Chicken invasions, dirty clothes, and lack of running water notwithstanding, dedicated volunteers with H.E.L.P. International are, day in and out, found among the poor and disaster-stricken of Latin America, for whom they help provide an economic spark, business training, and good old-fashioned service.
The group's acronym captures its missionto Help ELiminate Povertyand microcredit banks are its primary project. Formerly called "H.E.L.P. Honduras," the program began taking shape in January 1999, when MBA student Jones and others responded to organizational behavior professor Warner P. Woodworth's "call to action" to aid needy Hondurans in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. The program's first three student volunteers left campus in April 1999; since then, thanks to the generosity of many contributors, a total of 51 students have traveled to Honduras with the mission of organizing microcredit banks.
H.E.L.P.'s volunteers invest an almost-evangelistic zeal in their cause. "Our goal was to start 20 banks," Jones says of the summer 1999 effort. "But we started more than 40doubled our goalbecause the students were such go-getters."
Each microcredit bank established by the students has 20 members, usually women, who draw small loans to help them establish or expand their own businesses. Because bank members oversee and encourage each other, and because each member's eligibility for a loan depends on other members' responsible repayments, such loans have a very high repayment rateworldwide rates average about 96 percent.
In Honduras, H.E.L.P. is known as A.C.P.Accion Contra la Pobreza, or "the action against poverty." And according to BYU MOB student Todd M. Manwaring, microcredit really does reduce poverty. In 1998 he headed a research team that interviewed nearly 400 loan recipients to assess the impact of microcredit.
"Without fail," he says, "microcredit had an immediate economic impact that gave these families access to medicine, better food, shelter, and education. In addition, because the micro-entrepreneurs hadn't received a handout, but had received a loan that they paid back, they felt a sense of accomplishment and self-empowerment."
Manwaring is the president of Humanitarian Link, a non-profit group committed to helping indigent Latter-day Saints all over the world gain long-term independence. Founded in 1998 by Professor Woodworth and four former BYU students, Humanitarian Link has partnered with H.E.L.P. International, providing training, legal help, and a mechanism for nonprofit donations.
While microcredit is their primary focus, H.E.L.P volunteers give many other kinds of service, explains Jennifer Boehme, an international studies major and the current director of H.E.L.P. International. During their stays, which typically last from six weeks to three months, volunteers also "help recruit new bank members, teach training sessions, and organize morale-building activities," she says. In addition, they devote 20 hours each week to community projectsfor instance, teaching English, digging wells, or helping construct buildings.
Though she graduated in April, Boehme plans to stay in Provo and continue as director of the program for at least four months. "My parents are laughing heartily as I tell them I'm getting a part-time job to support my career," she admits. "But this is one of the most important things I have ever done. The impact this program has, not only in the lives of the students but also for the poor that we work with, is worth any sort of sacrifice."
This summer the program will expand into three additional countriesVenezuela, El Salvador, and Peruand involve about 100 volunteers from five universities.
As the faculty member overseeing the project, Woodworth hopes to foster a growing tradition of service directed toward eliminating poverty worldwide. His vision for H.E.L.P. International is that it grow into a "Mormon Peace Corps" of sorts. "What we're really trying to do," Woodworth says, "is create a whole generation of social entrepreneurs who can combine their college education with gospel values to build a new world."