Published: Monday, March 8, 2010
New York (Tadias) – When we spoke to Eric Schmidhauser last November about his work with the non-profit organization A Glimmer of Hope, he was on his way to Ethiopia for a foundation event in the Gondar region. Since the Fall of 2000 Schmidhauser has been working on a ‘adopt a village’ program, identifying education, health, water and community needs and a plan to construct a minimum of 15 wells for a population of 5,000. A Glimmer of Hope prefers to cluster their projects and to identify priority needs by encouraging the input and concerns of the local community. Schmidhauser’s trips to Ethiopia also help keep donors up-to-date on the progress of the projects they help fund.
We asked Schmidhauser a few more questions about A Glimmer of Hope and his commitment to the people of Ethiopia.
Tadias: Tell us a bit about yourself..where you grew up, who/what were influential in your life.
Schmidhauser: My father worked for Citibank in the international sector. As a child I lived in Liberia, Sudan, South Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Bahrain. I was able to experience living in a lot of countries and visiting several more. This was formative in shaping my world outlook for sure. The inspiration for my current work are the founders of A Glimmer of Hope, Donna and Philip Berber.
Tadias: You currently work as Director of Social Investment at A Glimmer of Hope. Can you tell us how you got involved with their work and projects in Ethiopia?
Schmidhauser: I’ve lived in Austen for 16 years. Donna & Philip Berber had sold their Texas-based company in 2000 and set aside Schwab stock as an endowment for A Glimmer of Hope. What impressed me even more is that they didn’t just write checks to the organization. Donna comes to the office four times a week, when she and Philip are not traveling. Both of them go to Ethiopia annually and really put their heart and soul into the work necessary to eradicate extreme poverty. This is why I joined the effort two and a half years ago. I had co-founded a junior tennis academy, Austen Tennis Academy, and I completely switched fields to serve as a Director for A Glimmer of Hope. I moved from helping a small group of talented, ambitious, priviledged children to helping hundreds of thousands of children – on a bigger level. The core value of my tennis academy was teach kids how to give back and do something bigger than themselves. The Austin Tennis Academy kids have raised $10,000 or more, over a two year period, while getting sponsored for competitive matches. This gets them sensitized to what living is like in other parts of the world, to tackle issues of dilapidated schools and lack of clean water. The head coach and five of its most active students are helping to raise $150,000, and helping to build 8 wells and two school buildings. Imagine how these 14 and 15 year olds will be when they get older with this type of formative experience, as part of their core experience. It’s exciting to see who they’ll become. It teaches the importance of giving back, the importance of being larger than themselves, citizens of significance in their adult lives. This extends to my own children. At the end of the day, my life is so much richer. It’s equally important what I’m able to teach my children by example – through living what I want them to learn. Your life’s work is committed to that. When kids are excited to give up their birthday present and instead raise money to build give something to other kids, it doesn’t get better than that! To me you can’t put a price on that…the greatest joy that I get from my work is when I take donors of our projects to Ethiopia and they are able to personally see the transformation. It’s incredibly fulfilling work!
Tadias: Why did the founders choose Ethiopia as the key place for their projects?
Schmidhauser: Donna is from London and Philip is from Dublin. Donna was very moved by the Live Aid images from televised famine in the 1980s, and it never left her heart and her mind. She vowed that if they came to wealth that she would want to help the people of Ethiopia. Geldoff inspired and taught the power of one person to make a difference. He was the catalyst. And today Donna is my daughter’s role model.
Tadias: What were your first impressions of Ethiopia? How often do you get to go back?
Schmidhauser: My first trip to Ethiopia was in 2007, two months into the job. I was in the Tigray region. I was really surprised by how beautiful it was, and how gracious, hospitable, and warm the people were. The quiet dignity was evident wherever I traveled in Ethiopia. When you visit a community that has no access to clean water until a well was constructed, where women had to travel far, adding a well in close proximity to their homes brings great joy. The joy they have for something so simple, that we take for granted, and the quiet dignity with which they accept their lot in life when they don’t have a health clinic or water and have to walk for hours to get to the nearest source, it’s really overwhelming. We take so much for granted in the U.S., and it surprised me how there isn’t resentment there. They are quiet about their hardship. And if you can help bring about change the gratitude is profound.
I visit Ethiopia twice a year, and a lot of it depends on our donors’ schedules. I want to make sure that I’m bringing donors with me that have invested significantly with us. So on each trip I try to take some of our larger donors. This is one of our key strategies, and we can show them how their social work has made a difference and keep their hearts engaged. I travel when at least one or two donors are available to travel.
Tadias: On your organization’s website you cite your work as “an operation to turn a profit – a Social Profit” and define social profit as “The amount of social and humanitarian benefit gained as a result of investing in the well-being of others.” What are some of the most successful projects you have launched to turn a social profit?
Schmidhauser: I think our microfinance work would be one where you can see social profit – a transformation of a life through a grant. We’ve partnered with microfinance institutions in Ethiopia. They invest the grants that we give them. The profits are redistributed to the next group of borrowers. A small amount of loans, such as those given to farmers to cover irrigation kits can help a farm go from 1 harvest a year to multiple harvests a year and provide surplus crops that they can sell in the market.
Here’s another example of a profound experience: In July 2009 I was with one of our British donors in the Simien mountains. This donor had funded school and water projects in the region and we had gone for the opening of one of the schools. In the process we spent a lot of time hiking, and in the process of hiking we came across a community with no access to clean water. It was VERY VERY cold. Mid 40s low 50s. It had been hailing earlier in the day. And I remember one little girl with her mother, scooping water from a nearby pit, cup by cup and pouring it into the jerican (plastic container). The little girl was inadequately dressed for the weather conditions. Her hands were shaking as she held a water bottle cut in half, taking one scoop of water at a time. Freezing and hands shaking. Only a little girl could get in the pit – not an adult. It took half an hour to fill the can. I was thinking of the injustice: Because my daughter was born in Austen she could open the tap in a condo to get clean water, and if she was born in the Simien mountains she was in hardship. It was hard to watch as a father. Absolutely miserable.
Slideshow: Photos from Ethiopia
Another memorable experience that I had was on my second trip – attended the inauguration of a water point in the Oromia region. While we were unveiling the well, in the middle of the ceremony, a women with a large clay jug stepped forward and released the clay jug onto the point (all over the base of the point) saying “NEVER again will I have to shoulder this burden. Now clean water is closer to my hut.” When someone translated for me what the lady had said, I got so powered up and pumped my fist. And I loved it. I’ll never forget it for as long as I live. The energy was electric.
Tadias: Your programs emphasize Integrated Development. Can you elaborate?
Schmidhauser: The best way that I can explain it is by this example: if we’re building a school but there is no clean water, it’s not going to have maximum impact. What’s the point? Kids will still be busy fetching water and also getting sick from lack of clean water. So integrated development is when you’re providing a community access to water, healthcare, and school and providing those services to the community. The other example is sanitation. When we receive proposals for school projects we make sure they include latrine facilities.
Rather than spreading ourselves thin, we’d rather get it right one community at a time, and provide all the basic social services. The goal of our founders is to eradicate extreme poverty in rural Ethiopia in their lifetime. They have ambitious goals. So far A Glimmer of Hope has helped to build 350 schools since 2001 and 3,000 water projects. Through our collaboration with the non-profit Charity: Water we have built 250 wells alone. One of our commitments to our donors is to provide ‘completion photos.’
Clustering our projects also makes it more efficient to monitor. Most of our work is in hard-to-reach rural areas, and if we spread ourselves thin, it also becomes more difficult to monitor the progress.
Tadias: What are a few ways that our readers could get more involved?
Schmidhauser: Through our interactive website individuals can create their own campaigns. Yemra Melaku, who works for Marriott in New York, is one shining example of a volunteer. We helped her organize her campaign on our website, and created a page for her, and she raised enough money to fund one water project in Southern Ethiopia. She is now on her second project. She provided us the text for her page, and once it was completed she organized a music concert at Columbia University, a poker party, and her own grassroots movement.
We also have teenagers, students aged 13 to 15 who are raising money for A Glimmer of Hope. Everything helps. So many people are turned away thinking “What I do is a drop in the ocean.” Empowering people means donors who have given up their birthdays or christmas. My own son gave up his 7th birthday and raised $20,000 last year.
I encourage readers to know that just because you don’t have a lot of resources, it doesn’t mean you can’t get involved. You can join a campaign, run a marathon, give up your christmas presents, some charity:water volunteers gave up their wedding presents and raised close to $20,000 and have gone to Ethiopia to see the projects that they funded.
I also encourage people to get on Charity:Water website to learn how individual donors can make a difference. A Glimmer of Hope is their exclusive partner in Ethiopia. Our 100% promise is one of the reasons Charity:Water is partnering with us.
Tadias: What is the 100% promise?
Schmidhauser: Our endowment covers 100% of our operating and office expenses in Austen and Ethiopia. So 100% of the donations we receive goes to programs. Charity:Water does the same thing. 100% of donations go to projects.
Tadias: Thank you Eric for this enlightening conversation! We encourage our readers to learn more about A Glimmer of Hope and to take the plunge – give access to clean water to a community in Ethiopia.
About the Author:
Tseday Alehegn is the Editor-in-Chief of Tadias Magazine.
Video: A Glimmer of Hope in Ethiopia – Turk Pipkin