Dreaming of a Better World
An Adventist organization provides education, health care, and shelter to those who have done without for too long.
Eric Rajah spent most of the month of February in Nakuru, Kenya. Rajah, director of the Canada-based relief and development agency, A Better World, had traveled to Kenya in the wake of the social instability that had rocked the nation after that country’s presidential elections late last year.
A Better World supports an orphanage in Nakuru, and the rioting and looting that followed the contested election and swept the country caused the destruction of many of the nearby homes and other buildings close to the orphanage. At times members of competing tribes appeared at the gates of the orphanage, only to be told that it was trying to remain neutral in the struggle, and that its only mission was to care for the children under its supervision.
AFGHANISTAN: Volunteer couple Arni and Elvine Skoretz helped to fund this tent, one of 14 being used temporarily at schools for girls sponsored by A Better World in Kabul.Rajah’s immediate concern was to procure food and other essential supplies for the orphanage, cut off during the chaos that accompanied the violence. But with thousands of displaced people in desperate need of food and shelter, Rajah and A Better World swung into action with emergency aid to assist with the larger relief effort, cooperating with local government and other relief agencies.
“Right now the camp we are in has 14,000 people who are displaced,” he reports. “It’s a terrible situation. Our focus is mothers and children. We have about 2,000 mothers with children under the age of 1, that we do everything for—from mattresses to pots and pans, to feeding them, medicine, the whole works.”
Eric Rajah was born in Sri Lanka 50 years ago to parents who taught in a Seventh-day Adventist school. Eric’s mother, when she was a child in Sri Lanka, had lived in a village where Adventist missionaries set up a school for local children. “My mother came from a very poor family,” Rajah remembers. “Because of her education in a church school our entire family benefited by getting out of poverty.” Rajah, his parents, and his two brothers eventually made their way to Canada, where Eric attended Canadian Union College (now Canadian University College).
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree, Rajah received a business degree from the University of Vancouver in British Columbia. Then he returned to Canadian University College and served as director of Student Finance. Five years later he started his own business in Red Deer, Alberta.
“When I started my business I said, ‘Someday, if I’m successful in Canada, I want to give back some money and time toward helping people.’”
KENYA: A member of the Masai in Kenya tries on a pair of eyeglasses obtained at one of the many eye clinics provided by A Better World.In 1990 Rajah teamed up with Brian Leavitt, then campus chaplain at Canadian University College, to fund development projects around the world. Using the College Heights Seventh-day Adventist Church as a base to receive funding for A Better World, and with members of the church board serving as the administrative body for A Better World, Rajah and Leavitt began their modest operation by donating CAN$5,000 to fund a rehabilitation program for victims of polio in Kendu Bay, Kenya. (A report of that project appeared in Adventist Review, “Tall in the Village,” Apr. 5, 2001.)
“I tried to adopt a business model for humanitarian work,” Rajah explains. A Better World views its projects as investments, not only as charities. “Our returns don’t have to be monetary, but [the projects] have to produce some results,” he says.
Another part of this “business model” requires local communities to contribute an amount equivalent to 25 percent of the amount they receive from A Better World.
And finally, overhead expenses are kept at an absolute minimum. “Our goal is zero overhead,” says Rajah. “Nobody’s paid; we have no office; we don’t even have a telephone bill. Everybody who travels has to pay their own way; they have to donate their own time. None of the donor money goes to pay for overhead.”
Eighteen years later A Better World works in 12 countries, including Afghanistan, Bolivia, India, Kenya, Rwanda, Tibet, Uganda, and the United States (following Hurricane Katrina).
“Third World countries don’t have the social networks and the tax system to support the population, and we are still dealing with the basics of education, water, and health,” he says.
How It Works
From its modest beginnings 18 years ago, A Better World now oversees nearly 20 projects a year and brings in more than CAN$2.5 million in donations. “We invest a lot of money in education—building schools, training teachers, supplying books and desks to these schools,” says Rajah. He notes that in many parts of the world local governments cannot provide the infrastructure necessary for the education and health needs of their citizens. But that with a little help from organizations, such as A Better World, teachers and medical professionals can serve their communities in facilities provided with outside help.
“We build [schools] and clinics in partnership with local governments so that we don’t have to sustain them,” he says. “We expect them to put their teachers in place, and we have that agreement before we start [building] the school.”
BOLIVIA: A small girl enjoys a meal at the Familia Feliz (Happy Family) School and Orphanage in Bolivia.A Better World also works with a “community development council” in each community, made up of the five or six most influential members of the community. A village chief, school principal, hospital or clinic supervisor, and a couple of others help determine priorities for their communities and help implement the projects. The council then monitors the fund accounts and provides periodic reports.
Then volunteers for A Better World, traveling at their own expense, visit each project once or twice a year to check its progress and make sure everything is running smoothly. “They spend two or three days at our project sites monitoring the previous year’s work and planning the next year’s work.” Says Rajah: “We work in a community for five to 10 years.”
A Better World has a volunteer base that is 90 percent non-Adventist and 10 percent Adventist. And Rajah estimates that 98 percent of the financial donations to A Better World come from non-Adventist donors.
Rajah explains, “In my business I saw many people, most not religious, who were not going to church but had a deep desire to help people. They didn’t have a mechanism to engage themselves.” Some independent churches in and around Red Deer that don’t support a regular mission/humanitarian organization donate to A Better World to fulfill their Christian duties to the “least of these” in other parts of the world. Public elementary, high school, and college classes have joined A Better World to raise money and donate services to projects around the world. “This is an unwritten passion for me,” says Rajah about the wider community in Red Deer, “to engage them and let them know what the church does.”
At the completion of a project, donors are invited (at their own expense, of course) to attend the grand opening ceremonies and see for themselves what their donations have accomplished. “It fires them to come back and raise more money,” observes Rajah.
KENYA: Nine-year-old Jackline, with Andrea Giacobbo (left) and Paula Munro, takes her first steps. A Better World provided elbow crutches, standing frames, braces, shoes, and other materials for disabled children at Small Home. Because of a congenital condition, Jackline had never walked before.The profile of the College Heights Adventist Church in Lacombe has risen dramatically in the last 18 years. All donations to A Better World are receipted through the church. People from the community attend the annual Humanitarian Day service, at which different community leaders have been keynote speakers. Last year’s speaker, Gord Bontje, president of Laebon Homes and chair of the Catholic school board, commented, “I have been supporting A Better World for the past seven years. I had a chance to go on a trip last November with my daughter. I am amazed how a group of volunteers can make such a huge difference.” An editorial in The Lacombe Globe (Jan. 22, 2008) entitled “The Ripple Effect of Kindness” accompanied a front-page story by the paper’s editor, Lisa Joy, reporting on a trip she took to a Muslim community in Kenya where medical and optical services are provided by A Better World.
The broad donor base to A Better World is reflected also in the cross-cultural projects funded by it. “We don’t want people to think we’re just taking their money and supporting Seventh-day Adventist projects only,” says Rajah. A Better World serves communities where the majority religion is Muslim, Buddhist, Roman Catholic, or Protestant, as well as Adventist. “Every time we name a building, A Better World is always at the bottom,” says Rajah. “[The sign] will say, ‘Funded by the local community and A Better World of the College Heights Seventh-day Adventist Church.’”
A Better World also sponsors short-term, two-week mission programs. “We say, ‘Take your vacation, turn it into a mission, and enjoy both,’” says Rajah.
Always a Need
A Better World partners with other development and relief agencies around the world, notably the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), the Red Cross, Action for Hunger, and Medical Assistance Program (MAP) International.
TIBET: Holiness Karma Gyurme Rinpoche is surrounded by children at the grand opening of the Waritan School in Quinghai Province, China. The school is sponsored by A Better World.Rajah’s next initiative is to enlist youth and young adults in the work of A Better World, especially those who study on public college or university campuses. “Two years ago we got a group of engineering students from the University of Ottawa to set up their own chapter,” says Rajah. “They worked on a water system and solar lighting. They did it as a class project with their professors.” Another group of five high school students and two college students were part of a group in Kenya earlier this year.
This year A Better World is supporting the following projects:
- Balochi Breakfast Center in Kisumu, Kenya, provides breakfast to 200 orphans who attend three local elementary schools.
- Familia Feliz Orphanage in Bolivia cares for 50 orphans and is helping to develop an agricultural program that will provide for their nutritional needs.
- Kedowa School for the Deaf in Kenya needs permanent buildings to replace the temporary ones that serve its more than 60 deaf students and staff.
- Kipchimchim Hostel in East Kenya provides housing for children with physical disabilities.
- In Afghanistan a school for the blind is in the planning stages, as is a school for girls.
Information about these and other projects, as well as how to be involved in A Better World, is available at its Web site: www.a-better-world.ca.
Anyone who has traveled in a developing country is familiar with the systemic needs such as poverty and sickness caused by lack of education, medical care, food, and shelter. Those who volunteer with A Better World know that their actions touch only a fraction of the world’s needs. Yet they also know that while we wait for the “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1) seen by the prophet of Patmos, their duty is to the ones Jesus described as “the least of these” (Matt. 25:45).
For those they serve, A Better World begins now.
Stephen Chavez is managing editor of Adventist World and Adventist Review.