Missions of Mercy

By Hannah Wallace April 30, 2004

Running a business, seeing patients and managing staff-not to mention setting aside time for spouses, children, grandchildren and the occasional hobby-satisfies most people.

But for some Sarasota and Manatee professionals, work and family aren't enough. Without fanfare, they're taking time out of their schedules to bring their skills, supplies or money abroad to people who desperately need them. Why do they do it? Kelly Kirschner, a Sarasota product manager who volunteers for a nonprofit in Guatemala, speaks for many of them: "Whether you like it or not, there's some social obligation, some potential to make people's lives easier. So you just do it."

Here's how Kirschner and three other members of our business community are working to make lives easier and better for people far from Florida's Gulf coast.

Out to Africa

Karen Rushing points to a photograph of crime scene evidence, including a gun and a television, on the floor of a courthouse in Luanda, the capital of war-torn Angola. "I asked [the Luandan clerks] how they would store the evidence," Rushing recalls.

The answer: Any objects that still worked would probably find their way into an employee's home.

Rushing, Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and comptroller, snapped that photograph during a trip to Angola where she serves as a volunteer for a U. S. Department of Commerce program that helps develop democracies around the world. In 2002, Rushing was handpicked to train Angolans to install reliable record keeping systems. She flies to the South-western African country periodically to monitor the project, and has also hosted Angolan court representatives in Sarasota.

"I saw how chaotic a country can be without a government to support and protect the people," Rushing says.

Without proper record keeping, Rushing says, crimes can't be solved or property rights protected. In Luanda, Rushing saw stacks of records lying outside, exposed to the elements. She learned that employees sometimes sold records on the black market. The department owned one computer, and electricity blackouts occurred at least three times a week. Many of the employees couldn't read, so Rushing had to transform her notes into pictures.

Yet Rushing says she loves the challenges as well as the concept of sharing expertise-teaching Angolan clerks how to maintain records, store evidence and organize and retrieve informationrather than simply donating money. "No matter what culture you're from, or how poor, the basic needs of people are the same," Rushing says. "They want to care for their families. They love their children. They need food. It was motivating for me that these folks wanted more and seemed to be willing to work for it. I was honored to do my little piece."

The Big Picture

Around town, Lynn Hathaway-Howe is known as a busy business consultant who spends her days zipping around from appointment to appointment in her stylish Jaguar.

But in a handful of remote Mayan villages in Guatemala, Hathaway-Howe is the "camera lady," an American who shows up on mule back, often accompanied only by a translator, to document the villages' needs so Sarasota's eight Rotary clubs back home can raise money and supplies to help.

Area governor of the international volunteer organization, Hathaway-Howe volunteers for Rotary's Adopt-a-Village program, but she and her husband keep a similar mindset even when traveling for pleasure. They avoid five-star resorts and package tours, preferring instead to strike out for the unknown to see what needs they can uncover. Hathaway-Howe says she will never the seven-year-old children in cold, windy Barillas, Guatemala, who stay up all night to make sure rats don't eat the corn that constitutes their families' only food supply, or a TB hospital with conditions so gruesome that she could barely believe her eyes. "Some of the people who made it to that hospital never made it home," she says.

Her camera usually helps her break the ice with villagers, especially with children, and she is amazed at how well she can communicate, even without language.

"I get more out of it than they do," insists Hathaway-Howe, who says she is always cognizant of what a fortunate hand she's been dealt in life. "It's a unique opportunity to provide a service to individuals you may never see again. You may not believe in the same religion or culture, but you believe in the individuals and the absolute needs they have."

Deep Philanthropic Roots

Kelly Kirschner, the 28-year-old product manager at Bio-Pro Research in Sarasota, got his first taste of overseas philanthropy when he joined the Peace Corps right out of Georgetown University. With a degree in Latin American studies, he landed a position with a municipal development project in Guatemala where he worked with the mayor of Chisec to prioritize the needs of the Indian people and help set up social service networks. Afterwards he was hired by USAID to work with Idaho State University to create a green corridor of protected land in the war-torn Guatemalan forests.

Now back in Sarasota, Kirschner continues to administer SANK (the Mayan word for the industrious leafcutter ant), the nonprofit scholarship program he started after he and two other Peace Corps workers in Guatemala were approached by 10- and 12-year-old shoeshine boys asking for assistance in raising their prices. Kirschner helped the boys organize into a union, gave them uniforms and support, encouraged them to stop their rampant glue-sniffing and fighting, and used the union as a tool to involve parents in keeping the boys and their sisters in school.

"Some people ask me, did I impose my Western values on them?" Kirschner says. "I don't think education is a Western concept. It's universal. If you have access to education, the entire fabric of humanity changes."

In its third year, the program is flourishing, with school enrollment among SANK students up 25 percent from the previous year, and 125 scholarships paid for by funds Kirschner raised through friends, family and recipients of SANK newsletters. He also receives donations through SANK's new parent organization,, a virtual nonprofit that supports similar operations in Namibia, Zambia and Nepal.

"We're a super insular society; we deny that all these Haitis and Iraqs exist," says Kirschner. "In many ways, we need to open our eyes a lot wider."

Healing Missions

As a deeply religious person, Dr. Joseph Pecoraro had always wanted to help the less fortunate, but busy with career and family, he pushed the thought to the back of his mind for many years. Then about six years ago, the Bradenton vascular and general surgeon read an article about medical philanthropy that convinced him the time had come to act.

Pecoraro went on his first mission trip to El Salvador with Global Health Outreach in 1997, and was part of the first medical team to treat patients in the mountain regions of Chalchuapa. His team also preached to local adults and children through "evangelical clinics."

"The timing was right," Pecoraro says. "And once I went, I was addicted. It starts out as a hobby, becomes an avocation, and turns into a passion."

In El Salvador, Pecoraro did mostly minor surgery, of cysts and hernias, but he says the doctors also saw rare medical and dermatological conditions that they had only ever seen in textbooks before. Though at first local doctors were wary of the Americans, as the trust grew, they began asking the American volunteers to perform more complicated surgeries, says Pecoraro.

Since then, Pecoraro, a New Jersey native and University of South Florida grad, has undertaken at least one mission a year; this year, he will go on three. After his first trip, he began to organize his own groups of physicians, mostly from Sarasota and Bradenton, but also from as far as Maine and Connecticut. They've been to El Salvador and Guatemala, and this year, will go to Peru, Ghana and the Dominican Republic, usually spending a week to 10 days in each place, taking donated supplies and working with missionaries and hospitals to conduct surgeries and see patients.

Now he even takes his family along; and he says his children, 12 and 10, take in stride the poverty and neediness they see abroad. "Kids are so much more resilient," he says. "They adjust, as long as there's another child to play with."

More Than Just Fun

If you want to combine travel with philanthropy, here are a few starting points for organizations that provide opportunities for volunteering abroad.

o This local organization, Agape Flights, serves as a resource center for missionary families who transport medical aid and supplies to Central America, primarily Haiti and the Dominican Republic.



Founded by Fort Myers resident Bob Simpson, Project Perfect World, gets medical care, including maxillofacial and dental surgery, to children from developing countries.

o has information about this venerable international organization's numerous overseas volunteering opportunities. Sarasota (Area 6960) has several clubs you can contact.

o This virtual non-profit relies on contributions and a small web of volunteers to raise money for scholarships in Guatemala, Namibia, Nepal and Zambia.

o The United Nations Volunteers home page offers information about volunteer efforts such as a civil registration project in Cambodia.

o This comprehensive website from the International Volunteers Program Association offers a searchable database of volunteer opportunities in different fields all over the world, as well as a list of links to organizations that sponsor international volunteerism.

o The Council on International Education Exchange has a searchable database of volunteering opportunities on its website ranging from conservation in Australia to cleaning and gardening in a 17th-century Lithuanian monastery.

o Opportunities for "developmental instructors" to work 12 to 14 months in Africa, Asia or Central America. is the United States affiliate of Humana People to People.

o For the socially-conscious traveler, this website offers "volunteer vacations." You can also sign up for a longer, more intensive volunteer program in everything from child care and construction to conservation and teaching.

o The granddaddy of overseas volunteering programs, this is a good place to get a comprehensive overview of the organization. The closest recruiter to us is Christian Reed, a USF graduate student and returned Peace Corps Volunteer and recruiter. Email [email protected].

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