Finding God in good works

Reaching out: Columbia couple sees "spark of the divine" in their work to help Guatemalan women empower themselves.

May 12, 2000|By Diane Reynolds | Diane Reynolds,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Columbia residents Lane and Priscilla Hart first visited the squatter city of La Esperanzain Guatemala in 1992, they saw unpaved streets, houses made of cardboard and open sewers. The town's population consisted primarily of those displaced from the countryside by civil war - with no place else to go."People were squatters, building houses out of scraps of woods, and pieces of plastic," said Lane Hart, 72.

But they also saw the beginnings of change after they met with their friend Barbara Fenske.

Fenske, married to a Howard County minister, had a concern for Central America. Traveling there with the nursing degree she had earned so she would have a useful skill, Fenske ended up in La Esperanza working in a Roman Catholic-run health clinic.

Weary of treating all the children and babies suffering from malnutrition at the clinic, Fenske started her own "well-baby clinic." To support her clinic, Fenske proposed that local women make hair ornaments at home that could be resold in the United States.

That was the beginning of UPAVIM, a Spanish acronym for "united to live better" (unidas para vivir mejor)."UPAVIM ... gave the women hope, self-confidence and skills," said Priscilla Hart, 71.

The 58 women of UPAVIM, all mothers and homemakers, make crafts and help run UPAVIM programs. These include a dental clinic, breast-feeding advocacy, a medical lab, clinic and pharmacy, day care center, and scholarship and tutoring services. The mothers split the profits from their crafts with the cooperative, so the entire community benefits.

As UPAVIM inventory expanded to include jewelry, bags, clothes, Christmas ornaments, backpacks, kitchen magnets and wreaths, Priscilla Hart stepped forward to handle sales and marketing of the crafts in America."After seeing the number of crafts being made, I said I could do the sales and marketing from my home," she said."As time went by, they were making more crafts and it got to be a bigger project all the time. From our Howard County home we started to sell to different stores across the country, as well as in churches and through Latin American support groups," she added.

The Harts' Columbia home became the international distribution center for UPAVIM. Fenske got the Harts in touch with SERVV, Pueblo to People and Tear in England, all larger groups that buy and sell crafts from micro-entrepreneurs.

When asked why they would volunteer for a project of such scope, the Harts, both Presbyterian elders at St. John's United Methodist Presbyterian Church in the Wilde Lake Village Center, say it is impossible for them to separate spiritual life from a life of compassionate service to others."The whole life journey is a spiritual journey," said Lane Hart. "We live here in Howard County, but we also live in Maryland, the USA and in the world. We have responsibilities to all of these and a sense of compassion toward the whole world."Any time you are working in a compassionate mode, you see the spark of the divine. Spirituality comes out of empowering people ... not proselytizing," he said.

They both talk of how much things have changed for the better in La Esperanza and of the work that still needs to be done."The streets are paved, and there is sewage, electricity and water in the homes," says Lane Hart. "It's a whole lot different than it was, in part due to UPAVIM."

His wife added that the women of UPAVIM "have a whole new sense of worth ... in a macho culture, they earn their own money ... and make some of their own decisions. They are empowered."

Although still involved in UPAVIM, the Harts turned the distribution end of the business over to others about two years ago, once it grossed more than $100,000 a year."We would be embarrassed if we were portrayed as being unique or rare ... in this county," said Lane Hart. "Many of more courage ... risk more than Priscilla and I in service to others."

UPAVIM is supported by HOCOFOLA (Howard County Friends of Latin America) and Columbia Cooperative Ministries. Its crafts may be purchased through Mary Joan Ferrara-Marsland at 301-515-5911.

UPAVIM is also looking for tutors and teachers who are fluent in Spanish and willing to spend six months or more in Guatemala in exchange for room, board and other expenses. Information: 410-730-6285, or e-mail: upavim@guate.net, attn. Barbara Fenske. Donations and grants to help support UPAVIM also are accepted.

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