Helping the poor help themselves - and then others

Reggie de Aro was a poor member of the Church in the Philippines, struggling to care for his wife and three children.

He worked hard and saved enough money to buy a simple piece of equipment for a workshop. Then he heard about a local development foundation and a consultant helped him plan for expansion. He got a loan.

Warner Woodworth, a BYU professor of organizational leadership and strategy, witnessed what happened next. Soon Brother de Aro was making a good living. Within a couple of years he had purchased more equipment and had hired three employees. Two years later he had 56 employees and more workshops.

"When I first met him he was not very fulfilled in life," Brother Woodworth recalled. "When I saw him last he was a bishop in the Church."

That's why Brother Woodworth and hundreds of BYU students are working to promote microenterprise — the movement that helped Reggie de Aro. They believe that small loans and business education can help lift the world's poor out of poverty and make them self-reliant.

During the fourth annual BYU Microenterprise Conference April 5-7, sponsored by the Marriott School, hundreds of students, educators, investors and representatives from non-governmental organizations exchanged ideas, talking about "Practical Approaches to Ending Poverty."

Brother Woodworth has been a leader in the movement for numerous years, promoting loans to the world's poverty-stricken populations, starting internships for students that partner with existing organizations and conducting action research that now reaches far beyond the BYU campus. With a loan and training many people can start a business, then grow that business, ultimately improving living conditions for entire families, he said.

BYU senior Rock Magleby completed an internship in Peru, helping a humanitarian organization develop microenterprise training. Today he serves as a director of a BYU organization called, "Students for Microenterprise," and participates in another university organization, "Students for International Development." He wants to encourage others to seek out internships and get involved.

The weekend of the microenterprise conference, Brother Magleby also attended a "Hunger Banquet" on campus. Participants in the event buy a dinner ticket and are then randomly placed in one of three dining groups. The first group, made up of 10 percent of those participating, represent the First World and dine on fine china at tables. The second group, 20 percent of those participating, represent the Second World and sit in chairs but have no tables. A final group, representing the Third World, eat a small portion of rice and beans while sitting on the floor.

Each year BYU students raise more than $6,000 from the event; this year the money will be donated to a local community center working to distribute information to Spanish-speaking residents, to a Romanian organization that helps street children, and to promote literacy in South Africa.

Lisa Jones, co-chairwoman of the microenterprise conference and co-founder of Help International — an organization to help eliminate poverty — said students want to get involved in something that will make a difference. "BYU should be a leader," she said. "The idea of microenterprise is that people hold their own solution — have their own ideas about how to get out of poverty. They just need a chance."

Take, for example, the former stake president whom BYU student Jennifer Lambert met while completing an eight-month internship in Peru. His restaurant was not bringing in the revenue he hoped it would. He took advantage of business training from a microenterprise organization.

Soon he saw a 250 percent profit increase in his business. Sister Lambert said the last time she talked to the restaurant owner, his business had leveled off, but was still operating at a 120 percent increase from before the business training. He no longer needed a loan for expansion; he was planning to save his profits, she said.

Or the widow from Honduras whom BYU student Jennifer Boehme watched learn to sign her name. After a small-business loan her profits increased and she was able to put a cement floor in her home and build a latrine. "The changes are just incredible to see," Sister Boehme said. "Here is this woman who has been through so much, yet she is humble enough to say, 'I have things that I can still learn. I can still improve my family's lives.' "

Then there is Andy Kobold, who spoke at the microenterprise conference. He started a cleaning service in Denver, Colo., with a small business loan. He bought a vacuum and carried it around town in a cart that he pushed. Soon he was able to buy dentures and a car and qualified for another loan to expand the business and buy more equipment.

"All my life I have struggled with self-esteem, confidence to do business and apply it to a high paying job," he said. "I felt like a failure."

Before the loan he was working at an amusement park, operating rides. Today, he makes enough income to support a family.

Brother Woodworth said much of the microenterprise movement follows the Church's welfare principles. "It is not just a handout. It can become sustainable," he said. "Our idea of charity is to help the poor is such a way that they can help themselves — then help others."

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