Dennis and Dionne Newton

Dennis and Dionne Newton
Dennis & Dionne Newton

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

An Insider's View of LDS Charities

What It Is Like Serving a Humanitarian Mission

When Dionne and I opened our mission calls a year ago, we knew very little about Bosnia and I could not even pronounce Hercegovina. And I knew even less about the church humanitarian program or LDS Charities. Certainly I knew about "Mormon Helping Hands" and the Church Welfare program. And I knew the LDS Church seemed to donate money to certain causes (usually around natural disasters). Otherwise, to quote Sgt. Schultz..."I knew nothing!"

Los Rosales art director proudly displaying the LDS Charities logo that he painted in their new dining room and kitchen.
What a difference a year makes. Today's blog post is about LDS Charities; the global nonprofit that coordinates humanitarian funds for the LDS Church. When we put our papers in last year, we were called to be the country stewards of humanitarian relief funds for three countries; Bosnia Hercegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia. Dionne and I could not have received a better or more appropriate mission call.

Dionne and I preparing to visit the infant ICU in Sarajevo.

Do They Know It's Christmas?

A little bit of Denny trivia here. Do you know my all-time favorite music band? Here's a couple of hints: 1) it is an early 80's band that I was enamored with in high school and 2) their best known song has something to do with everyone hate for a particular day of the week.

Band-Aid: Geldof is standing to the left of Phil Collins.

The lead singer of my favorite band, Bob Geldof, became more famous from his charity work than his work as a musician. Concerned about reports of starvation in Ethiopia in 1984, he organized a UK super group called Band-Aid and they recorded a charity single entitled Do They Know It's Christmas? All proceeds went to the Ethiopia relief fund. This triggered a number of other high profile events including the "We are the World" single and Live Aid. I was thinking about that concert the other day, fondly remembering it as the first Led Zeppelin reunion in such a long time and the fact that they played Stairway to end their set. Subsequently I have read a little about their show and heard that the band considered it a disaster and have refused to allow their performance to be shown (the blamed Phil Collins who was filling in for their original drummer, John Bonham.

There were rumors of some big "reunions" at Live Aid. The Led Zeppelin reunion did happen. But folks were hoping for a "remaining Beatles" reunion as well. Rumors swirled of George Harrison sightings at the airport but in the end it was just Paul singing Let It Be. Several acts turned Geldof down and later regretted it. These include Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen (both of whom were part of We are the World). 
But what does this trip down memory lane have to do with LDS Charities? Right after the Band-Aid single, the First Presidency asked members to hold a special fast on Jan 27th, 1985 and to donate their offerings from that day for the people of Ethiopia. Over $6 million was raised on that single day. And more continued to come in. The church wanted to make sure that this money was appropriately used, so Elder Ballard was dispatched to Ethiopia to ensure that the funds were wisely spent. He found reputable partners in Catholic Charities, the American Red Cross, and Africare.

Elder Ballard in Ethiopia in 1985.
And so began LDS Charities. Monies continued to come in for humanitarian relief. And so a formal organization was needed to make sure that these funds were used wisely to "care for those with greatest need" across the world. And a key component of that organization...senior missionaries who could be trusted to manage the funds and to seek out the poor and needy.

At a senior humanitarian missionary conference in February. favorite band is the Boomtown Rats. Which is why "I Don't Like Mondays."

An Organization Devoted to "Pure Religion"

One of the first scriptures parables we discussed when we were trained as humanitarian missionaries is the "widow's mite." Mark 12:41-44 notes that Jesus was observing as people came up to the treasury and paid their offerings. Those who were rich cast in much money. And then came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two "mites." And Jesus said to his disciples, "this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury. For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her did cast in all that she had, even all her living."

This Bosnia baka reminds me of the widow's mite story.
Senior humanitarian missionaries truly believe that we have been called to oversee the widow's mite. It is our sacred duty to spend their donations wisely. This attitude permeates the entire humanitarian organization of the church. According to the 2016 annual report, "100% of donated funds go towards humanitarian projects." The few LDS Charities paid salaries come from other funds. But there are very few paid salaries in this organization. It is mainly volunteer missionaries like Dionne and I. And "retired" technical specialists who have decided to spend their retirement using their skills to serve across the world.

Ike Ferguson meeting the staff of the Public Health Ministry in Zenica. Brother Ferguson coordinates the Vision Care project here in Bosnia. He has worked with the schools to conduct eye screening (it was stopped after the wars). In every community that becomes involved, he has to convince three ministries to participate in this project (which is not an easy task if you are familiar with Bosnia). Because of his efforts, tens of thousands of children have been screened in the past few years and 10-12% were prescribed for glasses. We have also identified nearly 200 cases of myopia which could have lead to blindness if it would not have been caught.

Dionne and I now have approximately 20 active projects in over 35 cities. And we are pursuing more all the time. There is no shortage of need here in Bosnia and Croatia. We wish we could wave a wand and fulfill everyone's needs. But that is not the Lord's way. We are looking for the "poor and needy." But also for partners and champions who we feel will take our support and build upon it. To make a whole that is greater than the parts.

This was accurate in April. But it has ballooned even more since then.
All of these projects have meant that we are road warriors. We put about 3,500 miles on our little car each month. We have gotten to the point where a 2-hour drive to Tuzla is considered a short jaunt.

Supplies to be delivered to homeless men in Rijeka, Croatia. 
Another presentation that I remembered from our training highlighted why NGOs tend to waste money in third world countries. It is kind of like the IT projects stats. Over and over consultants told us that only 1/3rd of IT projects are actually successful; the rest just waste money. We heard a TED talk that made the same claim about NGO spending. The fallacy is first world minds trying to solve third world problems by throwing money at them. Stories avail of NGOs that build water projects only to have the village women continue to wash their clothes in the river. A HBR article indicates that international NGOs spend more percent-wise on accounting than for-profit multinationals. And the head of UNICEF's USA Division makes over $500k a year.

We were told a story of a failed project...the missionaries were excited to build laundry facilities near the village. But when the returned two months later to see if they were still being used, they found that the women were still taking the clothes to the river to wash. It turns out that the river washing was a social experience that could not be replicated at the wash tubs.
As an aside, I have to admit that our humanitarian expense reporting system that we currently use is the worst I have seen in 30 years. Fortunately it does not cost the church much because the real pain is in how long it takes a senior missionary to fill out a single our expense reports. Dionne and I have to set aside a day and a half to fill out a month's report and this is just with just 30-40 receipts. At Asurion or Nextel that would have taken 40 minutes (with a little bit admin help!).

The joy of doing my expense report. I don't see myself from this angle that often. I am going to bald on the side of my head?

Not Just Donors But Supporters

The LDS Church has decided to shoot 5 videos its main website,, in our humanitarian area. The main camera crews descend on us from Frankfort mid-July but we have already been able to do some pre-production work with a local camera man (and friend) Ilia Alexanderson. 

Although it was staged, this is the first time the Los Rosales kitchen was used to prepare food for the school children.

When she was doing her interview, Lejla, a speech therapist at Los Rosales, described how she views LDS Charities. She said that "we are not just donors, rather we are supporters" of Los Rosales. I found this comment quite insightful. 

Lejla at Los Rosales' 20th birthday celebration.

Every time we meet with a potential new partner, we seem to get the same spiel. They assume that we are just like every other international NGO and that we are bringing money. Local NGOs and partners all are facing the same reality; not enough funding to accomplish their mission. While some receive certain levels of government funding, it is never enough. So they are reliant on outside sources like fund raising and international NGOs. They do not have enough money to pay salaries, to maintain and expand their facilities, to buy supplies, and to dream. They survive on a "wing and a prayer." By this I mean that will start a project not knowing how or where the funds will come to ultimately finish it. So they are constantly seeking donors. They have to.

Visiting with the mayor from Vlasenica. 
But it is a dual edged sword. At a recent children with disabilities conference here in Sarajevo, UNICEF concluded that Bosnia is becoming "addicted" to international NGO funds. The more local NGOs accept outside money, they found, the less likely the government is willing to fund critical services like education for children with disabilities. Or, even worse, an NGO will come in and fund a new center and then expect the government to pick up the on-going expenses. 

Adisa and Dionne at the UNICEF conference.
So when Dionne and I walk in the door, we have to explain that our vision is different. We are not able to simply provide funding for them (or buy vehicles or erect buildings). Instead, we are looking for ways in which we can have a long-term, sustainable impact. In short, we are here to be true partners and supporters.

Doing a media interview. I think my name tag is on my white shirt. Fortunately I was not on camera!
A good example is work we have done trying to bring tablet technology to centers who work with children with disabilities. During a recent visit with Kučanada (House of Hope), we learned that a Croatian NGO had given them tablets a few years ago. We were excited to hear how they had been able to integrate this technology into their teaching. But, sadly, we found that the tablets sat on a shelf and were never actually used. The Croatian software had been downloaded but the NGO had not taken the time to investigate different software packages, train the teachers, and monitor their use. In other words, they had simply thrown money at Kučanada (in the form of tablets) and called it good.

By way of contrast, we have been partnering with Mala Sirena to test the effectiveness of tablets at their program. Before we made the purchase, we jointly visited experts in Croatia. Dionne researched different tablets and software packages and downloaded 10-15 prior to delivery. We held several training sessions with Mala Sirena and have visited to monitor progress several times. And the results are very promising. Based on these results, we feel confident that we will be able to bring more tablets to more centers here in Bosnia...soon.

Sister Newton and a young man from Mala Sirena learning their Bosnia animal names.
So Layla's off-the-cuff remark (in a language that is not here own) was right on point. LDS Charities is not interesting in being a "donor." Rather, we try to support local champions as they work to improve their local community. One thing that Dionne and I have proved very adept at is finding wonderful local champions who are trying to make a difference in Bosnia and Croatia.

We do build some things. This plaque commemorates a rebuilt septic tank and bathrooms that we built with the Red Cross in Domaljevac.

I Was a Stranger

Last year the presiding LDS authority in Europe, Elder Kearon, made this observation in General Conference.

“The Savior knows how it feels to be a refugee—he was one. As a child, Jesus and his family fled to Egypt to escape the murderous swords of Herod and at various points in his ministry, he found himself threatened and his life in danger, ultimately submitting to the designs of evil men who had plotted his death. Perhaps then, it is all the more remarkable to us that he repeatedly taught us to love one another, to love as he loves, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Truly, pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to look to the poor and the needy and administer to their relief that they shall not suffer.”

Last year the church partnered with 70 organizations in 17 different European countries to assist refugees. Make that 18 countries as of April of this year. Dionne and I, inspired by two of the hardest working senior humanitarian missionaries we have ever met, the Stays, decided to look into the refugee situation in our countries. What we found was an opportunity to help refugees that have decided to apply for asylum in Croatia. 

Two refugees outside of the Zagreb center.

While most refugees desire to relocate to more affluent European countries like Germany, Sweden, or Norway, there are some who have chosen Croatia as their final destination. The process for these asylum seekers is to put their lives on hold, wait for 6-12 months in one of two refugees centers (Zagreb or Kutina), do not take employment, and live on state-supplied goods (food, shelter, clothing, some medicines, etc) along with a tiny monthly stipend. And, of yes, there is no guarantee that you will be granted asylum. 

Men just sitting around with nothing to do while they wait for a ruling on their asylum petition.
We are partnering with the Red Cross to make their situation more bearable. The government will provide them with Class 1 prescription drugs but will not provide them with OTC drugs (cough medicines, ibuprofen). The medical clinics in these centers are also lacking some basic supplies. So we are providing these things. We are also providing things like school supplies for the children. We are fixing some broken doors in the Kutina center. And we are hoping to build a laundry facility so that the refugees can do their own laundry rather than have the Red Cross staff do it.

The OTC drug supply closet at the Zagreb center.

One of doors at the Kutina center...this is the one that has most of the children.
I am happy that we are able to do some of these things for the refugees in Croatia. But I realize that in this situation we are not going the extra mile. But I am glad our friends at the Red Cross are. They have staff at each of the centers who have become personally involved with many of the refugees. Our contact in Kutina, Mario, has emotionally adopted a number of the unaccompanied minors who are here trying to start a new life. He introduced us to one young man age 16. When I met him I would have sworn he was 25! But as we talked to him, we realized how humble a kid he is. He is hoping to get asylum but the odds are stacked against him. The government will not tell him why but he has been turned down once already. (There are many reasons why applicants are turned down; where they lived, where family members have lived, distant relatives, health problems, etc.) 

Mario greeting the young man whom he considers a "pseudo" son. I could see the love between them as I watched them interact. His asylum request was initially denied but they are hopeful for the appeal. 
 If someone is turned down, they are sent back to the country where they last were. This would probably mean Serbia for this young man. Sixteen years old and all alone in Europe. Cases like this break Mario's heart.

My sister Downi with three young asylum seekers at Kutina. Fortunately they are here with their families and not all alone.

The Roma Dilemma

When we first arrived in Sarajevo, we immediately noted the numbers of beggars on the streets (especially near Bašćaršija). This lead us to suspect that there might be a substantive homeless problem in Bosnia. So Dionne started looking for potential partners for homeless or wayward teenagers in Sarajevo because we just assumed that there had to be a problem akin to what we just left in the downtown Kansas City, Kansas area.

Homeless bedding near the wharf in Rijeka Croatia. We partnered with a Catholic shelter and our local branch to provide food and shelter needs for about 50 homeless men. But this is the only homeless project that we have done here.

But as we investigated more, locals told us that the people begging in the streets were Roma. For the Americans reading this blog, Roma basically means "gypsy" here in Europe. But "gypsy" is a very derogatory term here so we never use it. So we began to observe the behavior of the Roma here. And we began to meet with potential government partners and discuss the situation with locals. What we found is a very difficult dilemma which many people and countries here in Eastern Europe face. 

An old Roma woman asking for money on the streets of Baščaršija.
We found and met a potential partner here in Sarajevo that helps wayward youth. Fortunately they are well funded so we did not determine that they truly needed our help. But they also gave us some insight about the Roma population here. This NGO tries to give Roma children a safe place to come and the ability to attend school. But many just drop in from time-to-time when it is really cold and then return to their parents. They told us that culturally, the parents were treated the same way that they treat their children, and the government does not know how to stop the cycle. (The video is of a young Roma child with Sister Locey that came up to us in Mostar and started singing for worked...we paid him some money...later in the day we saw him with his family on the outskirts of the city...parents and young children who were meeting up after a day of begging).

Here in Sarajevo, Roma have a system of organized begging. As I have been observing them, it is quite brilliant and effective. But it is also abusive. Through discussions with locals and my own observations, here is how it works. The adults select those with the most emotional-appeal (old women, handicapped men, children) to man the front lines. They stand on a corner and work a street day-after-day begging for money. Each has some type of ploy to tug on the heart strings. On man has lost a leg and hops around at a certain traffic stop asking for cash. Another old woman holds a wrapped baby in her arms as she cradles it on a corner (btw...after seeing this woman sitting on the same corner day-after-day, we realized that the baby is a plastic doll). Another older woman is a wonderful actress who dons a ultra-sad face every time a person walks by. Another older woman carries a old box of medicine in her hands and asks if you can help her purchase her medicine (our friend Senada admits she is a particular sucker for this one...she has contributed more than once she said). But the group that really tugs at my heartstrings is the children. I have watched as the fathers stand around the eternal flame during the winter drinking beer and the send their young children down the street to beg. There is one boy that we have seen nearly every day that plays an accordion. Another just sits on a card board box with is hand out.

Notice the little Roma boy begging on this rainy day. He is always out on the street. I promise his parents are reasonably nearby making sure that he does his job. 

So how do we help the Roma here? Our answer is that Dionne and I, with our simple resources, could not even come close to solving this problem. Partially because they make too much money with this systematic begging system of theirs (I have many Bosnians refer to it as "organized crime" or "mafia" which it might technically be). I have observed young Roma girls walking into BBI Centar (the fancy mall) and buying quite expensive treats, hiding them in their pockets, and then resuming their work. Just outside of Los Rosales there were some old abandoned buildings that Roma began to live in. Soon there was trash all over and it became an eye sore. The government moved them to better accommodations but they took everything they could from the new facility and returned to the abandoned buildings. So last month the government finally decided to knock down the old buildings. Most of the Roma in Mostar have now returned to camps in Zenica and Žavidovići. In Tuzla we are told that they drive around with a car and a loud speaker asking for any old appliances that people want to throw out.

Site just outside of Los Rosales where there used to be 3 old buildings inhabited by Roma.
I can remember talking about the issue in Zagreb with a friend. He mentioned that the truly poor do not beg for money like the Roma do. Instead, they will pick up bottles and cans which they can then sell for recycling. As we were speaking about this, an older lady asked us if we would give her the bottles from the drinks we were just finishing. His experiences with Roma is that he has offered them food and they have refused (despite the fact that they have just asked him for money for food).

Final Thoughts: Even When It Goes Wrong It Still Feels Right

So how do we decide where to put our energies and LDS Charities' resources? Exactly the way that the members of our church would expect. We pray and ask for the guidance of our Heavenly Father. He has directed us to some wonderful partners. Hopefully we have been the answers to some of their prayers.

And does it ever go wrong? There was one project that Dionne and I were not completely sure about. It was an emergency relief project in Banja Luka. This was a very severe winter and there were reports of many rural poor families who were snowbound whose winter supplies had dwindled. They needed food.

Red Cross volunteers bringing relief supplies to snowbound rural residents.

So we quickly got an emergency relief project approved to help about 100 of those families. But by the time everything was ready to go (a few weeks later), we had a warming spell and much of the snow had melted. So Dionne and I worried about snow bound emergency relief when the snow had melted. We wondered if we had squandered the widow's mite.

Volunteers prepping the relief packages at the Red Cross offices.
Despite the lack of snow, we delivered the packages anyway. When we delivered the packages, we realized that the families that received the packages definitely needed the help. Not because they were snow bound but because they were in need. So even this project, which seemed like it had gone wrong in theory, felt so right as we handed these families two boxes of food and other supplies.

Two young children sharing a crib. Right next to their crib was another with an even younger child.
I remember one house which we visited. One adult male, his wife, a sister I believe, and 10 kids under the age of 12. There were three babies in cribs. And they were all sitting in a small room in a 2-bedroom house. Rather than take away the food that we had brought them, I wanted to give them three portions of food. Our moment of doubt about this project slowly disappeared as we saw their smiles of appreciation and witnessed their need.

Some of the remaining children with the three babies.

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