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Common Hope: Johnnies and Bennies Provide Inspiration in Guatemala

By Glenda Isaacs Burgeson
SJU Communication and Marketing Services

The pile of linens in the corner drives home the point— sheets and blankets heaped high, almost to the ceiling in the warehouse. Here in the United States, these used hospital linens are discards; in Guatemala, where they are headed, they will replace the newspapers routinely used to cover hospital beds.

The comparisons continue – between haves and have-nots – during a tour of the Common Hope warehouse in St. Paul. A relief agency serving the poor in Guatemala, Common Hope works with families to help them break the cycle of poverty.

A walk through the warehouse reveals in striking detail how disposables in one country can meet basic needs or provide an occasional luxury in another. John Huebsch ’85, executive director of Common Hope, conducts the tour. The inventory reflects a hodgepodge of items that are shipped six to eight times a year in semi-truck trailers, provided at no cost by Chiquita. There are basketballs, toys and much needed school supplies for children, and clothing from Land’s End for entire families. Ten used computers will upgrade the Common Hope office in Guatemala, and the older computers from that office will furnish classrooms at the school.

Medical supplies sit shrink-wrapped on pallets. The supplies are purchased in bulk and transported to Guatemala, where pharmacists sort them into old film canisters – donated, of course — and used medicine bottles, also transported from the United States and sterilized. In this way, medicines are distributed to families.

Pointing to a hand-pedaled sewing machine, Huebsch explains its value in Guatemala. "That can mean income for an entire family that has no electricity." Of the pile of linens in the corner, he says, "All families will get a blanket at Christmas."

After the tour, Huebsch returns to a modest suite of offices located above the warehouse in the Palen Building in St. Paul, and explains how Common Hope works. It began modestly in 1985, when his parents, Dave ’59, and the late Betty Huebsch, generously responded to an appeal from friends in Guatemala to help educate children there. They founded schools and rounded up friends to serve as sponsors for the children. Over time, and through wordof- mouth, their efforts evolved into a non-profit organization initially known as the Godchild Project.

They soon realized, however, that educational efforts alone were not enough. Children can’t learn when they are sick. Ramshackle  housing, with poor ventilation or exposure to the elements, contributes to chronic health problems. As the organization addressed these needs, a comprehensive approach took shape, focusing on basic necessities for healthy family development: education, health, housing and vocational training.

The organization’s new name, Common Hope, reflects this comprehensive approach. The overriding goal is to help families rise out of poverty. As the organization has grown, so have the number of Johnnies who have pitched in to help. Although not formally affiliated with Saint John’s, Common Hope has captured the hearts, minds and imaginations of hundreds of Johnnies and Bennies.

“There is a tremendous number of Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s people involved with us,” says Huebsch, “from people on Saint John’s Board of Regents, to professors and staff from both schools who have volunteered in Guatemala, to students and many, many alumni. Many on our staff are Bennies and Johnnies as well.”

Maybe the Benedictine ideals of service and social justice help explain this high rate of participation. Maybe the organization’s bold and efficient use of resources appeals to the can-do attitude so prevalent among CSB/SJU alumnae/alumni. More than 80 percent of Common Hope’s $2.7 million annual budget supported programs in 2001. That translates into aid for more than 2,000 children and their families.

Maybe it’s the sense of community that Common Hope fosters, both in an ideal sense and in reality. In 1999, in response to the destruction of Hurricane Mitch, Common Hope began building a 34-acre village, New Hope Village, for some 150-175 families living in the slums of Guatemala City. Work teams, composed of volunteers – including dozens of Johnnies and Bennies – from the United States, Canada and, more recently, Europe, travel to Guatemala to work on projects alongside the Guatemalans.

Approximately 30 work teams, each consisting of 12 people, visit Guatemala each year for 10 days. Last year, one of the teams was made up entirely of Johnnies. Chris Thompson ’99, associate campus minister at Saint John’s, led the team as part of a Campus Ministry service project. One of those students, Tom Stukel ’02, has since joined the Common Hope staff in St. Paul as work team coordinator. Volunteers quickly spread word about their experiences, and work teams for 2003 have long since been booked.

Bina and Dave Huebsch are active fund raisers for Common Hope and interview hundreds of children on videotape for their U.S. sponsors. Dave is the found of Common Hope and is now an honorary board member.

Huebsch, who was honored in 1999 with a CSB/SJU Caritas Award, believes there is a simple explanation for such enthusiasm.

“The purpose of the work teams is to provide an experience that  is life changing,” he says.

That transforming experience generates more involvement. Huebsch made his first trip to Guatemala in 1985. These days he spends approximately 10 months per year there.

He says making a difference in the world motivates him and the Common Hope staff, as well as the volunteers.

Greg Scherer ’68, president, Common Hope Board of Directors, has been to Guatemala a dozen times, working alongside Guatemalan families. “The experience has changed my life,” he says.

Huebsch cites Renato Westby ’95, as the most dramatic example of a life transformed. As a young child, Westby was adopted from an orphanage in his native Guatemala and grew up in Minnesota. After graduating from Saint John’s, he volunteered for a year at Common Hope. Six years later, he makes his home there, with his Guatemalan wife and daughter, and serves as director of New Hope Village.

For more information about transformative experiences in progress, visit the Common Hope Web site at www.commonhope.org. For information about volunteer opportunities at the St. Paul headquarters, as well as in Guatemala and for information about donations, contact the Common Hope office at (651) 917-0917.