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Helping locally and globally

Kimberly Nicoletti
summit daily news

When Debra and Paul Hage got engaged at age 19, they both agreed to have two children and adopt two. Debra Hage doesn’t remember how the idea came about, but it turned out to be a much larger commitment than either one envisioned at the time.

They had two children biologically, then adopted two from Peru, which began a life-long relationship with Peru, where the couple saw the country’s poverty and need. They ended up adopting a total of eight children and fostered a number of others, and when Debra wanted to adopt more, Paul pointed out that they couldn’t fit any more children in their house. He suggested she open an adoption agency, which she did through Map International.

But even then, she felt compelled to do more, specifically for abused and neglected children who weren’t getting adopted. And from there, she began traveling to other areas like India, Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia to help children. Her adoption work became so extensive, she had to decide whether or not to hire a staff, and since she didn’t want it to get too large, she closed the agency.

Yet, she still yearned to help people, so she gathered volunteers and returned to Peru to build homes in a slum outside of Lima. Since then, she has helped organize countless trips to Peru, Haiti and other regions; the work has aided others, but it also has enriched her marriage.

“We have a plan for our lives that is more than just us,” she said. “We’re involved in something bigger than ourselves, so we have a joint passion for something bigger than a bigger house or a new car or a longer vacation.”

Her latest endeavor involves work in Haiti, and it started long before January’s earthquake brought international attention to the country. About five years ago, she began helping a Methodist minister take care of elderly people. When she initially asked how she could help, he said everyone wants to help kids, but Haiti has seniors dying on the streets because their families can’t afford to support them. He opened a home for seniors but needed money to sustain it. In 2008, Hage and volunteers re-roofed the dining room; in 2009, they installed a septic and water system; and this year they built a kitchen and dining room. It takes $1,000 a month to adequately feed the population, and Debra is in the middle of a fundraising effort to create a sustainable senior program in Haiti.

And she’s not the only one. As High Country Health Care Doc PJ points out, Summit County has a proportionately high percentage of residents and second homeowners who give of their time and money, partially due to the seasonality of their schedules and their relative wealth, high education and travel experience.

Doc PJ himself spends two to three months a year in foreign countries giving medical aid to villagers who otherwise couldn’t access or afford it. His latest effort involves working with a public health group to prevent cholera in Haiti. He also recently returned from a month-long stint in Nepal where he visited nine villages in the Langtang district, helping 9,000 people suffering from intestinal parasites, providing 900 individual consultations and pulling 160 teeth.

His volunteerism began in medical school.

“I was lucky to have some early experiences that were really rewarding, and that kept drawing me back,” he said. “It balances out my sense of values. Just to have running water in my house is great.”

Working with people who literally don’t have food to eat or who fear for their lives on a daily basis due to violent environments allows him to “live simply, out of a sense of gratitude for what I have.”

After interacting extensively with different cultures, Frisco resident Jim Gulley and many locals like him have learned that the relational aspect of helping is just as important as the physical aid itself.

Gulley earned his bachelor and master’s degrees in agriculture with the intention of becoming a minister and helping poverty-stricken countries. He has worked in Africa, Nicaragua and Cambodia, and for the past three years, he’s been helping farmers in Haiti, especially since the earthquake.

One of the challenges he faces is persisting in difficult situations. He says volunteers from the United States often go into a country with an agenda, without considering how other cultures react to change.

For example, many North Americans want to delve into a project – building and fixing immediately – and they become discouraged when they realize how long it takes to “get things done” in a foreign country, Gulley said.

“You have to work within a culture’s values and timeframes,” he said. “Sometimes, things don’t start exactly when you’re planning to start. We want to see our achievements, but sometimes that gets in the way of relating to people, and relating to people is fundamental … you need to go and learn and listen before you can help … you’re going there to serve, not to direct people around.”

As Doc PJ has noted: “Just that other people care really means a lot,” he said, adding that as a side benefit, developing relationships “goes a long way in terms of building international relationships.”

Many people, like Doc PJ, the Hages and Gulley, feel an urge early on in life to help others. Parenting helps develop a desire to volunteer; people like Sue and Rich Mayfield exposed their kids to different cultures and lifestyles and shared their political and social activism with their children; as a result, their daughter Molly Mayfield Barbee became the executive director of Peace X Peace and began a local chapter in Summit County to connect women and help empower them through connection.

Silverthorne resident Doug Schwartz spreads the idea of volunteerism to junior high students; they worked in Juarez, Mexico for about a dozen years until it became too dangerous, and now they take regular trips to Alamosa, Colo., to aid an organization called La Puente, which serves the five poorest counties in the state by providing shelter, food and other support services. Schwartz’s parents taught him to serve others, and he believes it’s catchy.

“If you take one trip to the third world and build a house for somebody, you’ll get hooked,” Schwartz said, adding that he uses it “almost as a discipline to bring you back to square one. You just don’t sweat the small stuff … you have a different point of reference when you see people who have nothing.”

He thinks it’s especially important for kids growing up in Summit County – where million-plus-dollar homes are the norm – to get a reality check and realize that having the right shoes or jeans doesn’t really matter.

“It makes them understand a little bit about how small their world is here,” he said. “Everybody needs to cultivate a set of values. It’s not just about me, me, me. There’s a whole world out there. A core value of life is to help someone who has less than you have, and it’s so easy to do. There’s always something you can do. You don’t have to look to Peru or Haiti or these other places. You can volunteer Tuesday nights at the community meal. There are really a zillion things you can do in Summit County or Denver (or outside the country).”

In fact, plenty of people, like the Hages, contribute both locally and globally.

Hage organized the Tuesday night community meals at the Elks Lodge in Silverthorne because when the economy began declining, there weren’t any free meals on that side of the county. From March 3 to Dec. 31, 2009, the community meals served 8,962 people (3,162 children), with an average of 204 diners. So far, this year the Tuesday dinners have provided 14,790 meals with an average of 285 participants per dinner – the highest amount of diners being 401 on Nov. 30.

Like her adoption agency, the endeavor has grown so much that it takes not only a large number of volunteers, but also assistance from Vail Resorts and Arapahoe Basin.

“I just cannot emphasize enough that this is a whole community thing,” Hage said. “I think it has heightened Summit County residents’ awareness of the need for compassion for the poor, just the way they come out in the large numbers to volunteer. If I have need of something, all I have to do is ask and there are people who will help out.”

The dinners aim to feed the “backbone of our community” – working families and individuals that keep Summit County running as a resort destination.

“It’s one night they don’t have to shop, cook and fall into bed exhausted,” Debra Hage said, adding that it allows families to spend more time together and has become a very social gathering.

The Family Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC) is another organization that looks after Summit County’s “backbone.” The nonprofit, which provides social and family services to those in need of parenting education, early childhood development, cultural integration and homeless prevention through rent and utility assistance, has seen demand increase since the economic downturn. In fact, its food bank demand has increased by 300 percent in the last two years, and rent assistance needs continue to grow every year, with a 40 percent increase this year over last year, said Anita Overmyer, FIRC’s development and volunteer director.

“I don’t know where these people could get help if FIRC didn’t exist,” Overmyer said.

FIRC and the community meals are easy places to foster a spirit of volunteerism, as they’ll use any help they can get; the minimum requirement to volunteer at FIRC’s thrift store is four hours a year – or “whatever time you have,” Overmyer said, and Hage is often looking for extra cooks or servers on Tuesday nights.

“As the United States shifts into economic disparity and there’s a larger gap between the wealthy and the poor, we must – if the government is not going to be supportive of closing that gap – step in and provide the justice and equity that as a nation we’re not able to provide,” Hage said.

Overmyer has noticed more people getting involved in volunteering in at least the last two years, as they become more aware of the greater need. Doc PJ encourages people to “just push your comfort zone a little bit – dive in – it could be in Summit County, Denver, Mexico or some place more exotic,” he said. “Just see how you feel.”

“I don’t think people appreciate that when you give of your abundance, your life is not diminished, but until you step outside of yourself, you don’t know,” Debra Hage said. “Even though in the United States we call ourselves middle or lower or upper income, we are all wealthy compared to the poverty of Haiti or the slums (outside Lima).”

She points out that media, advertisement and personal comparisons create an illusion that we don’t have enough, but it’s a perception that’s “totally skewed.” Her conviction is strong, yet nonjudgmental. Rather than condemn North Americans for their misperceptions, she’d rather simply “point where I want people to look.”

“We feel as a society so entitled that we don’t see the abundance that’s all around us. All we see is the lack,” she said. “If we look beyond our own borders, we would see that anyone in the United States has more resources at their disposal than most people in the world. We need to change our basis of comparison because there is enough; there is enough that no one needs to go hungry.”


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