Elmhurst College: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

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Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Global Poverty Week at Elmhurst College

Danielle Littrell’s first encounter with extreme poverty came during her three-month stint earlier this year working in a medical clinic in a slum section of Guayaquil, Ecuador.

What the junior pre-med student remembers most vividly about the experience was the sight—and smell—of raw sewage collecting on roadsides around the clinic.  Littrell learned quickly that a lack of access to basic sanitation was one of the main reasons the clinic was so often choked with patients.

“Living in conditions like those has a huge impact on people’s health,” Littrell said. So when she returned home from Ecuador, she decided there was still more to be done for the clinic. She explained to an audience in the Frick Center on October 27, during a Poverty Week panel discussion, that she is now raising funds with the College’s Global Poverty Club to sponsor the clinic, and has begun preparing a research proposal to explore ways to promote health by improving sanitation.

Providing a forum for stories like Littrell’s was one of the objectives of Poverty Week, said the Global Poverty Club’s founder, senior Dan Zarlenga. He said the eight-month-old student organization launched the week of events to build awareness of poverty around the world and to focus on specific ways to address it.

“These are great stories of how ordinary people can achieve something extraordinary,” Zarlenga said. “We hope people can take what they learn from this week and put it to work in their own way.”

Poverty Week kicked off on October 25 when 25 Elmhurst student volunteers spent the day at a Hoffman Estates facility run by the charity organization Feed My Starving Children, helping package specially formulated food for malnourished children in Haiti. Zarlenga said the group helped package 270,000 meals, enough to feed 47 starving children for a year.

The week’s events also included an introduction to the micro-lending website Kiva.org, which connects individual lenders who can make small loans—as little as $25—to low-income entrepreneurs in 49 countries. In a session at the Frick Center on October 28, Ginny Kalish, a translator for Kiva, explained the organization’s lending operations and said that more than 98 percent of its loans are repaid.

“This is not a hand-out, it’s a hand up,” she said. “These are people who wouldn’t be eligible for ordinary loans.” 

The Global Poverty Club had raised $1,000 through rummage sales, raffles and donations from local businesses, and Zarlenga invited students at the session to help the club select recipients for 40 loans of $25 each. Students browsed the Kiva site on laptops that had been set up in the lounge and read the stories of entrepreneurs seeking loans.

“I know the two things college students do best is browse the Internet and spend money,” Zarlenga told the gathering. “And we’re not even asking for your money. We’re asking for your ideas.” One by one, students took a turn at the microphone to talk about the entrepreneurs they had chosen to support: a farmer in Costa Rica looking to improve the pasture for his livestock, a cereals merchant in Ghana seeking to increase her inventory, a Mongolian taxi driver hoping to buy parts for his aging vehicle. Within 30 minutes, the group had made $1000 in small loans through the web site.

That evening, Poverty Week’s keynote speaker focused on another way to alleviate poverty: providing the education that is beyond the reach of so many poor people but is essential for escaping poverty.

Lisa van Es, founder of the non-profit consulting firm Divine Commerce LLC, called education the most sustainable solution to the problem of poverty. She explained that while touring Nepal with the charitable organization Heifer International, she became convinced of the importance of building literacy and providing education for people of all ages. After meeting with village leaders in the poor farming community of Belsi, she vowed to build a library for the town. She is working with Heifer International and the non-profit education group Room to Read to turn her plans into reality.

“Education breaks the cycle of poverty, which is why I say it is the most sustainable way to alleviate poverty,” van Es said. “It’s also the best way to leverage charitable dollars, because you can see the impact of education multiplying in the world.”

Her plans for a library in Belsi are receiving support from Elmhurst’s Global Poverty Club. The group has raised $1,000 for the project, Zarlenga announced after van Es’s lecture.

He said he hoped the Poverty Week events would inspire more people to take action against poverty.

“You can toss around all kinds of statistics about poverty, but when you hear people telling their own stories first hand, it has a real, lasting impact,” Zarlenga said. “We hope these stories motivate people.”

By Andrew Santella

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