At a time when most Americans are worrying about jobs and mortgages and college tuition, a handful of local citizens are equally concerned about the less fortunate in places far from the security and comfort of Fairfield County. Through private philanthropies called NGOs, for nongovernmental organizations, they are connecting compassionate individual Americans with people in Third World countries and helping address problems across a broad sweep of issues — from human rights and the environment to the technology gap, education and, of course, natural disasters.
If the need appears greater today than ever before, so do the spirit and determination of local philanthropists and volunteers.
“America has this phenomenal reservoir of goodwill that is very deep,” says Tom Schultz, a New Canaan resident, business executive and founder of the Canaan Foundation, which provides free second-hand computers to schools in Kenya and Cameroon. “It makes a difference to people in Third World countries that it’s not the government. It’s us as individuals, as volunteers, who are making these programs go, and on energy and enthusiasm more than anything else.”
As it turns out, New Canaan, Darien and Rowayton have long histories of such grass-roots efforts. Following are snapshots of five local NGOs — from the large and very businesslike to the small and more short-term — that are making a difference somewhere in the world.
A paradigm of NGOs locally as well as globally is AmeriCares, the international relief organization founded in 1982 by longtime New Canaan residents Robert and Leila Macauley. A former corporate president and director, Bob Macauley was active in a number of charities early in his career — serving as president of Covenant House and advisor to the National Executive Service Corps and World Share and being a friend and supporter of Mother Teresa. But it took a private audience with Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1981 to get him to start his own philanthropy.
“The pope said, ‘I know about your fundraising activities,’” Macauley noted recently. “And he asked, is there anything you can do to help my people in Poland?” The country had no internal medical structure at the time and was in desperate need of medicines. “When the pope asks you a question like that, do you say, ‘Pope, I’m a little tied up right now?’ No.”
Working out of a closet in their home outfitted with a small desk and a telephone, the Macauleys enlisted a few friends and set a goal of $50,000’s worth of medicine. By the end of the first year, they had raised $3 million in donations from pharmaceutical companies; by the second year, $13 million; and by the third year, $40 million to $50 million.
That early effort grew into AmeriCares, which today delivers medicines, medical supplies and aid to people in crisis around the world. The organization works with other NGOs, hospitals, health networks, governments and corporate partners like Wyeth, the pharmaceutical giant. Two warehouses, one in Stamford, the other in Europe, serve as inventory centers.
Since its founding AmeriCares has provided more than $7 billion in aid to 137 countries. Last year it rushed supplies and set up field hospitals in China following the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province, and in Myanmar in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. It also shipped more than 245,000 bottles of water to aid in flood and tornado relief in the midwestern United States. And, as one of the few relief organizations allowed to fly directly into Darfur in Sudan, it has delivered more than fifteen tons of medicines and medical supplies to West Dafur.
At home, meanwhile, the organization runs three community programs — AmeriCares HomeFront, AmeriCares Free Clinics and Camp AmeriKids — for those in need in Connecticut and New York.
In 2006 the Chronicle of Philanthropy ranked AmeriCares third among U.S. charities based on its support from individuals, foundations and corporations. And last year Forbes named it one of seventeen nonprofits with “100 percent fundraising efficiency.”
Now aged eighty-four, Bob has retired as chairman of AmeriCares, though Leila remains involved as vice chairman. With 150 employees, the charity outgrew its New Canaan base and moved operations to Stamford.
“NGOs are terribly important and they always will be,” Bob says. “They’re about compassion and being thankful for what you have, and being willing to share what you have with others.”
Call 658-9500 or 1-800-486-HELP (4357) or visit americares.org.
Darien Book Aid Plan
One of the oldest local NGOs is Darien Book Aid Plan, founded in 1948 (and modeled on the Marshall Plan) to distribute free books to libraries and schools in Europe following World War II and Hitler’s book-burning campaign. These books are new or, if used, are recently published and in good condition.
Since 1949, when four boxes of American titles were shipped overseas, local volunteers have expanded their output and reach to send more than 3 million volumes to 180 countries. The books, which are donated by townspeople and publishers and distributed largely by the Peace Corps, are also sent to local rehabilitation centers, Connecticut correctional institutions, after-school programs and medical clinic libraries in other states. Today, through word-of-mouth and the group’s website, requests come in from all over the world.
“We don’t receive requests for exact titles, but for types of books,” says Barbara Gardner, a longtime volunteer and past president of the group. “Right now, more than half of the requests are for children’s books, which we fill, but there are a few things — books in Spanish, in particular, and books in French for native speakers — that we never get enough of.” Also in demand are current English dictionaries and thesauruses, modern writing guides, and textbooks.
Since its founding the nonprofit group has operated out of the former Noroton Firehouse on Post Road, where donors can drop off books twenty-four hours a day. Some thirty volunteers, including students from New Canaan, Darien, Brien McMahon and Norwalk high schools, staff the office.
“Volunteering with us is about as easy as you can get,” Barbara says, “because we have no restrictions on what days you work or which hours.”
On a recent afternoon, seven or eight volunteers were at work in the old firehouse, which resembles a rural library or used bookstore. At the front, two retired men were busy attaching order sheets to the tops of dozens of boxes they’d taped closed for shipping, while a couple of high school girls shelved books along the far wall.
At the back of the building, Eleanor King, who has been with Book Aid nearly forty years and now serves as foreign secretary, wrote out new orders from the requests she received by e-mail. “In June Uzbekistan finally caught up with us,” she says. “They’ve been sending us eight to ten e-mails a day for books on learning English.” She has also been corresponding for many years with a librarian in Romania who writes letters in longhand because his library lacks Internet access.
“Our group continues to be important,” Barbara maintains, “because there are so many people in the world with such limited resources. We transcend politics in that we are offering these gifts of friendship —
fulfilling a need they have with no strings attached.”
To volunteer, to donate books or for more information, stop by Darien Book Aid Plan, 1926 Post Rd; 655-2777; dba.darien.org.
Haiti Lumière de Demain
As he was leaving a United Nations–sponsored meeting in Port au Prince, Haiti, in 1998, Louis Elmeus met two young boys, ages ten and twelve, who were on the streets during school hours. Elmeus, age twenty-nine, was born on La Navase, an island off the northern tip of Haiti. Although he left at age fifteen to live with his father in the United States and attend Northfield/Mount Herman School in western Massachusetts, he immediately knew why the boys were on the loose.
“But I asked anyway,” he recalls. “They said, ‘We couldn’t pay, so they kicked us out.’ That’s a fact of life in Haiti. I asked, ‘What do you guys want to do when you grow up?’ which is the question we normally ask kids here. One of them said, ‘I want to get in the government and make some money,’ but the other said, ‘What are you talking about? Me, I wanna find some drugs and make some real money.’ It wasn’t until I got home that I realized that these kids are just as ambitious as kids anywhere. They are sick and tired of their living conditions, and they’re trying to find ways to make it better for themselves.”
Back home in Connecticut, Elmeus founded Haiti Lumière de Demain — Haiti Light of Tomorrow — to promote literacy in primary and secondary schools in his homeland. He enlisted the help of one of his former professors at Sacred Heart University, which he attended on a soccer scholarship and from which he graduated with an undergraduate degree in political science and a master’s degree in education. He also received support from Dick Packer, a Rowayton resident who for thirty years has run the Packer Soccer Camps for kids ages six to twelve. A founding board member of Haiti Lumière de Demain, Packer hired Elmeus in the summers as an assistant coach, helped him get a job coaching in the Rowayton Youth Soccer Association and generously donated to the fledgling NGO.
What began as a casual conversation with two youngsters on the street has resulted in a program that has given thousands of Haitian youngsters hope for a brighter future. To date the organization has funded scholarships for ninety-seven youngsters and provided more than 17,000 textbooks and other materials to teachers in eighteen secondary schools on La Navase. The group also plants fruit trees to help reforest the environmentally unstable island.
In the process Louis Elmeus has inspired Rowayton residents to think beyond the town’s borders. Last April four area volunteers accompanied him to Haiti, where they introduced a program to provide solar-powered flashlights to school-children so they could read at night. And in August, for the fourth summer in a row, Dick Packer donated the net profits from his camp to Haiti Lumière de Demain. “He’s an incredible person,” Elmeus says of Packer. “I owe a lot to him.”
Right now the ten-year-old organization sorely needs more people like Packer. Soaring food prices in Haiti — food riots broke out while Elmeus and his volunteers were in Port au Prince, and fall storms led to widespread flooding across the island — mean that nearly twice as many students will need assistance with tuition and books.
To help, call 612-7860 or visit haitilumiere.org
The Canaan Foundation
Tom Schultz hasn’t parked a car in the second bay of his garage on Tommy’s Lane in more than a decade. Along with kids’ sports gear, the bay is reserved for the twenty to fifty secondhand computers donated each month to the Canaan Foundation, the small but growing NGO he founded in 1996 to aid secondary schools in Kenya and Cameroon.
A longtime New Canaan resident, father of five and business executive, Schultz became interested in Africa while at Yale, and shortly after graduation he traveled to Meru, Kenya, to teach. “At some point I considered myself really fortunate,” he recalls, “and I felt that I owed something to somebody.”
While in Meru he met Silas Muriuqi, headmaster of Chugu Harambee secondary school. Although Schultz returned to the United States for graduate school and then law school, he remained involved in Muriuqi’s work and helped put a village boy through college. In 1996, while Schultz was visiting Muriuqi, the headmaster told him of the school’s desperate need for computers and asked for his help.
Schultz returned to New Canaan with a rekindled desire to make a difference, though his initial efforts were met with considerable resistance.
“People would say to me, ‘How do you know there’s electricity? How do you know they want computers? And finally, how do you know they’re interested?’” he says.
Undeterred, with his own funds he bought a dozen laptops, and on a return trip to Africa transported them as airline carry-ons wrapped in bubble wrap and duct tape to make them look like suitcases.
“Once we stuck the computers in schools and had pictures of happy faces in front of them,” he says, “it was much easier to raise donations.”
That was when the used units began arriving at his house, largely by word-of-mouth, from diverse sources including Princeton University, Norwalk Hospital and individuals as far away as San Francisco. A company in East Hartford donated warehouse space for storage and shipping.
Since then Schultz has returned to Africa many times — with volunteers from the community, including students and all five of his children — and the Canaan Foundation has sent more than 1,000 computers to some fifty secondary schools, including schools for the deaf and for children with HIV-AIDS.
As technology advances on a nearly daily basis, the schools’ needs have also changed. “Right now we have a crying need for laptops — Pentium 2 or better,” Schultz says. “Individual donors who have a laptop can mail it or drop it off at my house. If a business has pallet quantities, we’ll send a truck and bring them right to the warehouse. If people will help me that much, I’ll be happy to push them into Kenya and Cameroon.”
For more information call 860-267-2279 or visit thecanaanfoundation.com, where you can watch a video of volunteers in Kenya.
The Ugandan Secondary Education Scholarship Fund
Kane White of New Canaan received her calling during a visit to Uganda in 1995, following dictator Idi Amin’s reign of terror. While working in that scarred East African nation with a team of volunteers, Kane visited the village of Jinga, which was struggling to restore its elementary school.
In Jinga, Kane, who has lived in New Canaan with her husband Richard for forty years, not only witnessed the hardships of village life but also saw the ties that bind people to one another. “I found out what it’s really like to live in a poor community,” she says. “There were so many street orphans, but there was also compassion: Whichever woman would take you in that night, that was your mother.”
Kane joined the many group members who volunteered to help support individual children and their families in rebuilding their lives. She became the educational sponsor of six-year-old Robert Kalenzi. That meant donating money so Robert could stay in school to complete his secondary school education.
Over the years the two wrote letters back and forth. “Robert always called me ‘Dear Mum Kane,’” she recalls fondly. Sometimes long periods passed without a letter from him. “And I would wonder if he was still alive.”
Finally, in February 2007, Kane learned that Robert was about to finish high school and apply to college. Knowing that he would need financial help, and understanding that younger students in Jinga still needed tuition for secondary school, Kane placed an ad in the newspaper and reached out to friends who might be sympathetic to her cause. With assistance from John Kane and Fred Africola at the Bank of New Canaan, which donated $500, she raised thousands of dollars and established the Ugandan Secondary Education Scholarship Fund at the bank.
“My goal is to raise money for five scholarships, and that will be it,” she says. “This is not a big thing — tuition is not tax deductible. This is small-time fundraising.”
But it is something she has enjoyed doing. “It was an honor and a privilege for me to provide for the education of this intelligent and dedicated young man,” she says. “My relationship with Robert has been a life-changing experience.”
Contact Kane826@optonline.net or mail donations in care of John Kane to the Bank of New Canaan, 208 Elm Street, New Canaan, CT 06840; 966-3838.