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Provided by Carvel and Betty Whiting
A group of 6-year-old students in a classroom in Pangil in the Laguna province of the Philippines. The average class size is around 50 students.

Getting an education is difficult for Donald Besana, 14.

Donald, a native of the Philippines, is the youngest of seven children. His father died when he was 4 years old, and his mother's only means of supporting the family is the small amount she receives from her late husband's pension. Most of Donald's older siblings have not been able to attend school.

Thanks to yearly scholarship from the BELIEVE International Foundation, things are looking up for Donald. His scholarship brings an education within his reach.

"The most important thing I learned from my school this year (is) the opportunity given to me as scholar of this foundation. (It) make my life happy," Donald wrote in a letter to the foundation. "I learned there are many people who has a charitable heart. Aside from that, my mother was very thankful for this blessing. It lessen her burden (of) schooling budget."

Many Filipino youths find themselves in a situation similar to Donald's. With a meager wage of $2 per day to support a large family, most parents can't afford to send their children to school. However, one local foundation is seeking to change this scenario.

The BELIEVE International Foundation seeks to provide educational assistance to Filipino children living in extreme poverty, like Donald, to help them rise above their circumstances. The foundation also emphasizes the development of values along with education. BELIEVE stands for Building Effective Leadership, Integrity, Excellence and Values through Education.

"What we're really trying to do is help the people overcome poverty," said Carvel Whiting, one of the founders of BELIEVE International, who lives in Cottonwood Heights. "There is a high correlation between poverty and corruption. This is an attempt to help address that issue by teaching people positive behaviors rather than corruption."

Stephen Kirk, a founder of the Live to Learn Foundation, which merged with the BELIEVE Foundation Inc. to form BELIEVE International last year, said of the number of Filipino youths who start elementary school, only 49.8 percent finish high school. Many drop out when the cost becomes more than their parents can afford. Others alternate years they attend school so that all children in a family can have at least a year or two of schooling.

"We've estimated the cost for an elementary kid to attend school to be around $70 and for a high school student about $100," Kirk said. "If the parents make $500 a year then one-fifth of their income goes for school for that one kid, but (most) families have more than one kid. If they have two elementary and one high school student, the cost is around $250, so 50 percent of their yearly income goes to schooling."

Area coordinators in the Philippines refer to the foundation students who they feel would be good candidates for a BELIEVE scholarship.

"They'll gather a list of potential students and go interview the families," Whiting said. "We have pretty extensive information we gather about the income of a family. (The area coordinators) then complete these forms and send them to (us)."

The selection process is constantly evolving as it's difficult to decide which students will receive scholarships, Kirk said.

"It's still (improving). As long as we do this, we'll pick students who really deserve it," he said.

The foundation started in 2001 when a group of young men who served as LDS Church missionaries to the Philippines committed to do something to alleviate the grinding poverty they found in the country. They formed the Live to Learn Foundation, which paid the public education expenses of impoverished Filipino children.

"We had the first group of students in 2002, and ... we've grown," Kirk said. "By the end of the 2005 school year, we had just over 120 kids in four cities total."

In the spring of 2006, Live to Learn partnered with the Pearls with a Purpose Foundation, which was created to aid poor Filipinos by shipping essential items including clothing, food and school supplies. With this affiliation, Live to Learn expanded its service area.

The BELIEVE Foundation was created independently in June 2006 using the same principles as Live to Learn but adding a focus on helping students understand and internalize positive core values and develop leadership skills. In December 2006, Live to Learn and the BELIEVE Foundation merged to form BELIEVE International.

"BELIEVE is an extension of what Live to Learn had done," Whiting said.

In April, BELIEVE International volunteers visited the Philippines to open another eight locations, bringing the total number of areas the foundation serves to 15.

"We fully intend to expand across the Philippines. That has been a major project in the past 12 months," Whiting said.

Sponsors are asked to pay $90 each year, which covers all the costs of schooling for one student per year. BELIEVE International's Web site, www.believeinternational.org, has a listing of students available for sponsorship.

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"Anybody who wants to sponsor can pick or we can assign them. It's a chance to serve people," Kirk said. "It's fun if (the sponsor and student) develop some kind of connection. We encourage students to write some kind of extra letter to facilitate communication between the student and sponsor. We think most sponsors find this rewarding."

The main purpose behind BELIEVE International is to enable Filipino youths, like Donald, to receive an education who would be out of reach otherwise.

"We believe this will help students overcome poverty," Whiting said. "If one student got educated with these characteristics, he or she can help others overcome poverty."


E-mail: twalquist@desnews.com