Thousands of Utah students working to decrease world poverty

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PROVO -- In 12 years, more than 1,200 students -- most from BYU -- have each volunteered months of their time to fight poverty in developing nations around the world.

You have to overcome tradition and culture without strong-arming them or saying, 'Hey, we know it better.'

–Benjamin Farnsworth, volunteer

The nonprofit Help International was created following the devastation from Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The disaster killed 20,000 people and left 1 million more homeless in Central America.

Worldwide, more than 1 billion people live in extreme poverty, but that inspires the students who each spend three to four months with Help International. Many of the volunteers are business majors; some teach microfinancing so that villagers can increase sales of their crafts.

"I would talk to them and learn their skills, and we would develop businesses so that they could sustain themselves; because most of them are living well below the poverty line of about 75 cents a day," said Rebecca Burgon, Help International volunteer to Uganda.

Rebecca runs a nonprofit from Utah for the women of Lugazi. The organization has sent nearly 1,300 young people to help the world's poor. This year, they've gone to Belize, El Salvador, Fiji, India, Thailand and Uganda.

BYU Professor Warner Woodworth developed the nonprofit in 1999. The students receive 20 hours of training before they leave, and then they coordinate with in-country organizations. They work in schools and orphanages. They also build adobe stoves.

"In developing countries, most people cook over an open fire, which is the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day," said Mike Riding, executive director of Help International. "If we build an adobe stove, it cuts the smoke out of the home, it reduces fuel consumption by about 50 percent, and it reduces cooking time by about 75 percent." The volunteers also focus on sanitation.

Volunteers Marissa and Benjamin Farnsworth will leave for Belize Wednesday.

"You have to overcome tradition and culture without strong-arming them or saying, 'Hey, we know it better,'" Benjamin said. "You want to have them understand why it's important to use a toilet, a flushing toilet."

Marissa hopes to make enough of a connection to act as a mentor for years.

"They can call me when I'm back here in the United States," she said. "They can e-mail me and ask me, 'How do you do this?' And we can work through problems together because we have that lasting friendship."

Help International managers are looking for college and graduate students who want to volunteer. It costs $2,700 plus airfare. CLICK HERE for more information.


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