Nonprofit organization touches thousands — one life at a time

By Cecily Markland

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 6 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

Jose Luis went from speaking no English to becoming almost fluent within a year. Lily Estrada learned discipline and dedication. Denis Aguilera acquired study skills and improved his work performance.

An organization called One Life at a Time (OLAAT) is helping hundreds of young men and women in Third World countries develop necessary tools for success, helping them step out of poverty and develop skills for the workplace and for life.

With their newfound skills, people like Estrada are reporting impressive results. “I obtained a scholarship to study abroad, now I have a scholarship from Taiwan’s government and I’m enrolled in my third year of marine biology,” she said.

OLAAT got its start about nine years ago when, in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch, Grant and Victoria Walker, Danny and Michelle Ainge and Ross and Lori Farnsworth took their families on a service vacation to Honduras.

“We were shocked by the conditions but fell in love with the humble people and immediately went to work figuring out how we could make a permanent difference in Central America,” said Farnsworth, a member of the Mesa Arizona Mountain View Stake.

He and his colleagues wanted their efforts to be more than just “handing out fish,” he said. “It had to be studied, specific and measured.”

They considered the immediate needs and also looked at traditional pitfalls to progress in Honduras and other Third World countries. They also examined what was already being done to help and began sharing their ideas with others.

“We asked the LDS Church leaders in that area what the main concerns were. They indicated that returning missionaries had nothing to come home to and a huge percentage were going less active.”

Not only were they falling by the wayside in terms of church activity, equally disturbing was the fact that so many were falling out of the ranks of employment and business opportunities. Many were among the 40 to 60 percent who were high school dropouts, and “without a high school diploma and other qualifications they could not qualify for the church’s Perpetual Education Fund,” Farnsworth said. “While PEF is the perfect answer for so many, we saw there was a gap that was allowing many to slip through the cracks.

“We decided the best way to help the situation was to provide a safe place for missionaries to come home to and assure them a job or help them prepare and eventually qualify for the PEF, if their desire was to continue their education or training.”

Now, nine years later, the Arizona-based OLAAT is a one-of-a-kind nonprofit organization and is making a measurable difference.

“We are helping individuals become leaders. This is not just family building or church building. This is nation building,” said Brett Rydalch, OLAAT executive director and a member of the Queen Creek Arizona South Stake.

“We have educated just over 2,000 students, sent over 800 missionaries, contributed over 150,000 hours of service, built and placed about 1,500 grow boxes, acquired over 1,500 jobs and created many more, and prepared at least 450 for university studies,” Farnsworth said.

This is done, he said, through OLAAT’s three areas of focus.

First, based on needs, OLAAT operates a program “instituted to help direct and prepare young people for missions.” By participating in service projects, young people qualify and “earn” the things that typically keep many from being able to go on a mission, such as clothing, medical and dental expenses, luggage and passports. Without this program, many of the 800 missionaries OLAAT has helped would never have served, Farnsworth said.

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