Thursday, July 01, 1999

Textbook example of charity


Cincinnati brothers use business expertise to supply books to Guatemalan children

BY JULIE IRWIN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A few years ago, brothers Jeff and Joe Berninger seemed to have it all: college degrees from Xavier University, jobs in corporate America — Jeff at Procter & Gamble; Joe at IBM — and futures as bright as a pair of brand-new quarters.

        With their background and skills, it seemed natural that the two would decide to start their own enterprise. But the project they now run holds no promise of wealth or comfort for them — only the promise of education for children in a desperately poor country.

        The Berninger brothers are co-directors of the Cooperative for Educational Development (COED), based in Guatemala City and Cincinnati. Jeff came up with the idea after traveling in Guatemala, where the literacy rate in some regions is less than 27 percent.

        One problem in the country's educational system was glaring: with no textbooks in most classrooms, teachers spent most of their time writing on the board, and students could do no work at home. The solution — supplying Guatemala's roughly 600 secondary schools with basic textbooks — led the pair to chuck their suits and expense accounts, cobble together part-time jobs and devote themselves to COED.

        “You go into a school there, there are classrooms, desks, a teacher and students, but there's absolutely no learning material of any kind,” says Joe, who is 32. “It's kind of like an engine without gasoline — everything's there, but it doesn't have that basic thing to run.”

        While the goal comes from the brothers' desire to serve, the methods would make any of their former colleagues in the for-profit world proud. Instead of simply donating books to needy schools, COED sets up a rental program with the first set of books that each school receives. In five years, when that set is worn out, the rentals have generated enough income to replace the books.

        If run right, the rental program will guarantee that future generations of Guatemalan schoolchildren will have the books their parents lacked — without any additional donations from outside their villages.

        “Twenty dollars outfits one kid with four books, but it's not just a kid with four books — it helps one kid every year in that community forever,” Joe says. “If you give $20 to a kid in (the village of) Tucuru, there will be a different kid in Tucuru that has books forever.”

        The business is set up according to their skills and experience. Jeff, the former systems analyst with a quiet demeanor and a knack for logistics, spends most of the year in Guatemala. He coordinates delivery of the books, works with Guatemalan officials to identify needy schools and works with the schools to set up the rental program.

        Joe, the former marketing representative and the more gregarious of the two, is the U.S. director. He will begin working Sept. 1 out of an Oakley office. He travels across the country meeting with churches, schools, corporations, foundations and other donors, and travels to Guatemala to help with book distribution.

        This year, after spending several years working other jobs to support COED, the pair are finally able to get by on salaries from the organization. Their sacrifice has won them fans in Guatemala, and in the U.S. cities where much of their support comes from.

        “COED has come like a guardian angel to some poor, poor kids, some beyond poverty. They have made a real impact on people, the government, and all the school communities, especially in the poor and abandoned sections sections that the government can't get to,” says Enrique Gandara, a Guatemalan whose Rotary Club has donated money to buy books. “We live in a third-world country. When you have a government and more than 60 percent of your country cannot read or write, it's time to do something about it.”

Leaving P&G
        It all began with a brief vacation to Guatemala that Jeff took while he was working as a systems analyst for P&G.

        “Seeing the people living the way they've lived for thousands of years, the rich indigenous culture — I was so fascinated by what I saw in one week that I knew at some point I'd have to come back for some time,” says Jeff, who is 30.

        He returned to P&G and stayed there until February of 1994, when he left to work on a project in Guatemala — funded in part by his former employer — to publish books in the country's indigenous languages. Although he enjoyed his work at P&G, the decision to leave came easily.

        “There were too many retirement parties going on,” he says. “I could see myself working at the same job for the rest of my life, and I wanted to try something different before I got married and raised a family. There were enough jobs for systems analysts that I knew I could always come back and get a job.”

        Eventually Jeff worked at a center for malnourished children and volunteered as an English teacher in Guatemalan schools. Savings and part-time work as a systems analyst in Guatemala City kept him afloat, and the time in the schools led to the informal start of COED in 1995.

        While some Guatemalan elementary schools have textbooks, hardly any secondary schools do. The absence not only makes it difficult to conduct lessons; it also makes it hard for children to learn how to analyze, think creatively, or do anything beyond copy and regurgitate.

        “What Jeff saw was there was so little you can do in an hour in a classroom when there are no books,” Joe says. “The teacher spends half the class writing on the board.”

Met Mother Teresa
        Joe, in the meantime, had taken a leave of absence from IBM in 1992 and 1993 to travel around the world, a trip he wrote about in the Enquirer. He too had visited Guatemala, as well as countries throughout Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. While in Calcutta he had briefly volunteered at Mother Teresa's headquarters and even met Mother Teresa.

        “Ever since I traveled I had wanted to be involved in humanitarian work,” Joe says. “If I could figure out a way to do it, I could see my life in service to people.”

        Joe returned to IBM for a year after his trip, then earned a master's degree in religious studies in 1997 at the University of Colorado. Toward the end of his stint in school, he and his brother began talking about furthering the work of COED. They incorporated it in 1997.

        COED's work begins with donations from U.S. churches, schools, foundations and corporations. Twenty-two Rotary Clubs gave more than $72,000 last year, and the organization's biggest donor is Precision Strip, a Minster, Ohio, company. COED's budget this year is projected to be $200,000.

        While Joe is fund-raising in the U.S., Jeff works with the Guatemalan Ministry of Education to identify schools in need. He then travels to them to meet with principals and other officials to make sure they are willing to do the work necessary for the program to succeed.

        “There's always more schools in the project than we can serve,” Jeff says. “If they're motivated enough to do (the preliminary work), then the rest of the project they're easy to work with. If they don't lift a finger, then we're better off not having them.”

        Donor organizations are then matched with a school. A new set of math, science, social studies and Spanish books for an entire school can cost $500 to $25,000, and COED purchases the books in Guatemala to help boost the country's economy. COED so far has distributed roughly 22,000 books to 8,000 Guatemalan schoolchildren in 33 schools.

Updating donors
        The students cover the books and receive an extra-thick zipped plastic bag to carry them. Students rent their books for about $1.50 a year per book, and the money goes into a COED account.

        Recently COED began a library program, to reward schools that run the rental program well. The schools receive reference books, classics and non-core textbooks. The libraries run $500 to $3,000.

        The Berningers update donors via e-mail, newsletters and video.

        “Just like any other business, we have customers who are our donors. They're giving money to our cause and there are certain things they want to see — how their money is used,” Joe says. “To be big-hearted, you don't want to give money to a big black hole. You want to know in Guatemala, there's a kid who is outfitted with books for about $20.”

        COED also encourages donors to come to Guatemala when the books are being delivered. Seven made it there in two trips last year. And if donors find themselves changed by the trip, there are two people who will understand how that feels.

        “Guatemala has tremendous power to transform people. It did us,” Joe says. “You go down there and you're never the same, and you want to continue to have that contact.”

MORE INFO
        For more information on COED's work in Guatemala, or to donate to the textbook project, contact Jeff and Joe Berninger at 5071 Zion Rd., Cleves OH 45002; phone 731-2595; or e-mail coedproject@worldnet.att.net

       



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