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Building bridges around the world

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Nonprofit started in Evergreen makes microcredit loans to Guatemalan women

By Deb Hurley Brobst

“If you give a man a fish, he is hungry again in an hour; if you teach him to catch a fish, you do him a good turn."

— Anne Isabella Ritchie

Friendship Bridge is not about giving food to poor women in Guatemala; it is about doing a good turn by helping them start businesses, so they can feed their own families.

The nonprofit, which got its start in Evergreen, raises money and provides microcredit loans to deserving women in one of the poorest countries in the world. The Guatemalan women learn about running a business as part of the program.

Microcredit loans are small by American standards — just $350 — but they are huge to the women who are desperate to find ways to feed and educate their families.

Friendship Bridge currently has 19,000 loans out to Guatemalan women.

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, seven in 10 indigenous people in the Central American country live in poverty.

The nonprofit itself is a substantial employer in Guatemala, with 84 staff members in eight offices. According to the organization, 17 percent of the staff were clients or are related to clients.

The loans to Guatemalan women are made possible by the people — mostly women — who are part of the chapters, called “friendship circles,” that make up the nonprofit in the United States.

Friendship circles are in Wisconsin, California, New Mexico and Texas in addition to Colorado.

The Evergreen circle, which was the inaugural group, has two dozen active members and about 100 on its e-mail list.

Friendship Bridge was established in 1990 by Evergreen residents Ted and Connie Ning, who began by sending medical supplies to Vietnam. In 1994, it switched its focus to providing microcredit loans there. In 1998, it switched to Guatemalan women.

Lending money in Guatemala

To qualify for a loan, the Guatemalan women must take classes on operating a business. They form groups of eight to 25 to provide support for each other, and they must prove they will be able to repay the loans.

About a third of the women weave traditional cloth or embroider in their businesses. Some make and sell tortillas, while others have opened veterinary clinics and mechanic shops.

“The human spirit makes these women do what they can to bring in revenue,” said Caitlin Scott, programs and project manager for Friendship Bridge.

Making ‘swittens’ to raise money

Friendship Bridge in the United States is involved in making and selling crafts to support the organization. For several years, the Evergreen circle made fused-glass jewelry.

Now they make “swittens” — mittens crafted from old sweaters. The warm swittens have a swatch of Guatemalan fabric in them, so when the wearer puts them on, he or she is touching the life of a Guatemalan woman, according to Evergreen member Betty Astle.

The Evergreen circle has been making swittens for two years, and they are a hit at craft fairs and wherever the women take them to sell, such as book club and service organization meetings, and to exercise classes — anywhere someone might be interested in buying a pair.

Swittens come in children’s and adult sizes. A large men’s sweater can provide the material for as many as six pairs.

Women collect sweaters at thrift stores or from donations, piece together the fabric, cut out the patterns, sew them and put on the finishing touches.

Making swittens is a social endeavor, much like sewing bees during the pioneer days.

This year, they have made 320 pairs of swittens that they sell for $35 each, and they hope to raise $10,000.

If they run out of swittens, they’ll happily make more.

A new fund-raiser

This year, member Jeri Aldridge has worked to bring artisans from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Evergreen to demonstrate, display and sell Mata Ortiz pottery.

Aldridge, who has gotten to know several of the craftsmen over the years, said their renowned pottery is displayed in museums around the world. She had private showings of their work at her home but decided to formalize it this year.

“I think (Mata Ortiz pottery) is something people don’t see very often,” Aldridge said. “The craftsmen make the demonstrations fun.”

She said the pottery sale is a win-win situation for Friendship Bridge and for the artisans, who use the money to help their families living among the drug problems in Mexico.

Firsthand witnesses of empowerment

Many Evergreen circle members are in it to empower the impoverished women to become self-sufficient.

“I’m a retired teacher, and I wanted to be involved in an organization that helps women,” said Ardis Strieby, who led the Evergreen circle for eight years.

Several have traveled to Guatemala to witness firsthand how the organization works there and to see how women are spending the money.

Strieby said her trip to Guatemala was emotional as she met the borrowers.

“They are hard-working like us, and they want the best for the families,” she said. “They want to make their lives better.”

Scott said it was important to send members to Guatemala to keep them passionate and engaged in the program.

“When I went on my trip (to Guatemala),” Aldridge said, “I really ‘got it’ because I could observe their lives.”

Evergreen residents and retired teachers Barbara Voth, Michelle O’Laughlin and Lynn Jinks are strong believers in empowering women.

Voth wants to help them so they can help their children get educations. Voth has been involved with Friendship Bridge for a year. She cuts fabric, sews buttons and shops for sweaters.

O’Laughlin became involved with Friendship Bridge when the organization was helping women in Vietnam. Her third-grade students at Wilmot Elementary helped put together dental kits to send there.

“I recognize the importance of microcredit because it’s not a handout,” O’Laughlin said. “It facilitates self-empowerment, and I’m all about that.”

For Jinks, a Guatemala trip forever changed her outlook on the women there.

“I realized how much good we’re doing,” said Jinks, who helps sew the swittens. “I saw in action how much confidence these women gained. I could see it in their faces. (Friendship Bridge) has me for life.”

Contact Deb Hurley Brobst at deb@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1041. Check www.CanyonCourier.com for updates.

How to help

Friendship Bridge will be raising funds for microcredit loans to Guatemalan women two ways in the next few weeks:

• It will sponsor a show and sale of Mata Ortiz pottery, with part of the proceeds benefiting the organization. The artisans will demonstrate their craft, and pottery may be viewed and purchased from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25, at the Green Merchant in downtown Evergreen and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, at Church of the Transfiguration on the east end of downtown.

• Friendship Bridge will sell swittens at the Alternative Gift Fair from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, at Evergreen Lutheran Church, 5980 Highway 73 in Evergreen.