International Partners Cassie Stern Memorial (IP) is a volunteer program that was originally launched in 1998 and incorporated as a 501(c)3 public charity in 2004. Since 1998, IP has worked with communities in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Sierra Leone, the Gambia, Haiti, Ethiopia, the Philippines, and El Salvador.
In 1998, Paula Beckman and Don Montagna, along with a committee of volunteers representing members of the Washington Ethical Society, began exploring ways to help people born outside the circle of prosperity to help themselves create a better life. Since Central Americans were emigrating to the USA in large numbers, we started to concentrate on making the “American dream” more possible for people who could not migrate to the USA (or who did not want to). Our approach was simply to ask communities what they needed (water, roads, schools, etc.) and then return to the USA to find money and volunteer service delegates to allow these poor rural communities to accomplish their goals.
During the first decade, IP leaders and volunteers gained experience in Central America by traveling to do projects such as teacher training and learning to work with elected leaders in rural communities. Our conviction is that grassroots, community-based development is the most effective path to personal and social progress. We began to focus on working with the elected leaders of eight communities to provide leadership training about how to survey community needs, create plans and budgets, and organize volunteers in order to implement development projects. Once communities realized that we could provide personal and financial support for development – and stay with them over an extended period of time – they eagerly organized to build water systems (which saved women from walking hours each day to carry water home), small roads, and education centers as well as an ecotourism cooperative, clinic, fish pond, etc.
Summer service delegations started in 2003 and soon expanded rapidly, with Peggy Goetz serving as our first trip coordinator. Delegates would raise the funds for projects and would then live and work with families in poor rural communities for a period of two to three weeks.
In 2003, Andy Stern, in honor of the memory of his daughter Cassie (Cassie Stern Memorial), raised funds to keep the costs to delegates low. Since then, the Cassie Stern Fund has paid trip overhead costs so that delegate fees could be used for the community projects and trip costs.
International Partners delegations have brought more than 700 delegates to El Salvador as of 2017. Goals are to:
- Empower grass roots Salvadoran leaders to develop self-sustaining community projects;
- Cultivate leadership capacities and provide opportunities to serve for US delegates;
- Promote cultural understanding through personal partnerships;
- Support grassroots development in poor rural communities
Originally, our volunteer optimism propelled us to think globally (“International” Partners), but it became apparent that grassroots development meant knowing people personally, returning regularly, understanding the local culture and politics, and knowing what resources were available. Our attention went from global, to Central America, to El Salvador, to the departments of Cuscatlán and Cabañas, to eight specific communities with which we have worked with for more than a decade. Since 2010, IP has centered its more modest attention on rural communities in El Salvador and built the IP headquarters in Aceituno, Cuscatlán, El Salvador.
What we saw firsthand in poor communities was that people faced several very basic and severe challenges (education, water, nutrition and health care, security, unemployment, transportation, political leadership, etc.). Despite the interconnection among all of these, we decided that education was the single-most influential lever for change and made it the priority for IP programs. Unfortunately, public schools are overcrowded, lack resources like books, paper, and computers, and are open for only half-day classes.
In 2004, IP and the people of Hacienda Vieja built the first IP Community Library-Education Center, which started with a pre-school. This program has expanded to constructing and operating centers in 5 communities with daily after-school classes, books, computers, and the Internet. Each library has a committee of parents who volunteer and help organize community-wide events. About 1,000 people a year participate. These Library-Education Centers are the only common buildings and have become the heart of these communities used not only for education but also for community meetings, festivals, and ceremonies. Part of the program’s success is the result of delegations of undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Maryland who come each January to develop the curricula, train teachers, and work with students.
Over the years, delegates have identified bright young people with potential but who couldn’t attend school for lack of funds. It began when a group of us identified Noel and Elba from Hacienda Vieja teaching in Hacienda Vieja and asked them what they would like to do in the future. Over a series of conversations, it became clear that they wanted to go to University, but didn’t have the funds. The group took it upon themselves raise the funds necessary for Noel and Elba to attend University. They ultimately graduated with degrees in education and social work. Then a group of high school delegates, led by Colin Ward, discovered Leonardo and Esmeralda in Cacahuatal and decided to make sure those students went to college. They ultimately graduated with degrees in business and have now started their own business.
During the 2009 January delegation, then-delegate Missy Robbins found two sisters (ages 13 and 15) at the community center on what should have been their first day of the new school year. When asked why they weren’t in school, they smiled and didn’t answer the question. The next day, the same thing happened. On the third day of school, only the younger sister, Elsi, was there. When Missy asked Elsi where her sister was, she replied that she was at school. “What happened?” Missy asked. “Oh, somebody gave her notebooks,” she answered. From that moment, IP’s official scholarship program was born, with Elsi the first recipient. Elsi subsequently created a budget, detailing expenses of approximately $200 required to pay public school costs (school supplies, uniforms, etc.). This expense was too great for a family with 13 kids, as the family survived on the crops they grew and earned only a few hundred dollars a year.
These experiences made the importance of scholarships increasingly clear and so Missy then volunteered to develop and expand it further. Thanks to her, the Scholarship Program has expanded each year to include more and more children and currently serves hardworking and motivated students ranging in age from 4 to over 30. Community members who have graduated from college are especially important because not only are they able to serve their communities using their advanced degrees but they also serve as an example to younger community members that education can be a doorway to a better life for themselves and their families. If you have any questions about the Scholarship Program or would like to get involved, you can contact Missy, IP’s Scholarship Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perhaps the greatest benefit from our work in Hacienda Vieja was meeting the young community president, Noel Iraheta, and vice president, Elba Funes. They were teaching pre-school to 25 children on the front patio of Elba’s mother’s house when they proposed that IP help to build a pre-school, library, and education center on a hillside that then served as a landfill. They knew how to dream and how to inspire and organize their neighbors to construct the education center with the help of IP delegations. With little education themselves, Noel and Elba were among the most effective leaders we had ever met anywhere. To express our appreciation, we raised scholarship funds that allowed Noel to finish high school and for Elba and Noel to attend and graduate from the University of El Salvador, where they became known as outstanding student leaders. After graduation in 2010, Elba became the IP Director of Social Programs and Noel, the IP Director of Agriculture and Training. All the current IP programs have been created and operated by these two talented leaders.
“Centro Cassie” – the Land of Milk and Honey
While we remain convinced that education is the biggest long term lever for personal and social change, insufficient income is the challenge beneath the other challenges and an obstacle to obtaining better education. Without jobs, families could not pay for basic needs like good nutrition, health care, or education.
Our answer was to develop “Centro Cassie” – a rural training center named in memory of Cassie Stern. Centro Cassie now serves as our headquarters in El Aceituno. The mission of Centro Cassie is to develop training and educational opportunities that will lead to increased income. It sits on beautiful rolling pastures, with grazing dairy cows, surrounded by 25 acres planted in sorghum. There are two resting barns, a milk house, workshop, office, and, at the top of the hill overlooking the valley, a school and meeting facility. Further down the hill is our growing honey bee project.
Centro Cassie conducts workshops for dairy farmers, hands-on classes about growing vegetables, training in bee cultivation, leadership training, and workshops for teachers, as well as serving as a center for educational classes and regional meetings. Centro Cassie and its social programs employ 40 full-time and part-time workers in a place where there are no other salaried jobs. Profits from the dairy and from harvesting honey from the beehives are designated to support our social program staff. People stop in to buy milk and honey, borrow tools, or just talk about what concerns them. As a unique institution serving the needs of the working poor, enhanced by the wise and welcoming personalities of Noel and Elba, Centro Cassie is a beacon of hope for people born without opportunity but determined to create a better life for themselves and their families.
For the many, many people who have contributed to IP programs over the years, each new initiative has been built on the priorities and challenges that have emerged in the communities. The partnerships built between U.S. volunteers and Salvadoran communities have taught participants in both countries valuable lessons about partnership and friendship as we have shared knowledge and developed programs. We are focused on strengthening existing programs, building community and promoting prosperity. We look forward to responding to the to new challenges that arise long into the future.