Eric Rajah, co-founder of the Lacombe-based charity A Better World, is reflecting these days on the impact of the organization clear across the globe.
One of the foremost things on his mind is how grateful he is for the consistent support the community has shown over the years.
“We are now in our 32nd year – we started in 1990 and we are here because of the generosity of people,” said Rajah, who is also ABW’s executive director.
“I think that Lacombe, and Central Alberta, have been incredibly generous, beyond the borders of their own communities. We’ve been very fortunate to have been able to carry our (mission) out.”
Emerging from the pandemic has also given him time to reflect on how certain aims of the charity have truly been realized.
With the onset of COVID, it was assumed donations would drop and that many projects would essentially be put on hold.
“Donations actually increased – people were struggling but they felt that it was important to still give,” he said. “We are thankful for that.
“Our second worry was, how are we going to carry out the projects overseas? We are very used to visiting our projects every three months or every six months. But it turned out that the local people stepped up to the plate, and our project managers (there) stepped up to the plate.”
Technology of course helped everyone stay in touch virtually, but ultimately Rajah said it was so inspiring to see folks on the frontlines take further ownership in connection to ABW projects.
“None of our projects were stopped – in fact, we even got more done. That was a good sign to us, because that’s what we are aiming for; that people will take ownership; that they will manage their affairs,” he said. “So it taught us the importance of training local people and empowering them.”
One area that was negatively impacted of course was travel – the ability to get volunteers to the sites – particularly those with special skills like having medical or rehabilitation training.
“But again, the local people took that upon themselves.”
Local surgeons stepped in, for example.
“That also taught us a lesson – the capacity and the capability is there,” he said. “Over the years, these countries have grown and more graduates are coming out of medical schools, and more people are willing to serve in the rural areas.”
It wasn’t easy for him to have to forego many visits to the projects, but again, it taught him the importance of building the right foundation in those faraway locations.
“They took responsibility for their own progress in life.”
Today, things are continuing as the pandemic fades and plans for international projects take shape.
“Our goal is to have 75,000 students in schools that we build and renovate by 2030. As of right now, we are at 55,000. So we have eight more years, and we have a specific plan to do it.
“The other goal is that these students who go to our schools also have access to health care and clean water in their communities.”
A Better World, as mentioned, is marking more than three decades of service this year.
It started out with $5,000.
Over the decades, the charity has raised in the neighbourhood of $37 million. “More than 2,600 people have travelled on projects – something that has also been life-changing for them.
“We would never have envisioned all of that when we started with $5,000 and just two of us (Rajah and co-founder Brian Leavitt).
“We thought, ‘We talk about missions, we give to missions – but let’s find a way to engage the community in Central Alberta, regardless of church affiliation.’
“Our only stipulation was that it would be open to all – to people from all walks of life.
“At the beginning, we thought we would raise between five and $10,000 a year, do a classroom, do one water well, maybe grow it to $50,000 per year. Now we are averaging about $1.5 to $2 million per year.
“Donors have always had a direct engagement with what they’ve been supporting,” he said, adding that donors are also always welcome to see the projects they contribute to and to connect with the local people.
A sense of transparency has also always been an over-arching priority to the charity, plus overhead costs have been kept extremely low from the start – again thanks largely to the support of the local community.
“So we have built a family – a community of people – that believe in this kind of approach. And most of our donors aren’t just those who write checks. They invest their time and energy to go see the projects, too. They see it for themselves.”
Check out www.abwcanada.ca.