Making a World of Difference

world neighbors

Edmond resident Erin Engelke may live in Oklahoma, but her philanthropic work at World Neighbors extends across the globe. Headquartered in Oklahoma City, World Neighbors is a charitable organization seeking to solve the issues of hunger, poverty and disease in underdeveloped countries.

Having been employed with World Neighbors for eight years, Engelke says their goal is not simply to provide food, build a school, or as she calls it, put a Band-Aid on the problem; rather, World Neighbors offers long-term solutions that enable the communities to help themselves toward a better future.

So far, World Neighbors has served 45 countries. The 61-year-old organization uses a variety of methods, depending on each community’s specific needs. Peru, for example, has needs which circle back to their lack of funding. As Engelke explains, these regions were without the resources to be able to take out any sort of loan before World Neighbors arrived, as financial institutions were unavailable. World Neighbors began a savings and credit model in which residents borrow funds for a nominal fee which is then directed back into the community.

It was World Neighbors’ long-standing relations with Peru that recently brought Engelke to their remote villages. While there, Engelke provided training and was able to see firsthand how her organization was able to transform the people.

The trip, however, was not easy. Aside from her primary flight to Lima, Peru, Engelke then took an additional flight inland, followed by a three to four-hour bus ride through the winding roads of the Andes. “The people we work with literally live
beyond the end of the road,” she said.

In just three days, Engelke’s group visited seven to eight isolated communities, traveling hours between them. Each village ranged from 19 to 100 families. While there, they heard a slew of remarkable success stories. One particular woman, who Engelke says “lit up the room,” claimed to have once been insecure, with little self-confidence. Now, she works as the president of her community, handling the transactions of their savings and credit group.

This story is indicative of just one of World Neighbors’ goals: empowerment of women. Though in most of these villages, women do a large percentage of the work and physical labor, they feel neither their value nor their ability to handle themselves in business and finance. Now, these women are taking charge of their communities, believing in themselves and teaching their children the same.

In fact, it was another young lady who, by the age of 11, started her own business breeding guinea pigs, in an effort to raise money for school. When raised properly, guinea pig is a delicacy in those regions. Engelke even got the opportunity to taste the dish. As a special treat, a group of students surprised the group with the dish they call “cuy.” Engelke says that while it was not quite chicken, the meat was salty, greasy and surprisingly good.

The guinea pigs would turn out to be only one of the visit’s many surprises, which included little to no plumbing and high altitudes. Being in the Andes, the group went from below sea level to nearly 10,000 feet above in a short amount of time. To prevent altitude sickness, they were given coca tea, made from the leaves of the coca plant.

Engelke says the negatives did nothing to quell her opinion of the remarkable view. “The landscape and the lushness of the mountains and fields was beyond beautiful,” she recalls.

While the conditions of Peru varied in terms of weather, climate and what Americans consider the bare necessities, Engelke notes that when it got down to it, the people were exactly the same. “I’m a mom. I want my children to be healthy. I want to be able to provide for my family and the mothers I met want the exact same thing,” she explained.

Though they couldn’t communicate directly, she felt a connection with the local women and said they had an unspoken language from which they communicated. She also pointed out that although these individuals work incredibly hard on a daily basis, they are the happiest people you will ever meet. “It was beneficial for me to see how World Neighbors was able to help give them that joy,” she said.

After Peru’s recent political unrest, it is clear that they more than deserve some positivity. It wasn’t long ago that this region was buried in violence by a rebel group which forced many out of their homeland. In addition, the communities of Peru have often received promises of aid from other organizations that later failed to follow through. The stress of both circumstances made it difficult for Peruvians to trust outsiders for a long time. However, with patience and much work, World Neighbors has built that trust not only with Peru, but other countries throughout the world.

According to Engelke, World Neighbors generally spends anywhere from eight to 12 years in a country and will eventually leave to allow the communities to thrive independently. She’s looking forward to visiting Kenya and Tanzania later this year.

Of course, such large-scale endeavors always rely on the helping hands of others. There are several ways to volunteer, including the upcoming WorldFest, an international shopping event held at the OKC Farmers Public Market on September 22. Those wishing to volunteer, donate, or learn more can go to the World Neighbors website at www.wn.org.

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