Review — GAINING GROUND by Joan Velasquez (Bolivia)

gaining-groundGaining Ground: A Blueprint for Community-Based International Development
by Joan Velásquez (Bolivia 1965–67)
Beaver’s Pond Press
$24.95 (paperback), $9.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Bob Arias (Colombia 1964–66, 2011–13)

This is an awesome “how to” book, not a novel with only love and excitement . . . but a beautiful and exciting manual on how to create and develop  a non-profit agency in Bolivia from Mendota Heights, Minnesota, a distance of 4,623 miles.

In 1965 Joan Velásquez, a Peace Corps Volunteer, is sent to Cochabamba, a remote community in the Andean mountains of Bolivia. There she meets her future husband and NGO partner Segundo and his family, the Velázquez clan . . . all Quechua speaking indigenous people of the Inca Empire.

Joan discovers that the community may not have much, it is extremely poor, but it is rich in cultural values that have been handed down for generations . . . primarily that family members help one another during difficult times. Many of the communities near Cochabamba (the third largest city in Bolivia) are not even on any map, there are no roads and seldom are there community health centers of any type. Death rates for children during their first years is 10% in rural Bolivia, and 37% of rural children under age five suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Where’s the Bolivian government in all of this . . . what are they doing to improve the life of the rural population? Though Peace Corps could make a difference, Bolivia has closed the program twice, and it has even sent the American Ambassador home. Yet, in all of this, Joan and Segundo keep doing what is important to their communities . . . they learn to listen.

Back in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, Joan and her husband Segundo found , non-profit Mano a Mano, and begin taking small medical supplies to his Bolivian community in their suitcases. They collect never-used surplus medical supplies and lightly used medical equipment for hospitals and medical centers in Bolivia. What started with a suitcase of medical supplies in 1994 becomes, as of April 2014, 3.5 million pounds of usable medical surplus being shipped from Minnesota to Bolivia . . . and it all started with one suitcase and an idea!

If you are involved in establishing an NGO, or are a board member or volunteer for your local community, I strongly suggest that you read Gaining Ground. This manual can make your efforts more professional . . . Mano a Mano had developed a step by step procedure for any NGO that wants to be successful. It will never be an easy task, but Mano a Mano has blazed the trail. The fact that Juan and Segundo focused on Bolivia, you can do the same . . . perhaps in Nepal. And, as Joan said, the folks at the IRS were very helpful and encouraged her.

Mano a Mano started as a hospital and health center effort, but roads had to be cleared, planes used for emergencies, schools built, and the battle for donations . . . Mano a Mano expanded to meet the challenge of providing health care and related matters. On April 2016, Mano a Mano will celebrate their 21st Anniversary . . . and it is still going strong.

What is important to consider . . . had there never been a Mano a Mano effort in Bolivia, where would the people of this Andes region be health wise? Joan and Segundo have made a difference. Joan’s Peace Corps experience made a difference, letting her see that a simple idea like packing a few medical items in a suitcase can make a difference. Joan and Segundo have not created Monuments, but developed communities for the betterment of Bolivia and Minnesota.

I recommend that any NGO or community organizer read this manual on how to create, organize, and establish an NGO that you will be proud of. Let your donors see what can be done! The villager who felt Joan and Segundo were “noisemakers” who promise everything but do nothing . . .and in Quechua said, “ch’ Hamas,” he saw what “communities” can do together! These people are not “noisemakers!”

Reviewer Bob Arias, an RPCV Colombia 1964-1966, was an Associate Peace Corps Director in Colombia from 1968 to 1973, and Peace Corps Country Director in Uruguay and Argentina from 1993 to 1995. He returned to work at the Peace Corps from 2001 to 2003 assisting in establishing the agency’s Safety and Security Office. Now retired from Los Angeles County where he was the Compliance Officer, Bob has been serving as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer (formerly known as Crisis Corps) since 2009, and has worked in Paraguay, Colombia, and now for a second time, in Panamá.

To order Gaining Ground from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that will help support our annual writers awards.

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