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Islander offers assistance to Columbian business owners

By Staff | Mar 17, 2010

Sanibel resident Dee Dee Nye, right, poses for a picture with a woman named Sonja, one of the Columbian clients being assisted by Opportunity International.

It may be hard to comprehend, but with a loan of less than $200, the life of a single family living in Columbia could be changed for the positive forever.

For Sanibel resident Dee Dee Nye, she had heard truly eye-opening scenarios similar to this for many years, serving on the board of governors for Opportunity International. But she had never personally witnessed the financial service organization’s impact on the people they are assisting. That is, until only recently.

Nye traveled with a small group of Opportunity International employees, volunteers and liaisons to Columbia late last month in order to learn firsthand how impoverished people use their microfinance services to work their way out of poverty despite the ever-looming political unrest and economic fluctuations in the third world nation.

“Staggering numbers of people are leaving their homes and all of their belongings behind to begin a new life, and the task of supporting their families is overwhelming,” said Nye, an island resident since 2003. “Yet the world hardly hears about it.”

Founded in 1971, Opportunity International provides small business loans, savings, insurance and training to more than two million people attempting to work their way out of poverty in a developing world. Clients in over 25 countries use these financial services to start or expand a business, provide for their families, create jobs for their neighbors and build a safety net for the future.

During a visit to a successful purse-making business, Opportunity International representative Mauricio, left, joins clients Cesar and Monica, along with her mother.

During her trip, which took place Feb. 21-26, Nye visited clients in their homes and at their businesses. She heard stories about their struggles as well as their successes.

One couple she met, named Cesar and Monica, had established a business of making purses. Cesar started making hand-crafted purses at age 15, and contacted Opportunity International for assistance in growing their business that would better support their family.

After five years working with Opportunity International, the couple has secured a contract with a vendor who resells the purses to retailers around the world.

Nye is also a champion of Opportunity International’s initiative to build a bank to serve the millions of displaced persons in Columbia who struggle to support their families. Columbia has the highest number of displaced people of any South American country, and is second worldwide only to Sudan.

“An Opportunity bank could make such a difference in their lives,” she added.

Members of the Opportunity International board of governors take a stroll down a street in Villanueva, Columbia.

Also during the six-day visit, Nye witnessed Opportunity International’s business and personal training development in action during Trust Group meetings. A Trust Group consists of a group of between 10 and 30 clients – mostly women – who guarantee each other’s loans and meet each week to pay back their loans and receive training.

According to Nye, the average loan handed out by Opportunity International is $162. Most Columbians cannot secure a loan through a traditional bank because they would need approximately $150 in savings to secure the loan. And before Opportunity International provided much-needed assistance, people would often go to loan sharks, who would change more than 20 percent in interest. Opportunity International typically charges between two and three percent interest.

“What I leaned during my visit there was just how hard-working, wonderful and proud these people are, and just how family-oriented they are,” said Nye. “They are all so dedicated to helping out each other.”

And, with an overwhelmingly successful payback rate – 98 percent – Opportunity International has proven that their programs and methods are working.

“These people aren’t asking for a handout. They’re asking for a loan that they are committed to paying back,” she added. “They pay back their loans and they are doing well in their businesses. To me, that’s the greatest part of this success story.”

Jim Franz, Opportunity International's chief transformation officer, points out the ledger of a successful business client.

For additional information about Opportunity International, visit www.opportunity.org.