If you saw two middle-aged figures with large backpacks hoofing it up and down some of the steepest hills in town—Blanchard Road, Darling Road—last spring and early summer, you would have wondered what they were up to. If you had slowed your car and hollered out the window, “Hey, what’re you two doing?” you would have gotten a one-word answer: “Kilimanjaro.”
Gayle Hutton, director of development at The Gow School, and her husband Ed, a finance professor and director of the Financial Services Lab at Niagara University, are the kind of folks you might expect to climb the 19,341-foot, equator-straddling, dormant volcano in Tanzania, the highest point on the African continent. They don’t sit still much when they’re not at work. They run, walk, hike, bike, snowshoe and kayak regularly. So when Ed was noodling away on his computer late one night last winter and asked Gayle, “How about we climb Kilimanjaro next summer?” she said, “Okay.”
“And with the click of a mouse and a credit card number we were on our way,” she said.
Knowing that they’d make the trek in a five-day assault of 3,000 or 4,000 feet per day, they began to simulate the African terrain as best you can in southern Erie County to get in shape. By mid-July, they were at Kilimanjaro base camp, and as the sun rose on Aug. 1, after a 5000-foot climb in the dark with temperatures below zero, they both stood atop the summit of the iconic mountain that rises so dramatically from the flat plains of the Serengeti.
It had been an amazing effort: nine climbers from the U.S., guides from Rainier Mountaineering and 54 sturdy and dedicated porters hauling tents and food and equipment. After their descent, there were four more days of safari amidst elephants and other exotic beasts, camping out in the plains as Masai warriors stood guard against roaming lions.
But this trip of a lifetime wasn’t just about personal achievement or adventure; it was a chance to raise money and raise awareness of a fascinating concept that’s helping to reduce poverty in third world nations like Tanzania, a concept called micro-financing.
Gayle said one of the best things about the trip was getting to know the porters and hearing their stories about life in Tanzania.
“They have dirt floors in their homes, the roads are in poor condition, they dress in hand-me-downs. But they’re so hard-working, so proud and anxious to help us, even when we’re in the newest mountaineering equipment and they’re in old sneakers,” she said. “While we’re savoring memories of a great adventure, they’ll be running to porter another trip as soon as we’ve gone to make money for their families. You realize how lucky we are and how much we have when you’re in a place like Tanzania. And you want to reach out.”
As veteran travelers, Ed and Gayle know that this pattern—the pattern of hard-working people who are anxious to succeed, but only need an opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty—repeats itself all over the world.
“It’s hard for us to comprehend,” said Ed, “that the difference between someone being able to start new business or languishing in poverty might only be a few hundred dollars.”
And now, both Huttons have determined ways to help out.
At Niagara, Ed Hutton advises an investment club where students, using the university’s funds, decide upon investments—blue chip stocks, bonds, mutual funds—and track the results. This year he introduced a new wrinkle, micro-financing, to his club members.
In micro-financing, lenders identify small entrepreneurs in areas that wouldn’t normally be served by banks. Say a villager on the Serengeti wants to start a cell phone rental service or buy some crop seed or outfit a guiding service for tourists. The start-up cost might be $300, a manageable sum in America, but an insurmountable fortune in Tanzania, where the yearly per capita income is $742. Investors, using a non-profit brokering company called Kiva (www.kiva.org), make the loan directly to the applicant. The grantee has usually two years to repay at a competitive interest rate of around six percent. To date, 98.6% of borrowers have repaid their debts.
As the money is repaid, the Niagara investors send it off to another entrepreneur—a student in Bolivia, a small grocer in the Philippines, a tailor in Tajikistan. And those initial dollars keep on working and grow to help more and more people.
To draw attention to micro-financing, Ed found 100 people at the university to sponsor him on his quest for Kilimanjaro by giving him $19.34, the number representing the height of the mountain. The gifts amounted to $1,934 and will form the basis of micro-finance investments.
This fall Gayle brings micro-financing to The Gow School, the boarding and day school in South Wales whose students in grades 7-12 come from all over the US and two dozen countries. In a letter to parents, she outlined the mission of the Gow Micro-Finance Club.
“My husband and I were fortunate to visit Tanzania this summer and meet many fantastic Tanzanians. I was so inspired by their work ethic and determination to change their lives,” the letter reads. “In the Gow Micro-Finance Club I will work with a student team to make small loans to worthy individuals in Tanzania and around the world. The club will help students understand the difference we can each make in the world. For as little as $25, we will be able to help a person change his or her life. This experience will allow all of us to realize how fortunate we are, and hopefully instill a life-long belief in the importance of philanthropy.”
For Ed, micro-financing follows the Vincentian tradition that guides Niagara University. “Service to the poor is their mission,” he said. “We are in a sense giving to the poor like the Vincentian monks.”
The difference is, at both Niagara and Gow, they’re not only giving money, but opportunity as well: a gift that keeps on giving. And they’re providing high school students and college students a chance to watch as their efforts bear fruit.
“Too often, people think that small gifts aren’t really that important,” said Gayle, who handles alumni giving at Gow. “With Ed’s program at Niagara and the micro-finance club at Gow, small gifts can really help alleviate poverty and turn someone’s life around.”