2012 Opus Prize Recipient
Bolivia is a country that is stunning in its physical beauty, but also one of the poorest and least developed of all Latin American countries. While the mining of tin, tungsten, crude oil, zinc, silver, gold, lead and natural gas are major industries, roughly half of the labor force is engaged in agriculture. About one-third of the country lives in poverty, and limited access to healthcare, education, and economic opportunities compounds the quality of life for many Bolivians, particularly those in rural areas.
Born to a peasant family in Bolivia, Segundo Velasquez spent his childhood attending a small rural school, herding sheep, and guiding the ox that pulled his father’s plow. His parents later decided to move to the city so their eight children would have the opportunity to attend high school. During the day Segundo and his siblings worked alongside their father, making colonial roof tiles by hand and selling them in the neighborhood, and attended school in the evenings.
As a young adult, he met Joan Swanson, a Peace Corps volunteer who was working in Cochabamba, and Segundo immigrated to the United States where they were married. He was employed as a technical operations manager at a major airline in Minnesota, and in 1994, came together with family and friends to collect surplus medical equipment and supplies to outfit a small hospital in Bolivia where Segundo’s brother worked as a pediatrician. Using all of his instincts as an entrepreneur, Segundo managed to check and ship 32 boxes of supplies through the Miami airport. A new nonprofit, Mano a Mano International, was incorporated later that year to try and replicate that same effort in other rural Bolivian communities.
Eighteen years later, Mano a Mano is recognized as one of the premier NGOs in all of Bolivia, managing a diverse portfolio of programs serving rural villages throughout the country. The organization has shipped more than 3,000,000 pounds of medical supplies and equipment from the U.S. to Bolivia – more than 75 percent of those supplies are donated to public hospitals and other nonprofit healthcare providers throughout the country. Some 1,300 patients from the tropics/interior have been airlifted to city hospitals for emergency medical treatment. Mano a Mano has built, and negotiated staffing commitments from the Bolivian government for 130 clinics and small hospitals, nearly all of which are self-sufficient and all are in operation today. They’ve completed the construction of schools (including housing for teachers) in 44 villages. Mano a Mano has also connected distant communities to markets for their agricultural goods by building 1,300 kilometers of roads, and is providing access to water for drinking and irrigation through the construction of large-scale dams and reservoirs in five communities.
What’s most impressive about this NGO is the massive scope and array of projects that meet the primary needs of rural people. They’ve made a major investment in the purchase of airplanes and earth-moving equipment, and work hand-in-hand with local residents who must provide sweat equity to every project. They’ve negotiated long-term working relationships with the Bolivian government and local officials to equip and staff their clinics and hospitals. Segundo’s team insists on local ownership of each facility, but continues to hold each village accountable for maintaining facilities according to Mano a Mano standards.
Working from the Mano a Mano office in Saint Paul, Minn., with occasional trips to Cochabamba, Segundo leads his organization through “faith in action” reflected in his personal commitment to justice for the poor. The engineers, architects, pilots, medical personnel and local administrators are all accomplished Bolivians who manage every aspect of the day-to-day work. Segundo has inspired his staff to not only share a faith commitment and vision, but to use the gifts of each individual in the organization to implement programs that not only change lives today – but will significantly impact future generations of Bolivians.
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