Algonquin's Microfinance Club reaches goal

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By Joyce DeWallace Contributing Writer

Northborough – Where will you find 60 Algonquin Regional High School (ARHS) students every Thursday afternoon after last class? They are meeting with their Microfinance Club advisor, economics Teacher Nicole ” Nikki” Ruffo.

The club was the brainchild of senior Edward “Eddie” Lowe. At the end of his sophomore year, Lowe had attended a weekend leadership conference at Bentley College in Waltham as the ARHS student representative. A participant from Medway gave a speech about his school's microfinance project.

“I wanted to start that kind of club in my own school,” Lowe decided.

Lowe exchanged e-mail information with the Medway speaker and contacted the MicroLoan Foundation of Boston. Then Lowe approached Ruffo and asked, “Can you help us form a club to raise money for women in Africa who don's have jobs?”

In the fall, Lowe talked to classmates, then formed the club with several of them. He's now the president of the organization.

Chris Ryan, the current vice president, said, “Eddie told me about his idea and obviously it sounded like a great cause. I was interested and wanted to help.”

They invited Linda Thomson- Clem, president of the Boston branch of the MicroLoan Foundation of Boston, to come to Northborough and assist their group.

The MicroLoan Foundation's social mission is to help “the poorest of the poor help themselves in order to change their lives for the better.” The group's vision is to help millions of people get out of poverty by helping them start small, selfsustainable businesses. Founder and CEO Peter Ryan wrote, “The challenge of building the operation from the “ground up” has resulted in the creation of a social model which, coupled with strong business management, is beginning to yield exceptionally good results.” For more information, contact www.microloanfoundation.org.uk/What-we-do/Where_we_work/boston.

Thomson-Clem's visit in 2009 encouraged the students to raise funds to provide seed money for sub-Saharan African women to start small cottage businesses like fruit stands and crafts made by hand. The loans provide materials for weaving, basket making or supplies to produce salable goods, such as jewelry, blankets and pottery. The funding can be used to buy chickens to sell eggs or purchase a goat to make soaps and cheeses. The foundation provides the loans along with training, support and accountability. Thomson-Clem also gave the group helpful ideas on how to raise the money, and they decided to set their first goal at $1,000.

At their weekly meetings, club members learned more about women's lives in the countries of Malawi, Zambia and Namibia. They found out that many men leave the small villages to find work in the larger cities, leaving their wives and children behind. Most of the women are desperately poor, cannot read or write, and often have eight or nine dependents. Compounding their problems, they also have to contend with health issues such as malaria, cholera and HIV infections.

How do the micro-financiers earn their money? Their first fund-raiser brought in about $100 by selling homemade chocolate KitKat bars at Parent's Night. They have sold raffle tickets at double-header basketball games, which brought in an additional $200. But the biggest source of cash has been selling FairTrade goods, made by African women, outside of Lowe's Variety & Meat Shop on West Main Street during the summer and fall. The handmade baskets, soaps, necklaces, candles and lip balm brought in another $600. Donations have added enough for the club to reach its $1,000 goal with their initial check going to their first recipients through the MicroLoan Foundation.

The members of the club also schedule activities to encourage participation. Besides pizza parties and ice cream socials, they held a scooter race in the school parking lot with eight heats leading to a championship with prizes for the winners.

“It was a riot,” Ruffo said.

Another club member is glad to be a part of the organization.

“It's not boring – we have fun, and it's fun to help others,” said Haley Curley, one of the Microfi nance Club's founders.

Reaching their first goal was rewarding. Now they will get pictures and letters from translators to track the progress of the women who are able to start businesses with the Northborough club's hard-earned money.

“At the end of the day, it's all about people helping people,” Lowe said.

“The real heroes are the women who are brave enough to try to work toward a better life,” Ryan said.

Ruffo is gratified to work on the project.

“Algonquin has awesome, caring students and it shows,” she said. “It's like a drug – the more you help, the more you want to help.”

The students are learning an important lesson. Using their time and resources, they are making a difference in the lives of impoverished families. The club's motto is a quote by Tupac Shakur, “Even when the road is hard, never give up.”

With this project, these 60 ARHS students are a long way from giving up. They are working hard to make the world a better place, learning that caring for others reaps many rewards.

For more information or to make a donation to help this group's efforts, contact the Microfinance Club advisor Ms. Nicole Ruffo at [email protected].