Friday, March 7, 2003

Idaho

Honduras visit cements faith in bank project
Close to home

Cynthia Taggart
Staff writer

photo
Coeur d'Alene Rotary Club members Steve Wetzel, front left, and Dana Wetzel, back center, pose with students and staff at a school they visited in Honduras.

Lora Whalen liked seeing her money endure -- and it did in Honduras.

It bought more than it did at home in Post Falls. More importantly, it also changed lives.

"It's where we're going to give our money from now on," Lora says, with the passion of a true believer.

Lora is sold because she visited Honduras' Mosquito Coast last month, saw her money at work and spoke with the people who are benefitting from it.

"It's not charity. This organization is set up to work, and it works," she says.

She and her husband, Pat, put money in a system that lends it in small increments -- $40 to $300 -- primarily to women to start businesses. It's called microbanking, and Coeur d'Alene's Rotary Club fell solidly behind it four years ago at the urging of Steve and Dana Wetzel.

The Wetzels, both attorneys, started their life together as Peace Corps volunteers in Guatemala in the 1970s. The microbank concept excited them.

An economics professor started the pro
gram in Bangladesh 15 years ago. He figured small loans could yield lifetime changes for industrious people. They repaid the loans every few months to qualify for another until their businesses were strong enough to make it on their own.

Rotary embraced the microbank idea a decade ago. The Wetzels introduced it to the Coeur d'Alene club in 1998 after visiting a Rotary project fair in Honduras.

Honduran Rotarians Julio and Carmen Villarta identified business ideas with potential in remote areas of their country and directed start-up money collected by Rotarians to the people -- usually women -- behind the ideas. People sold food, sweets, crafts, sewing and more from tables along town sidewalks. They repaid the loans every four months until their businesses could support themselves.

"Steve and I came back and told the club, `We need to do this,"' Dana says.

The Wetzels shared the idea with the 70 other Rotary clubs in their district, and those clubs often pooled donations. It takes $2,500 to start a community bank. Honduras has 62. Coeur d'Alene sent its money to Julio and Carmen.

"We said they could set up a (business) club anywhere," Dana says. "I was delighted he'd want to go to the poorest part of the country."

Last month, Dana and Steve headed south to see the Rotary's money at work. Lora and Pat joined them.

Lora lived in El Salvador as a high school exchange student and is fluent in Spanish. She served as an interpreter. Julio and Carmen took the Coeur d'Alene group to the Mosquito Coast, where people live in wood slat homes on stilts. Toucans and monkeys chatter from trees, and everyone carries a machete.

They saw their money at work in a village along the Nicaraguan coast that once was a contra camp.

Women who had started businesses told the Wetzels and Whalens the microbank had $1,600 in savings after one year. They sold handmade furniture, bike parts, fruit drinks, cosmetics and food, had learned to keep records of their accounts and were earning enough to send their children to school.

One woman walked three miles to share her gratitude with the Coeur d'Alene crew. Another organization had lent her start-up money, then never followed up. Julio and Carmen saved her bread business with the Rotary program.

"How lucky to be involved," Lora says. "It was such a magical experience."

The Wetzels and Whalens returned more sold on the microbank program than ever.

"You can see how proud the women are at what they accomplish," Lora says. "These people are so kind and good and happy to have us there. I wanted to give them whatever I could."

The Coeur d'Alene Rotary Club set up an independent foundation that accepts donations from anyone for the microbank program in Honduras. Donations to Club Foundation are tax-deductible. To donate, contact any Rotarian.

Cynthia Taggart can be reached at 765-7128 or by e-mail at cynthiat@spokesman.com.


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