When Omar Perez returned home to Guatemala from his mission to San Jose, Costa Rica, in 2001, he knew he needed to begin working and started to look for employment. He did not have a college degree or vocational skill and because of that, he was very limited in job options.
"I started school at San Carlos University, but the cost was extremely high as well as all the daily travel involved," he said. "So, I found a job … as a laborer in [a] sawdust plant. The work was very hard and very strenuous."
After a long day of working in the sun, Brother Perez would come home exhausted. He had a family, schooling and Church responsibilities all needing attention, but found it difficult to get things done after a laborious work day. He didn't know how long he could last physically at the job and knew he needed a change.
"At one point, I thought I would have to either stop being branch president or stop going to school," he said. "It was really difficult for me."
His situation, like many other Church members around the world, isn't unique. That's why just more than ten years ago on March 31, 2001, President Gordon B. Hinckley announced during the Priesthood session of general conference, that the Church would provide a program — the Perpetual Education Fund — to facilitate education by providing loans for individuals to attend school. What started out in September of 2001 as 35 PEF loans for members in Mexico, Peru and Chile, has now turned into a program for nearly 50,000 participants in around 50 countries.
"Today's world is competitive, more than it's ever been," President Thomas S. Monson said in a news conference on Feb. 4, 2008 (See Church News, Feb 9, 2008). "I believe men and women need to get a type of education which will enable them to meet the exigencies [urgent needs] of life. ... Men and women need to be prepared for a vastly broader scope than we've ever had before. ... [The Perpetual Education Fund] is a fund that will go far into the future."
Based on the concept of the Perpetual Emigration Fund — where money was loaned to early Church members for their fare to gather with the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley — the Perpetual Education Fund is a revolving resource fully operating on donations of Church members and other contributors, to provide individuals with training or education loans that they then repay at a later date. Just as the early Saints traveling to Utah had an understanding that the money they borrowed would be returned, so do PEF participants today. That money is then to be used to help others do the same.
"Where there is widespread poverty among our people, we must do all we can to help them to lift themselves, to establish their lives upon a foundation of self-reliance that can come of training," President Hinckley said when announcing the program in 2001. "Education is the key to opportunity."
Elder John K. Carmack, emeritus General Authority and executive director of PEF, was called by President Hinckley to help establish the fund and has been involved in the program ever since.
"We believe that what President Hinckley started and President Monson is continuing has the potential to be one of the great building blocks of the Church," said Elder Carmack. "What we are after is to give people an income and an occupation that will give them enough free time to be good fathers and mothers, that will allow them time to give service to the Church and their communities. We are trying to build Church communities and families, and that is exactly what is happening."
In the past ten years, the PEF program has continued to grow not only in the number of participants, but also in the number of countries where those participants live and work.
Today the program is made up of 47 percent men and 53 percent women. Of the men, 80 percent of the participants are returned missionaries and 82 percent of all participants work while going to school. On average, education and skills training takes 2.6 years, and the average total loan for one participant is about $1,800.
"Our main goal is to loan money that will allow people to get training and education that will lead them to a good job in their own country," Elder Carmack said. "We never loan money to bring somebody out of their own country ... what we are trying to do is to allow the Church to become strong and to build the Church in the international community, especially in areas where so many members face poverty."
Elder Dale G. Renlund, of the Seventy and second counselor in the Africa Southeast Area, said that in the past two years during his assignment in Africa, he has seen the blessings and opportunities PEF has brought to many participants.
Although the PEF program has been active in the Africa Southeast Area since 2004, it has expanded rapidly there in recent years and has grown from a few students to nearly 1,800, operating in 11 countries in the area.
Just over a year ago, PEF was introduced in the Kinshasa Democratic Republic of the Congo Masina Stake. In a recent stake conference, Elder Renlund met with the first 22 students from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to receive PEF loans. All of the participants are returned missionaries, and all are fully active in the Church.
"The PEF program of the Church gives help and hope to young single adults," he said. "The small loans they receive often launch their education and careers. I am so grateful for the senior missionaries and PEF personnel throughout the area who help administer the program and guide the loan recipients. I am profoundly thankful to all those who have contributed money to PEF. Lives are being changed one loan at a time."
Part of the success the program has had over the past ten years is because the Perpetual Education Fund teaches individuals the principles of self-reliance.
"It gives people satisfaction," said Elder Richard E. Cook, formerly of the Seventy who serves as the managing director of PEF. "We get hundreds of letters coming in every year describing the gratitude and joy of young people as they have received an education and a job. They also feel more hope and confidence."
Another reason the program has been so successful is because of the involvement of so many people.
"People in the Church have good hearts," Elder Cook said. "We always want to contribute to something that is worthwhile. People understand what education can do, and we can see how this program is building families, leaders and solid citizens."
In the past ten years the PEF program has grown at a rapid pace and is expected to keep growing. Just like Brother Perez, the Perpetual Education Fund gives individuals a chance to be stronger in their employment, family, Church calling and community.
"I see how Heavely Father has blessed me ... and I testify of this wherever I go," he said. "I have not failed in making my payments to the Perpetual Education Fund because I know it is very important. I have seen how PEF has changed my life. Without it, I would never have been able to do it."