Graduates Provide New Opportunities in Central America
By Nejela Almohanna, '14, and Sophie Sestero, '11

Central American farmers are able to buy land and support their families with Laurie Werner's help. Werner, '94, serves as Agros' programs director, coordinating micro-lending that empowers families in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico.  

"Agros is a holistic world community-development program," Werner says. "We help people own their own land."

Micro-lending organizations give small loans to individuals and small groups living in poverty; they then are able to finance a small business to sustain their families. A strengthened economy leads to better education, infrastructure and security. In time borrowers are able to repay the loan at low interest rates and even become lenders themselves, says Whitworth economics professor Eric Sartell, '94. 

Based on a money multiplier theory, micro-lending is used in poor countries "to help create income and sustain the communities through increased job creation. Micro-lending has roots dating back centuries, but the modern rise of micro-lending began in the 1970s and has since spread throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America, the rest of the developing world," Sartell says. 

As their enterprises grow, borrowers are able to feed their families, send their children to school, and access basic healthcare.

Micro-lending "creates enough movement in the local economy to provide families with a little bit of disposable income they otherwise would not have," says Michael Marchesini, '07, a recently returned member of Jesuit Volunteer Corps. "This small amount of disposable income makes a huge difference in people's lives. It puts shoes on a barefoot child, provides a notebook and pencils for a student, pays for life-saving medicine and adds meat, beans and vegetables to a diet that would otherwise consist of rice and tortillas."  

Werner worked with Agros, offering $3,000 to $7,000 loans to work toward eradicating global poverty.  She first became interested in micro-lending after spending a semester in Whitworth's Central America Study Program. In graduate school, she joined Global Partnership, a micro-lending organization based in Central America, before starting with Agros in 2001.  Marchesini, like Werner, studied in Central America. After graduation, Marchesini joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and worked in Nicaragua for a two-year term as part of a micro-lending team.

The Central American Study Program emphasizes experiential and integrative learning; the course material integrates faith and worldview convictions into students' daily activities, says Terry McGonigal, dean of spiritual life. Students gain a deepened awareness of how their beliefs and actions have social, political and ethical implications. 

Werner says she values the lessons she learned during the Central America Study Program and from general classes at Whitworth as they prepared her for work after graduation. Her classes encouraged her to ask hard questions about her worldview, her vocation and the life she wanted to live.

"Whitworth gave me the analytical tools," Werner says. "Knowing I can make a difference, it is part of my calling."

McGonigal works with other faculty to prepare students for the Central America Study Program and he joins them for several weeks during the semester.

Whitworth's Peace Studies program encourages students to realize that a vocation is not simply a career, but includes work, family, church, community and the world, McGonigal says.  The Peace Studies program's vision of vocation helps students to follow Whitworth's mission to 'Honor God, follow Christ and serve humanity.'

Community empowerment was central to Marchesini's vocation. As a Jesuit Volunteer, he was able to help bring local communities together with the common goal of eliminating poverty and gaining independence. Frequently, clients who had been deemed a 'financial liability' came to Marchesini and his co-workers for loans.

"Often, they were hard-working, extremely impoverished women to whom we sought to provide a potential path to self-empowerment and financial stability," Marchesini says. "Our micro-lending program was very community oriented. I spent more time visiting clients in their homes and getting to know their families than I did keeping track of the program's money."

Marchesini's Jesuit Volunteer Program distributed loans ranging from $75 to $500 that were paid back over the course of four to six months. During his two years in Nicaragua, he felt blessed to have been a part of his clients' lives, to help them with their struggles, and to navigate through disasters with them.

"The best part of my job was seeing families gain financial independence with the help of an entire community," Marchesini says. 

Utilizing community assets is central to reshaping one's understanding about philanthropy, McGonigal says. Organizations that incorporate a micro-lending strategy, like Agros, use land already available and people who are willing to work to create a sustainable economy and product. McGonigal says the Peace Studies program is starting to work with business and science departments to create tangible goals for students to achieve. 

The hope is that this collaboration of business, science, and Peace Studies will help create a more proactive style of giving and aiding those in need while fulfilling the lives of those who are working to create better lives for others.

"You want to provide clean water in Africa? Great, now how are you going to do that?" McGonigal says. "There is a mindset of: 'We have money and you have poverty, so if I give you money, the poverty will go away.'"

Instead, micro-lending gives borrowers an initial push in the right direction so they can sustain themselves with a new lifestyle. Micro-lending works to give borrowers the resources they need, and the access and skills to use them.

"Teach a man to fish, but make sure he has access to the river," Sartell says.  

Micro-lending is not an end to all poverty, McGonigal says. Communities and individuals in need must still acquire resources and the means to stay healthy before they worry about making profits and paying back loans. But, with humanitarian account managers such as Marchesini and Werner, the borrowers are more likely to succeed in their loan endeavors. Micro-lending is not a traditional loan operation because it grows out of a relationship and care for the community.

 "Philanthropy is built off of two Greek words: Philos is the human relational love and Antropos is the word used for humanity," McGonigal says. "When you think about the essential parts of those words, the essence is not about money, it's about how we love humanity."