Ignacio that night. As with all the “partners” principals involved in the scholarship program, Les wants to find from the principal concerned if any of the graduating students will be recommended for S.H.A.R.E.’s scholarship program.

Thanks to the initiative of a former teacher from Burlington, who saw the need, S.H.A.R.E. has awarded scholarships of $300 dollars to needy students from various rural communities in Belize since 1996. High school is not free in Belize, but the scholarships do cover most of the school fees. In order to be considered for a scholarship, the students are usually recommended first by their elementary principal as to their financial need, academic abilities and personal commitment to attending high school. Students are also required to write a letter to S.H.A.R.E. explaining why they wanted to go to high school, and how they intended to contribute to their communities in some tangible manner.

Like the cattle projects, the scholarship program, is based on the principle of a “Hand Up, Not a Hand Out.” Each recipient’s family is expected to contribute to their student’s high school education by providing a uniform and helping pay for food In addition, parents need to arrange for accommodation and transportation given that the majority of student live in villages quite a distance from the region’s high school. For the 2010-11 year, some 58 students from Belize’s rural areas will enjoy the privilege of what we as Canadians consider a right- going to high school.

Before actually leaving Arenal that morning, we tour the classes, talk with the teachers and students and take pictures. The students are delighted to see images of themselves. Teachers and students seem to be as enthusiastic with our visit as we are to meet them. Before we depart, Les asks the teachers what they really need for their school. “More up-to-date texts, library books, classroom materials, along with some computers that work”. This will not be the last time we hear such a refrain from teachers for their students on our journey.

Somewhat ironically, the teachers in Arenal also talk about the need for a fence to keep the villagers’ cattle herd from running rampage through the school yard every afternoon scaring the children. I guess, the teachers thought Les might be able to be able to help, since the herd is made up of the offspring from the cattle S.H.A.R. E. had given the farms over a decade ago. Les wisely defers and suggests they talk to the village elders about building a fence.

After lunch back at the hotel, we head off to Eden High School to visit with the scholarship students from around San Ignatio. Classes are in session when we arrive so Les takes the occasion to chats with the principal about how the students are doing in their classes He also asks the principal if there are other students he would like to recommend for the scholarship program. In the meantime, the twelve sponsored students from Eden arrive at the office. And after chatting for a while about their courses, the students escort us across the road to look at the crops they have planted as part of their course in agricultural technology.

In talking with one of the girls named Margret we learn she has to get up before 5:00 each morning to walk out from her village to the highway in order to catch a ride to school. Other students talk about having to stay in San Ingatio all week to attend high school. And yet the students also express their gratitude for being able to go to high school because of the S.H.A.R.E. scholarships they have received.

After touring the local Mayan ruins at Cahal Pech, we return to the San Ignacio Hotel. The sights and sound of the rainforest provided another evening’s entertainment. It just does not get much better than this. That having been said, there are still things to take care of. After chatting with the principal of Arenal’s elementary school, Les is on the internet checking with a CIDA representative in Ottawa. She wants to join Les and Marg when they fly over to El Salvador once our journey in Belize is done. She is interested in get a first hand look at the S.H.A.R.E. projects CIDA has helped fund Consequently, Les is on the internet again arranging accommodations in El Salvador and changing all their flights around. Just part of his busy day as project manager.

HEADING SOUTH

Next morning,Febuary 5th, we head off back down the highway to the capital, Belmopan, As we travel we pass various villages with their fascinating names; Spanish Lookout, Unitedville, Blackman Eddy and Teakettle. We stop to pick up Eloy and his daughter, Kristen near Belmopan. They’re joining us on our trip to southern Belize and our sojourn into Guatemala. Les has worked with Eloy almost as long as he has been S.H.A.R.E.’S project manager in Central America. Eloy know the languages and dialects of the different regions. He also knows the background of the various groups seeking to partner with S.H.A.R.E. The relationship between the two men is one of mutual friendship, and co-operation. Both men are committed to putting words into action by partnering with the various groups who are dedicated to improve the lives of the Belizean people.

With all aboard, we head off down the Hummingbird and Southern highways through the Maya mountains and down into the coastal valleys with their seemingly endless rows of orange and banana trees. This is one of Belize’s breadbaskets. The banana from here make their way to the supermarkets of North America and the oranges are shipped as barrels of concentrate to the citrus states of the US.

As we travel further down the Southern Highway, we start to notice the population becomes more and more Mayan. We are reminded that the ancient Mayan civilization once stretched its way from Mexico through Central American to the tip of South America. Fitting that we make a quick stop at the Mayan Cultural Centre. Maria Garcia and her two sisters run the centre. They are devoted to the preservation and promotion of Mayan crafts and arts amongst the people of the region.

S.H.A.R.E. has supplied material and two sewing machines to the women’s co-op on a previous trip. Marg and Les want to know if they were in good working order. Les will return in two weeks to find out what else the centre needed. After our trip, he plans to hook up with a group of “Aggie” students from the University of Guelph. They’ll be given a first-hand experience of living with Mayan families in the nearby village of San Miguel. But for now we enjoy a traditional meal of beans, rice and chicken with Maria and continue on our way.

It was not long before we reach the port town of Punta Gorda. This will to be the terminus of our road trip, but not the end of our journey south. After a quite evening strolling through PG, we watch the sun go down over the Sea of Honduras and retire. The next morning, Febuary 6th, we take in the local farmers’ market; lots of fish and local produce.


P.G. Farmers’ Market

Too bad we can’t stay longer, but we have to catch the water taxi cross the waters to Guatamala. Once we clear customs, we board the water taxi and we’re off. And what a taxi ride it turns out to be! Up and down, down and up riding the waves; trying to hold your, kidneys in place, and breakfast in your stomach. At long last we arrive at the port of Livingstone, Guatamala.We are greeted by Karyn Stein. She was a member of the US Peace Corp working on local projects. Now she makes her home in PG and works for a local charity in PG. Karyn actually volunteered her expertise in helping the students from the nearby community college, Ak’Tenamit, to prepare the project proposal which has brought Les and the rest of us here cross the waters to Guatemala.

 Lunch at the Bugamama

After lunch at the student run “Bugamama Restaurant”, we are off on another taxi ride up the Sarstoon River; only this time the ride is unbelievable for a different reason, its beauty. White cliffs on the right and green hills on our left come down to the river’s edge, as egrets escort on our way up the river. People pass by in dug out canoes. For a moment, it almost feels like you are in a scene from “The Mission” The intruding noise of motor boats and the other artifacts of the modern world soon bring you back to reality.

Thirty minutes later we pull up to our jungle hotel, Finca Tatin. What a fascinating place. People from all over the world come here to stay and to take in Guatemala’s beautiful scenery and people. After a refreshing swim in the Sarstoon, a delicious supper in the communal dining hall, and interesting conversations with our fellow travelers we made our way up the stone pathway to our thatched cottages for a peaceful night’s sleep in our mosquito netted beds. Next morning, Febuary 7th, Karyn offers us the choice of a boat ride over, or an adventurous climb over the hills and across a few streams to the school. We decide on the adventure tour. In retrospect, after sliding down the rain soaked hills, we should have taken the boat ride option. We do on the way back.

Ak’Tenamit is a truly unique school. Set in the jungle along the Sarstoon River, this rural community college/school, which supported by Rotary clubs in the US, has 500 students enrolled. Classes are held in these open aired round rooms with thatched roofs reaching 80 feet into the sky. The dinning hall is another interesting structure. It is like large open sized hockey arena without the ice obviously.

The students who attend Ak’Tenamit can take two or three days to come down from their villages high up in the surrounding hills and to catch a ride down the Tatin. Students can choose one of two programs at Ak’Tenamit. As its name suggests, the Eco-Tourism program focuses on equipping students with skills which can be used in the tourist industry. Culinary skills, for example, are perfected in the school cafeteria and practiced at the Bugamama Restaurant in nearby Livingstone.

 


Culinary Students

Other classes are a devoted to Mayan crafts making tradition Mayan blankets, creating jewelry, painting pictures, and sculpturing pieces of traditional art. The Community Development program focus’ on equipping the students with skills they can use improve the agriculture and living conditions of the villages they came from. The students learn how to build better homes, cultivate crops, and raise cattle, chickens and pigs as well as digging fish ponds.

Crafts Class

After touring the school’s facilities, the fields of different crops, pig pens and fish ponds, we sit down with the six graduates who had contacted S.H.A.R.E. Their proposal calls for “agricultural inputs”-raising pigs and chickens, creating tilapia fish ponds and plant nursery at Ak’Tenamit. These “agricultural inputs” can then be shared and developed in the villages. The main component of their proposal called for the building cooking stoves back in their village homes. Now a stove may not sound like much to us, but, for the people living in rural Latin America, stoves will be a “game changer”. The stoves use half the wood; thereby reducing the workload for the women and children. The women will time in their daily routine for other activities and the kids can think about going to school. In addition, the stoves mean the smoke can escape outside their homes and the people inside can avoid the constant threat of lung disease.

We listened intently as the young people explain how the proposal would be put into reality. The students explained that Ak’Tenamit was already setup for implementing a teaching/training program for the agriculture inputs. Building the cooking stoves was more of a challenge. The bricks, cement and large iron cooking tops would have to be barged in from the coast. From there, donkeys would take two to three days to transport the materials up the mountain paths to the awaiting Mayan villages. Working co-operatively, stoves will eventually be built for each household. It the beginning, the villagers will have share using the new modern convenience. The cost of stove will be approximately 150 dollars per stove (costs depend on how remote the village is and delivery costs) for the materials and hours of work the Mayan villagers will labor to build them.

The proposed project was, in fact, a perfect match for S.H.A.R.E seeks to do in Latin America; namely, lending a helping hand up to desperate people who are literally at the end of the path. In addition, the proposal affirmed S.H.A.R.E.’s fundamental belief in people; that by giving these villagers in Guatemala a Hand Up and not a Hand Out” the lives of everyone would be enriched. We were, then, truly impressed, not simply with the details of the proposal, but with the desire and commitment of these young people to improve the daily lives of their families and friends in their villages.

As it turned out, on his return to Canada, Les presented the proposal to S.H.A.R.E.’s project committee and S.H.A.R.E. approved $10,000.00 for project to go forward So everyone went away happy from the meeting; the students- that their villages would get the funding for their project; Les- that S.H.A.R.E. could make a real difference in the lives of the villagers high up in the remote hills of Guatemala, and, Karyn Stein-that she had brought the students from Ak’Tenamit and the S.H.A.R.E organization together in the jungle of Guatemala to create a “sustainable partnership”.

This was not the end but the beginning of Les’ contact with the Mayan villagers. In 2011, Les will go back to see how the villagers are coming along with the new enterprises. Like S.H.A.R.E.’s other partners in Latin America, these student entrepreneurs know that “At the end of the day someone cares” and that someone is S.H.A.R.E.



AT THE END OF ANOTHER ROAD

The next morning, Febuary 8th, we say our goodbyes to Karyn and the students and head back down the enchanting Sarstoon River to Livingstone. The final phase of our journey sees us crossing a rather calmer Sea of Honduras, winding our way through the Maya mountains, traveling back up the Hummingbird Hwy and dropping off Eloy and Kristen. Our next stop is Our Lady of Guadalupe High School in Belmopan. Les wants to visit the principal, Mrs. Belisle, to see how the scholarship students are progressing with school, and to as if she has any new candidates at her school to put forward. Mrs. Belisle has been a partner in the scholarship program for a number of years and a guardian angel to the students who have gone through it.

While we are in Belmopan, we take one of the graduates, Nectaly, out to lunch. In many ways Nectaly represents what the scholarship program is meant to do. Nectaly comes from a small village outside of the capital. He had to walk out to the main highway every day and often hitch a ride into school. He had to do much of his homework at school since his home did not have electricity. He would often skip supper so that he had the money to pay for the bus ride back home. After four years of hard work and personal challenges, Nectaly graduated. He then went on to take a two year course in Data Management at the local 6th Form school (community college). Since his marks were so good, Nectaly received a government scholarship which helped pay for part of his college expenses. The remainder of Nectaly’s support came from private donors in Belize and Canada. Like so many of the scholarship students, Nectaly’s work ethic is only matched by his humility. He has never complained about school or the personal hardships he has had to endure. Nectaly has always expressed his gratitude for S.H.A.R.E.’ support and the help of others. In Nectaly’s own words, “Well Wow! Thanks to God and the help of many people I have completed my Associates! Thanks for the help.” Nectaly graduates with his 6th Form Diploma in January, 2011. Well done!

After wishing Nectaly well in his studies, we retrace our route to Belize City, and then made new tracks up the Northern Highway This region is sugar cane country and Febuary is harvest time. As we reach the outskirts of Orange Walk, we are greeted by rows of cane filled trucks waiting along the highway to get into the sugar refinery plant. Orange Walk is the busy commercial hub of the region, it is a just a pleasant stopover as we travel to end of another road in Belize. The next day, Febuary 9th, we are off again heading due West. We stop at the Trinidad Agricultural High School along the way. Les talks with the principal and meets some of the scholarship students. As in the case of Eden High School, most of theses students live in villages far away, so they billet in nearby towns during the week. Being away from family and friends is just one of the sacrifices the scholarship students make in order to get a high school education.

As we keep going further and further down the “road”, the ride becomes bumpier and bumpier. The road seems to actually be. more like a cow path. When I ask how long will it take until arrive, Les’ refrain is always. “Just over the next hill.” Almost two hours later, he is right. We reach the village of Indian Church at the end of another road.

S.H.A.R.E.’s involvement in this community actually had its origin in a conversation Les had with Claude Belanger, a Canadian archeologist working on the Mayan ruins back at the San Ignacio hotel. Claude talked about how needy the people were in Indian Church and how much he thought S.H.A.R.E could do for the villagers.


Co-op Craft Shop

Some eight years latter, all that has been changed around thanks to S.H.A.R.E.’ partnerships with the villagers. So today we are dropping a hockey bag full of sewing supplies and two sewing machines at the local women’s co-op . The women’s craft co-operative has been so successful ,they started their own craft store at the nearby Mayan ruins of Lamanai. And others ladies in the village have opened their own restaurant.


Lamanai Mayan Ruins

The next day, Febuary 10th,we make our way out to the nearby village of San Carlos. We drop off another hockey bag - school supplies for the elementary school. To our surprise, we meet one of the former scholarship students. Routilia had gone to 6th form in Orange Walk to become an elementary teacher. However she had to quit with the arrival of her new baby boy. Routilia was not to be denied her dream She persevered, obtained some financial help, returned to college and finishing her diploma. Now here she is - teaching at her former elementary school.

As chance would have it we meet another scholarship graduate. Karen is working at the prestigious Lamanai Outpost Lodge which caters to the tourists visiting the Mayan ruins. And as luck would have, we meet another former student working at the local grocery store. She had started college in Orange Walk, but she fell through the cracks. College life was overwhelming and she abandoned her studies. Now she has turned things around and really wanted to get back into to college if she can. Les would work his magic and put things in place so that she did return to college in September, 2010.

At supper that night in the local ladies restaurant, we catch up on the girls’ news and ask them about their future plans. And like Nectaly, the girls have future plans to discuss with us because of their hard work, commitment to getting a high school education as well as a hand up from S.H.A.R.E.

And so our S.H.A.R.E. d’ journey is nearing its end. We stop in Orange Walk “to put things in place” at the community college , as well as to visit some students at two more high school. We then spend the day, Febuary 11th making our way back to San Ignacio to meeting up with the student group from the University of Guelph. After a few days with the students touring various agricultural establishments, I head back to Belize city to catch a water taxi out to Caye Caulker. This little coral island is a piece of paradise. “No shirt. no shoes , no trouble” is its credo. Just right for some rest and relaxation before returning to the frozen North.


At a Journey’s End

It is also a good time to reflect on the question we posed at the beginning of our trip, “Why has S.H.A.R.E. been such an amazing success?” Is it the grass roots volunteer base.? Is it the organization’s lean, efficient operation? Is it the careful vetting process of selecting projects? Is it the specific focus on needy rural communities? Is it the expertise, understanding, and empathy of the project managers, Les Frayne in Central America and Bob Thomas in Brazil? In truth, all of these elements are essential parts of the answer. Any yet, the foundation stone of the S.H.A.R.E.’d success is S.H.A.R.E.’s belief in the people it serves and its commitment to sharing in the particular journeys of the women, the students, the farmers, the rural communities S.H.A.R.E. has given a “Hand Up ” to as all of these partners endeavour to enrich their own lives and the lives of those around them.

In a word: S.H.A.R.E. CARES.

If you would like more information about S.H.A.R.E. please go to
www.shareagfoundation.org