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Earlier this week I arrived home after a successful month long visit to Brazil. As I unpack and unwind a bit, I’d like to share some of the highlights from the trip. As you read my report, keep in mind that CEN’s focus isn’t to just give money for the projects, but to help support communities’ own efforts to achieve specific objectives. The initial strategies they come up with don’t always work out because situation changes, there are unforeseen obstacles, inadequate execution, or because of poor planning. CEN’s goal is to help the communities – and their leaders – become more flexible, creative and more self-reliant so they can solve problems on their own. Our goal is to break their dependency on others to solve their problem. Here’s how two current community-led initiatives are faring:

Suruacá School Electrification

EixoForteFeb13tourElise250 520d5f558befbThe original objectives of the project were to double the number of laptops (from 5 to 10) available for students and faculty to use, and power a freezer so the school could store the food needed to provide nutrition lunches to students. The community’s initial strategy was to double the size of the existing solar (photovoltaic) electricity system. Since the project began however, their five batteries failed due to age and harsh environmental conditions. Batteries, which only last about four years in the heat and humidity of the climate, cost about US$1100 – and need to be replaced about every 4 years. This recurring cost significantly increased the financial scope of the project. In the face of these developments, here’s what they’ve done so far:

  • They've purchased a larger power inverter for only about $200, which now allows them to power 9 laptop – at least when the sun is shining. Since teachers and students mostly need to access computers and the internet during the day, this is usually adequate, except on overcast and rainy days when the system isn’t able to generate enough electricity. (During the rainy season, it can remain cloudy for days on end). The community also runs their community generator for 2 hours most evenings now though, which gives the laptops an opportunity to recharge in the evening. This is not a perfect solution, but it is a big improvement.
  • When I arrived on this visit, the teachers and students could only access the Internet by plugging directly into a modem in the office. To allow multiple teachers and staff to access laptops from within classrooms, CEN purchased a new modem and router for the school. Although the router and model will only work when there’s electricity (and hence not on rainy days), the community is exploring other options to address this.
  • As for the freezer, the school secured support from the municipality to provide 50 liters of fuel each month. This amount is enough to power the freezer for three hours in the morning and three in the evening for 3 weeks each month. The fuel keeps the freezer at the perfect temperature so the meat purchased in Santarem doesn't thaw, a requirement to qualify for a grant from the government to purchase the food to provide school lunches. Although they still can’t offer school lunches to students for about 1 ½ weeks each month, it does represent significant progress towards their objective.
  • While at the school, I also sat down with the secretary to explore options for raising money needed to purchase fuel for the rest of the month. One idea discussed involved selling food during the many community held soccer matches. We also tossed around the idea of holding a bake or rummage sale, where the entire community would assume joint responsibility to support the effort.

By encouraging problem solving and resourcefulness through ongoing coaching, as well as strategic use of limited financial support, CEN helped the community accomplish most of their initial objectives - at a far lower cost than initially budgeted.

Rural Family Home Artesian Well

CFR Santarem 131242 2 300x190The primary original objective of this project was to provide water to the school and host community for drinking, and irrigation for the program’s horticulture program. So far:

  • They school dug the well, purchased and installed the pump, and installed some of the piping needed to deliver the water.
  • They still need to build the water tower, purchase a new water tank because the one they had secured was damaged, and to connect the system to a central water main.
  • CEN has provided approximately USD$1165, which enabled the CFR to raise a similar amount of additional resources from other sources. Today they only need about USD$3800 more to finish the project.
  • With the assistance of our partner, Eunice Sena, the CFR has submitted a proposal to a Brazilian government program to make significant improvement to the schools building.

Again, by encouraging problem solving and resourcefulness through ongoing coaching, as well as strategic use of limited financial support, CEN helped the community accomplish most of their initial objectives at a lower cost than initially estimated. These cost reductions were a result of the CFRs staff using CENs financial contributions to secure more local support on their own. The dollar’s appreciation against the Brazilian Real als helped our dollar-based donations go even further.

Banco da Mulher Rotating Savings Fund


Voting at the Banco da Mulher AssemblyThe Banco da Mulher provided critical training and start up capitol to women for a period of several year ending in 2009. Several members are still operating their businesses and countless others continue to apply what they learned from their experience in many other positive ways. As one of the few such programs in the entire region, it offers a powerful model for other community organizations interested in fostering the micro-entrepreneurship of their members. In order to stimulate this, CEN has been evaluating and documenting the program so that other organizations in the region learn from its successes and challenges.

While In Brazil, I helped our partner, Eunice Sena, organize and participate in the first meeting of the fund’s membership since 2008. About 22 members (out of 60 total) attended the meeting, during which I presented a summary our research findings and evaluation of the fund. Members also discussed the future of the program. Camila Hana, another volunteer here at CEN, and I will incorporate participant feedback and new information obtained during the visit to make edits to our latest draft the report. We will try to finish a final report in Portuguese by February, with an English translation approximately 6 weeks later.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to these successes either through their hard work or financial support!

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Make a Real Difference... Without Having to Leave Home
Those that volunteer have a unique state of mind. They care about contributing to a better society, helping others less fortunate, and using their skills for the greater good. They selflessly invest their time and energy into a cause they believe in, and they thrive from the fact that they might be improving somebody’s life even the slightest. 

A volunteer’s spirit is one of hope, passion, and drive, no matter the age.  To many, volunteering seems to be for young people taking a year or two off from college, or earning their service hours for school requirements. Or it is for the recent college graduates, travelling the world before they decide to start families and develop their professional careers. Well, the reality is that the younger folks don’t possess any more dedication or desire to make an impact than you do. They simply have the flexibility. But what they don’t have is the knowledge and invaluable skills that can only cultivate from a life of professional and personal experience, and that is exactly what we value in each of our volunteers at the Community Empowerment Network.

CEN is an organization dedicated to empowering poor rural communities with the ability to rise above their economic challenges on their own terms. Our aim is to provide the tools and resources necessary to help individuals improve their skills and confidence in achieving their own objectives, and not simply handing them a solution with no explanation of lasting success. We have nearly 50 volunteers working towards this common goal. And the best part? Most of them don’t even stray from their home office.
CEN offers numerous volunteer opportunities ideal for those on a tight budget and simply cannot supply the funds to travel very far to volunteer. Or maybe you do not have the free time to devote to travelling abroad. We have a wide range of volunteers, many of them professionals and retirees with various backgrounds such as IT, government, and business. We work collaboratively as one team, but you are given the opportunity to directly utilize your existing skills for the mutual mission of improving the quality of life for individuals in poor communities around the world.  
For example, say you like to write. We care currently looking for a blogger to write for our blogsite, the Empowerblog,  to explore and offer your own personal insights on a wide variety of development issues related to our work. Or maybe you are in the advertising business. We are looking for an Online Marketing Specialistto generate interest in CEN’s community-based tours to the Brazilian Amazon. Do you love online marketing? Our Online Shop Manager will be responsible for maintaining our online shop,which consists of many different products such as handbags and sandals made by an artisan groupCouro Ecológicoin the Amazonian community of Maguary. Your responsibility would include keeping the online shop up to date, implementing and developing ways to increase traffic and sales, and coming up with new products.
Why should you volunteer?
Through our roles, you use what you know to become an active volunteer, and you learn a lot in the process. You will get to learn more about international development, micro-entrepreneurship, micro-finance, and much more, as well as build new skills while you are developing the ones you already have. Our positions are mostly expected to contribute about 10 hours a month with a minimum of 3 months commitment. Although deadlines are scheduled for certain tasks, these hours are flexible enough for you to work around your own life. Volunteers are happy with the schedule and the ease of working at home, and they know they are making a difference and contributing to a community's success. We have the privilege of bringing people from all different backgrounds, and with various skills, together to make one amazing team. 
Please visit our volunteer pageto find out how you can channel your passion and what YOU can do with what you already know to help break the cycle of poverty.  Help empower those living in poverty to help themselves. 
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