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World Neighbors changes the world one community at a time

World Neighbors, an Oklahoma City-based nonprofit, helps communities in remote and impoverished parts of the world identify and solve problems.

BY KEN RAYMOND Modified: November 23, 2012 at 8:24 pm •  Published: November 25, 2012
/articleid/3731385/1/pictures/1889376">Photo - Charles Blackwood World Neighbors  participant
Charles Blackwood World Neighbors participant

But the children weren’t eating any better. It didn’t make sense until World Neighbors realized the beans had turned into a cash crop. Farmers were selling them to other villages as fast as they could grow them. Once aid workers emphasized the importance of keeping some of the beans for food, nutrition levels improved.

“We have continued to change and adapt and learn from those mistakes,” Macdonald said.

Mistakes are far fewer than successes, largely because of the commitment and expertise of the nonprofit’s small staff. Of its 58 employees, only about 15 are from the United States.

“All of the people out in the field are locals from the same area in which they’re working,” Charles Blackwood said. “It’s not a bunch of Americans coming in telling everyone what to do.”

Macdonald, the Blackwoods and others do travel overseas to lend a hand.

“When you go on a World Neighbors journey, it’s really more to interact with the people and the programs in the communities, encourage them and observe what they’re doing,” said Dr. Susan Chambers, an Oklahoma City obstetrician/gynecologist who served on the board for nine years.

“You get involved. I delivered babies in Mali.”

Chambers also has traveled to Guatemala, Ecuador, Tanzania and Kenya with the nonprofit.

“Malaria is still a huge issue in a lot of countries,” she said. “Healthy young people still die from it. They get exposed to it and treated for it all the time. It’s like the common cold. They expect to get it multiple times.”

World Neighbors trains birthing attendants to practice good hygiene, sanitize instruments and recognize the signs of abnormal pregnancies in time to get mothers to clinics for C-sections. Without that training, birthing practices would remain primitive: Most mothers in these impoverished places, Chambers said, give birth on the ground.

“Little things can make a huge difference,” she said, “like washing your hands before you operate, not using the village knife and tying off the (umbilical) cord with a string to prevent infections. These are simple, inexpensive, common sense things for us … but when you train other people to do those things, it can make a huge impact on their communities.”

‘It opened up the world’

Women are vital to World Neighbors’ mission.

“Women do the lion’s share of the work, taking care of the kids and everything,” Chambers said. “If they’re not healthy, then everything falls apart.”

Macdonald estimated that 70 percent of the nonprofit’s actions are focused on women.

“We all know that if you want to change a family or a community, you only have to support women, because the ripple effect will bring everyone in,” she said.

One day in Burkina Faso, Macdonald was approached by a woman and a young child. Her other children, the woman said, were so malnourished that they couldn’t walk until age 4 or 5. This child was walking fine at age 2. The difference? World Neighbors had taught the woman how to make a healthful porridge for her kids.

Carol Blackwood, a former board member and longtime volunteer, recounted the story of Sondra, a Nepalese woman who’d lived in fear before enrolling in a World Neighbors forestry program. In earlier years, Sondra had walked two hours a day gathering fodder for her animals. Now she grows her own plants. Learning how to do that built up her confidence.

“Before she took the training,” Blackwood said, “she’d never met anyone from another village. When strangers came, she went in her house and closed the door and sealed all the windows. After the training, she didn’t feel she had to do that anymore. It opened up the world to her.”

Working with women hasn’t only produced individual successes. It has helped change communities for the better, in part by establishing credit and savings programs.

“It’s a little like a credit union,” Blackwood said. “Individuals contribute into this savings plan, and then the group of contributors decides who will get loans from the money. These women have been able, through these loans, to generate income to do all kinds of things, not just buying clothes for their children to go to school but to establish businesses.

“Some have been so successful that their children are going on to higher education, even though their parents may not even be literate.”

In Peru, World Neighbors checked in on a woman who’d borrowed money to raise and sell guinea pigs for food. The woman wanted to show them her operation. Macdonald said they expected to find no more than two dozen of the creatures.

“But suddenly she led us into her guinea pig barn, and she had 400 of them,” Macdonald said. “She made $9,000 that year. … She was a really high-powered, dynamite entrepreneur.”

Another Peruvian woman borrowed money to buy a small loom. She moved to a larger city to show people her creations and teach others to weave. During a visit, Macdonald noticed that people were sitting all around the woman’s house, eating. The woman was earning enough to provide lunch each day for anyone who was hungry.

‘Helping everyone’

The world has changed since Peters preached that sermon in 1951. The world’s problems haven’t.

People are still hungry, uneducated and poor. They don’t have adequate access to health care.

“The problems in the villages,” Macdonald said, “I don’t think have changed at all in 61 years. … These are the forgotten people. These are the hugely marginalized people.”

These are the people World Neighbors helps.

“The world is interconnected,” she said. “If we can be part of the solution for these people in other parts of the world, then we’re helping everyone.”

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