"Education is the key to opportunity," said President Gordon B. Hinckley on March 31, 2001, as he announced a bold new scholarship program to benefit church members in developing countries. The Perpetual Education Fund caught the imagination of Latter-day Saints immediately, and the program quickly grew far beyond expectations.

"It was an inspired announcement full of prophetic promise," said Elder John Carmack, an emeritus general authority who was called home from an assignment in central Europe to head the program at its inception. "It may turn out to be one of the most important decisions made relative to the future of the church."

In April 2007, the fund was estimated to have made 27,000 loans at an average of $860 each to disadvantaged Latter-day Saints, using only the interest earnings from the fund. The program was offering scholarships to worthy LDS members in 39 nations, having started in September 2001 in just three countries.

By 2007, programs were active in 39 countries, including Mexico, Central and South America, the Philippines, the Caribbean, Cambodia, Mongolia and India, with plans to expand into west Africa, central Europe, Russia, Tonga, Samoa and Fiji. Many receiving aid live in nations that don't offer loans and grants to students as in the United States. Most recipients have filled church missions. All are expected to repay their loans as they enter employment.

The assistance helps recipients attend local training institutions to prepare themselves primarily in vocational fields such as health care, computers, refrigeration, auto mechanics, "anything that leads to a job," said Elder Carmack. "A good percentage of them are placed."

Many countries have good vocational training opportunities, and the church has cultivated relationships with these institutions.

In describing the PEF concept to priesthood holders in 2001, President Hinckley called on church members to donate to a fund that would provide scholarships to help those less fortunate "step out of the cycle of poverty which they and those before them have known for so long. ... They will become leaders in this great work in their native lands. They will pay their tithes and offerings, which will make it possible for the church to expand its work across the world."

The prospect of contributing for a specific need appealed to many church members. "The response was wide and generous," said Elder Carmack. "It has given our members the opportunity to sacrifice for fellow members of the church."

Tracking the number of donors is not simple as many contributions are made at the local level and not itemized, but an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 church members responded in the first three years, he said. "It is clear that the program will have a viable future." Besides individual donations, the church has made a substantial contribution in manpower and support for the program, Elder Carmack said.

President Hinckley's choice of the term Perpetual Education Fund was a tie to the church's past. In the mid-19th century gathering to Utah Territory, church members in need could draw on a Perpetual Emigration Fund, which they repaid in either money or service, to help others to join the Saints.

"That was a style of meeting a problem, that of getting the Latter-day Saints to Utah. Now the problem is the opposite — helping them to stay where they are and build the church in their own countries."

The success stories very quickly began to accumulate. A PEF brochure told some of them:

• Tatiana and Maylin, Peru. From a very poor family, the sisters were sent by their father to Lima, where they were to make their own way. They scratched out a meager existence until PEF gave them an opportunity to train, one in nursing and the other in medical technology.

• Nadine, Haiti. In a country with 80 percent unemployment, she studied to be a teacher, with a job guaranteed.

• Alfonso, Mexico: With a wife and child living in a small room without water, he applied for a PEF loan to enhance a natural artistic talent. A six-month program in computer graphic design prepared him for a position with a stable company at twice his previous salary and better prospects for the future.