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.
“That’s 800 more missionaries, and who knows how many more lives they have touched,” he said. “And, because it is a ‘hand up,’ not a ‘hand out,’ they appreciate it so much more and are eager and willing to give back.”
Next, to help returning missionaries and others break the cycle of poverty, OLAAT started the Business Institute of Technology (BIT), where young men and women acquire the skills they need to be employable. In these countries, where a 30 to 40 percent unemployment rate is common, BIT provides specific training in computers, English, accounting and marketing and other practices and principles required for success in the marketplace and life.
BIT students also attend seminars on interviewing, paying tithes and offerings and creating a five-year realistic life plan. OLAAT currently has three schools in Central America. The schools are tailored particularly to ensure missionaries who return from honorable missions can attend a school with like-minded students who want to climb out of poverty.
Aguilera sees the difference it has made in his life as he went from having no job to a prestigious position as a business adviser.
“What I learned in BIT helped me tremendously in my current job and not only that, when applying for a job I put on my resume that had an intensive program of courses taught to me, and this helped me to open the doors at work,” Aguilera said.
OLAAT also offers a 12-month entrepreneurship course, developed by Steve Gibson, which includes classroom lectures, case studies, team projects, seminars and service projects. “Students are taught how to find micro-enterprise opportunities within their own communities,” the OLAAT website says.
The organization has grown to include a five-member volunteer board of directors and an executive team made up of 10 active members. As the success stories have increased, so have opportunities for participation.
U.S. families can volunteer for “service vacations,” and donations are welcome.
“We will always need help and resources,” Farnsworth said. “The model is now tested and is ready for replication into many other countries. It is now a matter of money, and we won’t rest until thousands each year are trained and prepared for life or for transitioning to the PEF.”
Recently, volunteers and members of the executive team visited the three schools in Central America for “three days of planning, training, supporting and listening.”
At an area church leadership meeting, Farnsworth said a number of leaders “came up to us and reminded us of their beginnings at our schools. One handsome young man approached me to say that he had studied at BIT in the second year. At that time he was selling bread on the streets to survive with his wife and new baby. As he stood in front of me with his beautiful gray suit and his pink monochrome tie, he humbly said, in English, that he is a bishop and has 40 employees in his telecom-related business.”
“We don't claim to make the man successful,” Farnsworth continued. “We simply provide him a hopeful start in life.”
For Lily Estrada and many others, that hopeful start is making all the difference.
“I am so grateful for having this great opportunity,” she said. “Things can happen, our goals can become true and the doors will be opened unto to us.”
To learn about family service vacations, benefit events and simple ways to join OLAAT in breaking the cycle of poverty, visit www.olaat.org.
Cecily Markland is a freelance writer, book editor, publicist and author of "Hope: One Mile Ahead" and the children’s book, "If I Made a Bug." She owns Inglestone Publishing and produces a calendar of LDS events in Arizona (www.cecilymarkland.com).