A humanitarian organization aimed at alleviating poverty in Third World nations is going stronger than ever a decade after its inception on the Brigham Young University campus.
HELP International (the “HELP” acronym stands for “help eliminate poverty”) is the brainchild of BYU business professor Warner Woodworth. He founded HELP Honduras, the organizational predecessor to HELP International, after deciding he wanted to try to assist victims of Hurricane Mitch.
“In 1998 Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America,” Brother Woodworth said. “And I was sitting here in the Tanner Building (on the BYU campus) saying, ‘Are we relevant to the world’s problems? What can we do?’ So I proposed to start a little elective class with a handful of students. We were going to get trained to go (to Honduras) in the summer of 1999 and see if we could help a region with 20,000 people dead, 20,000 missing and a million homeless.”
The 1999 mini-mission to Honduras included 46 volunteers who each labored two to four months in service among the poor. In 2000, HELP Honduras morphed into HELP International when the organization sent 86 volunteers into three additional countries and left its BYU incubator by legally becoming its own nonprofit entity.
Although no longer officially a part of BYU, HELP International still recruits Latter-day Saint students to volunteer abroad and continues to count Brother Woodworth and several BYU alumni among its board of directors.
Brother Woodworth said: “In spite of many predictions back in 1999 that BYU and other LDS students couldn’t build a viable strategy to reduce human suffering as an independent institution, we’ve had impressive success over the past decade. With the global economic turmoil of today, our work is more needed than ever.”
Initially, the work of HELP International was primarily training volunteers to go into developing countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Uganda to partner with sustainable non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that promote self-reliance and help lift people out of poverty. This is done by providing small loans called microcredit to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for normal bank loans. That first year in Honduras, HELP funded the establishment of 47 communal banks serving 800 poor women seeking to recover from losing everything in the floods as a result of Hurricane Mitch. The tiny businesses conceived with microloans benefitted 4,000 family members, putting them on the path to self-reliance.
Once seed money is in place microfinance NGOs are generally self-sustaining because the interest charged on the loans makes up for the capital lost in the rare event that a loan is not paid back, something Brother Woodworth says happens less than five percent of the time. He likens the economics of microcredit to “President Joseph F. Smith’s notions that Mormon charity is not just handouts — it’s to help the poor begin to help themselves so they can turn around and help others.”
“At HELP International,” Brother Woodworth explains, “we’re saying, ‘Let the theorists and the economists and the lawyers deal with the infrastructure and all the political changes.’ Meanwhile, we’re just going to go help that poor woman Maria with her three kids and whose husband left her. She’s got three or four mouths to feed and no education.
“We’re going to give her a $100 loan. If she starts a little business and we give her some assistance, some training to facilitate the loan, and if she pays it off on time with interest, we’re going to give her a $200 and then a $400 loan and then eventually an $800 loan. Eventually she’s going to get to the point where she understands a loan, she understands principal, she understands interest and she sees she’s going to have to make her own future.”
In the decade since its founding, HELP International’s paradigm has gradually shifted from facilitating one-time service opportunities for volunteers to empowering a new generation of volunteers who reach beyond their respective comfort zones by doing good throughout their lives.
“More important than helping the poor for a summer,” Brother Woodworth said, “HELP’s emphasis is on creating a new generation of young Latter-day Saints who have a life-changing experience serving the poor.”
The passage of time has also brought with it changes to how the proverbial rubber hits the road at HELP International. Put another way, the organization’s emphasis now is no longer limited to microcredit but has grown to also include things like training microentrepreneurs to have business skills, volunteering in rural health clinics and creating family gardens for better nutrition.
“As an organization we took off with a microcredit emphasis because we originated from a course at the Marriott School of Management at BYU,” executive director Mike Riding said. “But then as the organization grew up and progressed, we realized that one of our main emphases was in providing experiences for college students where they could learn and grow and develop as individuals. We branched out into including all kinds of volunteers, and so we’re working with students with any background and with any interest.
“The challenge now is having opportunities for them and helping them find projects that are not only in line with their interests, but are sustainable and good international development projects as well.”