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GambiaHELP focuses aid on women, children

In 2001-02, I had the privilege of working with Shelby Tarutis and the non-profit organization GambiaHELP. This Seattle-based organization, which Tarutis founded in 1998, is an outgrowth of her time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the West African country of Gambia.

Its efforts include those projects that are educational, environmental, entrepreneurial and health-related. GambiaHELP often centers its initiatives on women and children, in part because they don't have the same access to resources as men do.

Tarutis' success in helping Gambians help themselves is outlined on her Web site, www.gambiahelp.org. As a result of her efforts, ParentMap is recognizing Tarutis as this month's hero.

Q. Tell me about GambiaHELP's first undertaking: the Books and Libraries Project.

A. Before we started this project, most rural schools did not have any books. I remember one school where the "library" was a bookshelf behind the principal's desk, which no one could touch. Students could only copy what was on the board and then memorize it. Today, there are approximately 50 school libraries where children can take books home, practice reading, and look at the pictures. With help they're able to grasp the stories, and begin developing critical thinking skills and ideas outside of themselves. We have distributed around 100,000 books to Gambian schools now. When I started GambiaHELP, there was less than one book for every 15 kids in Gambia. Now they probably have one book for every five.

Q. You'd think that donating books would be a fairly simple task, but it isn't?

A. You don't want to just drop off books at a school and not know what happens to them. Following the donation until it gets into the hands of the kids is key. To be a responsible donor, you need someone there to help process the books, and to introduce them to a school. Sometimes kids will have only seen a book in an elder's hands, so it's introducing a whole new concept to them. They need to know how to take care of books, how to value them. The students need to wash their hands before they use a book, for example. It's an education process.

Q. Which project are you most proud of?

A. The milling machine, owned by a women's group in a small rural village with no running water or electricity. It takes the hulls off the rice so the women don't have to do so much pounding. For every 10 cups of rice milled, the women get one cup profit. They slowly make bags of hulled rice with their profits, which they can either sell or add to their cereal bank. They can also exchange rice for groundnuts [peanuts] or coose [another grain]. So then the bank will have a variety of foods, which they can withdraw from during the lean times. Since you must also have the education along with the project, we're teaching them accounting, and how to manage the business. And it's working.

Q. With the current economic and political climate in Gambia, do you worry about people leaving, taking with them the resources you've invested in them?

A. There's a huge brain drain in Gambia. People want to leave the country, to make money overseas and send it home. You can't blame them for wanting that opportunity. If I make an investment in someone and they leave later, I know the investment has been dispersed. If we give new ideas about development to someone or somebody, it will be transmitted to other people. But you also have to give people hope that things will get better. How do you do that? By coming back every year, by being optimistic, by encouraging them to take advantage of opportunities. The problem is that they don't have a lot of "how to" information. I try to teach them the "how to." They might have an idea, but how do you get to the goal? That's where the critical thinking skills become important -- you come to a roadblock, what do you do next?

Q. Like the well project?

A. That's right. They wanted to build a well in one community where they lost their clean drinking water after a flood. I went there, we wrote up a contract, got supervisors and built it. They knew they wanted a well, they just didn't know how to get the resources. Sometimes I teach people how write project proposals, then they send them to me and I get the funding. We're slowly getting there, taking baby steps.

Q. If you could communicate one thing about Gambia to Americans, what would it be?

A. Just because the people are poor, it doesn't mean that they can't also teach us. Family is very important, no one goes hungry, and the elderly are respected and cared for. While Americans have much to offer, we can also learn that family and community are among society's most valuable commodities.

Laura Fine-Morrison is a Seattle freelance writer and mother.

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