For some, the festivities, music and decorations of the holiday season begin too early. For members of the Elmbrook Rotary Club, the generosity and caring will extend much later.
Since 2011, the Elmbrook Rotary Club has sent a team of members to Guatemala as part of a partnership with the Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization Common Hope to help provide better lives for families and children in villages around Antigua.
Common Hope, also known as Familias de Esperanza - Families of Hope, works with approximately 20 different teams from across the country to help families see their children through high school education in the pursuit of better lives.
"Only 17 percent of Guatemalans graduate from high school," Common Hope U.S. Vision Team Manager Kallie Sandell said. "It's very expensive to go to school. School supplies are expensive. If a family has to choose between spending money on antibiotics or school supplies, the latter is going to take priority."
Teams from Elmbrook and ranging from the East Coast to California have worked with Common Hope to convince families to commit their children to education through both financial and physical aid.
"Common Hope goes into the neighborhoods and says, 'If you will keep your kids in school, we will take them on.' There's such pressure to pull kids out of school to put them in the fields or help do domestic work to keep food on the table," Elmbrook Rotary member Tom Curl said.
Once families are affiliated with Common Hope, the organization assists them with acquiring school supplies and uniforms for their children. In addition, children of affiliated families can be sponsored by donors such as Curl and his wife Linda.
"The main connections that we have are through the children. When Linda and I go, we get to meet them and meet their parents and they recognize you," Curl said. "It lets the kid know that somebody who lives way up north cares about them."
Curl and fellow club member Erik Moeser are among the locals who have taken their charitable efforts close to the equator in the years since Elmbrook began sending a team in 2011.
"Everybody thinks about doing things that are charitable. At the rotary club we have several projects that are ongoing and we decided that we needed an international project," Moeser said. "Some of these people are desperately poor but they don't know that. They've got an attitude and a happiness and a vibe about them that a lot of people around here should learn from."
In their time in the many villages around Antigua, Moeser, Curl and members of the other 20 teams that Common Hope partners with, embark on a number of tasks ranging from supporting children and families to helping out in schools as teacher's aides. Team members also take part in helping to build new houses for families who may currently reside in structures with cardboard walls.
"We always have them working in the trenches with whatever the people need help with," Sandell said. "They're always helping."
Coordinating the effort
While Curl and Moeser have taken their turns visiting and helping their Central American friends, Renato Westby has committed his life's work to being on the ground and coordinating with Sandell and teams like Elmbrook.
Westby was born in Guatemala and orphaned at the age of 5. He was adopted by an American couple and in 1996 returned to his home country as a full-time volunteer with Common Hope. He has been working to make the lives of his countrymen and women a better place ever since.
"I absolutely love the work that I do," Westby said. "I am thankful that I am able to be out in the field doing what I love: Walking side by side with families in their process to improve their lives, coaching teachers in public schools to improve the quality of education and helping leaders to influence and promote well-being in their communities. All of these things make this small piece of the world a better place."
Westby specifically made note of the contributions that members of the Elmbrook Rotary Club have made in furthering the work of Familias de Esperanza.
"Elmbrook has made a bond with a few of the elementary schools Common Hope serves in Guatemala," Westby said. "Elmbrook Rotary team members also lead classroom activities and help improve the classrooms."
Charity Navigator, an American independent charity watchdog organization, rates Common Hope at 4 out of 4 stars.
According to Sandell, 81 cents of every dollar goes directly to Common Hope programs.
"That number never drops below 80. As for the rest, there's a portion for fundraising for development work and this past year that was 7 cents of every dollar and then management and general administrative was 12 percent," Sandell said.
Usually Elmbrook sends its team down in February; however, Common Hope has asked the club to delay its trip until March this year for scheduling purposes.
Curl said that the club is open to even bringing non-members along on their trips.
"It's a humbling experience. We have opportunities that these people and those kids will probably never have," Curl said. "You can make a huge difference in the lives of these people."
For more information on Common Hope go to www.commonhope.org or for more information on the Elmbrook Rotary Club www.elmbrookrotary.org.