Lee Benson, Deseret News
Mark Petersen is CEO of Mentors International, a charitable institution in Draper that loans money to the poor.
I feel that everyone was placed on this planet in varying circumstances and given various opportunities and those who have been blessed with more have an obligation to those who have not been given so much. —Mark Petersen

SALT LAKE CITY — When Jose Adolfo Zamora Callejas approached Mentors International seeking a loan for about $65 in 1998, he owned one cow.

With the help of the loan, training and a mentor from Mentors Guatemala, a branch of the organization, Callejas now has five cows, 18 pigs, a truck, lives in his own home and employs other workers.

"Mentors has been a blessing for me and my family, and I'm so grateful for them because they gave me a hand when I needed it," he said through a translator.

The company will commemorate 25 years of changing lives with a fundraising gala Friday at the Salt Lake Marriott Downtown at City Creek. Proceeds from the gala will benefit Mentors International and go toward its ambitious mission:

"We're trying to solve poverty one person at a time," Mark Petersen, Mentors International CEO, said.

Mentors International, with offices in Draper, is a nonprofit organization with seven microfinance locations in the Philippines, Guatemala, Peru, El Salvador and Honduras. It will soon expand to Africa, as well. The organization provides microloans to people in developing countries who are impoverished. The loan officer for the transaction acts as a mentor who guides and trains the business owners.

On average, Mentors branches grant a small, short-term loan to someone at a comparatively low interest rate to help them launch a business, which could range from running a farm to becoming a fish wholesaler. Depending on the country, amounts range from about $150 to $278 for first loans

Local mentors will work with their clients, whose needs range from learning to read or count to working with QuickBooks or other software to expand their businesses. Some clients run six or seven businesses at a time.

People find out about the organization through word of mouth or through the networking efforts of a local mentor. Some of these business owners go from earning around $2 a day to earning anywhere from $7 to $50 a day, depending on the business, Petersen said.

The hope is that those who succeed will go on to help others in business, will have the money to educate their children and will break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

"For these people to get out of poverty, it is a drastic change for them. It is a change of mindset. It's hard to take the poverty out of people," said Nathan McClellan, director of international operations for Mentors International.

The organization boasts impressive statistics: 3.6 million people helped in developing countries, almost $60 million dispersed in loans and an average repayment rate of 95 percent over 24 years.

Although the process changes depending on which country it is operating out of, Mentors International works through the power of social collateral, meaning people work with and are accountable to other community members to secure and pay back their loans. This also helps people have courage to pursue their dreams, McClellan said.

On average it takes at least three years for people to escape poverty and most will need to take out multiple loans over the life of their business, said Julie Moselle, Mentors International chief strategy officer.

"One loan, two loans is not necessarily going to get them out of their situation," she said.

A skeleton crew of five runs affairs at Mentors International because "we want to send as much to the program as possible," said office manager Theresa Nielson. "We work very hard."

Employees from all levels of Mentors International — even its CEO — say they were drawn to the organization because they wanted to be part of changing lives.

“I feel that everyone was placed on this planet in varying circumstances and given various opportunities and those who have been blessed with more have an obligation to those who have not been given so much," Petersen said.

“We have a responsibility, and the thing that I love about what I do is that it gives me an opportunity to have a direct impact in literally hundreds of thousands of lives to help lift them out of perpetual grinding poverty."

Mentors International is 21 percent of the way toward its goal of raising $3.5 million between now and 2016 and it is looking for those who can help them continue their efforts to help people in poverty, Petersen said.

“I feel we all have a responsibility and that the reason that people should be interested in Mentors International is that we have a proven solution that ends poverty in the lives of people that we serve," Petersen said.

Each donation also goes a long way, Stump said, giving the example of a domestic company in comparison. It may need about $50,000 to launch, with uncertain prospects of success, while a loan of a couple hundred dollars for a business in a developing country yields almost universally positive results.

"It has immediate benefit to them."

The gala Friday commemorates the start of the organization, which traces its origin to 1989 when St. Louis businessman Menlo F. Smith saw a need after completing a three-year humanitarian project in the Philippines. He joined with Warner P. Woodworth of the Marriott School of Management at BYU and Steven H. Mann, a businessman with experience in international training, to form the group.

For more about the gala visit mentorsinternational.org.