A Discussion with Patrick Reese, Manager, Humanitarian Services, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
June 18, 2009
Background: Since 2001, Patrick Reese has managed humanitarian services for the Latter-day Saint Charities (LDSC). LDSC is the official humanitarian service agency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it supports more than 500 private voluntary organizations, community agencies, and churches in providing education, job training, and other development services. Reese began his career with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the mid-1970s as an instructor in business management at Brigham Young University and over the years has worked for the Church in its welfare services department, coordinated the US Northern Plains region from 1985-86, and managed a network of over 100 LDS-supported foodbanks, the Bishops' Storehouses, among other positions. In this interview, Reese shares how he came to his current work with LDS humanitarian services, sharing his opinions on proselytism and the functions of LDS humanitarian services.
How did you come to your current position with LDS humanitarian services?
I graduated from BYU with an MBA degree and then went to work at Ford. I was there about a year. I returned to Utah and taught at BYU for a year. They needed teachers because they'd sent too many people on sabbatical. One of my associates at BYU who had worked in the church welfare department said to me, “They're looking for someone. Why don't you apply?” That was in 1975, and since then I have worked in almost all of the divisions of the Church Welfare department.
How is the Department organized?
To start with, there is LDS Family Services, which has the charge to provide clinical counseling, and associated activities, and things of that nature. In addition, they provide birth parent and unwed parent and adoption services. That's one division I haven't actually worked in.
Another division is Deseret Industries. The word “deseret” comes from a reference in the Book of Mormon to honeybees. Deseret Industries follows the Goodwill model. People in communities where Deseret Industries stores are located donate of their surplus items, which are sorted and sized and offered at inexpensive prices to the poor. It's a way to provide inexpensive goods for those who are struggling. The other half of the equation is that people who do the work at Deseret Industries are people who have their own struggles, and have been referred to work in the facility. They're called associates, and are there in a training program to help them gain skills and habits in order to find gainful employment. The end goal is to help them find employment with benefits. I actually ran a Deseret Industries store in Denver for a while.
Associated with Deseret Industries is what we called the LDS Humanitarian Center. One of the primary activities of the Humanitarian Center is to take donated items, sort them, package them, and make them available for distribution worldwide.
Another division is called Bishop's Storehouse Services. The best way to explain these is to say that we have a series of food pantries throughout the western hemisphere, including in Latin America and the Caribbean. To stock these pantries, we have an integrated system of farms, ranches, orchards, canneries, and a transportation network. The vast majority of recipients are LDS members, but not all of them.
The food production and pantry system started in 1932, obviously in response to the Great Depression, and it relates to our overall concept of development. We believe that we have a responsibility as individuals to be self-reliant, and also that our Church be self-reliant in its ability to respond to the needs of the poor. This doesn't mean that we're completely autonomous or self-sufficient. Rather, it is a principle that says, “To the extent possible, I should do what I can to provide for myself and my family.” The church takes seriously its responsibility to care for the poor and the needy and has gone to great lengths to make sure that it can provide for those in need, on its own.
Another division of the Department is the Employment Resource Services. We have a series of employment centers throughout the world that serve to help people find work. Sometimes what unemployed people need is a reference to opportunities. Sometimes what they need is help in properly presenting themselves. Sometimes they need additional education, though that doesn't always mean formal university training & it could be a mechanic's or welder's certification, for example. We can provide connections to those kinds of opportunities. Sometimes and in some circumstances we can provide funding to individuals to help them achieve those goals.
There's a relatively new division of the Department called Agricultural Production Services. As I'm sure you may be aware, there are many subsistence farmers around the world. Our agriculture program helps people to learn how to grow their own food and then to market and sell their own goods.
The last division of the Welfare Department is Humanitarian Services. We have a group of major initiatives. There are things we've been doing for several years in many places throughout the world.
To start with is neonatal resuscitation training. Apparently, about 10% of babies who are born are born with some degree of breathing difficulties. This training covers basic protocols; if the baby has difficulty breathing, the first thing you should do is clear the airways, then so on and so on. Statistics make it clear that you can save 90% of the babies through a process of not very invasive activities. The program we use was developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, who we've been cooperating with them for about 10 years. Our program uses a “train the trainer” concept. Our volunteers are doctors and nurses who have the certification to do this. About five of these volunteers, will go to a place like Mozambique or the DRC and train 80-100 people, and certify that they understand and can train others to learn those techniques. These 80-100 professionals each commit to train 6-8 others who are in a hospital or nurses association. And over time you have a large number of people who are trained in these life-saving techniques. We also provide with this neonatal resuscitation program the equipment needed to resuscitate the newborns. When I say equipment, it's really low tech equipment. It's a bag and mask, a bulb, not anything that's technical medical equipment. But there are many places where they would not otherwise have that simple equipment.
We have a vision care program. Our volunteer ophthalmologists will go to a country, meet with the ministry of health or the leader of a large hospital, and try to establish what kind of services would be most helpful in a given context. That could be training, screening, or providing eyeglasses. Or it could be training for specialized surgeries. It all depends. It's not like, “All we're serving today is beef stew, so eat up.” It's more like a menu of many things, so we can meet the specific needs of different places.
We have a clean water and sanitation program. The basis of that program is helping people in communities organize themselves to meet their needs. That could include sanitation facilities or it may be only latrines. It could include wash areas for clothing, shower facilities, all depending on what the community needs and is willing to do. We expect the people to provide all the labor and materials that they can.
We support the establishment of water committees that maintain wells and facilities once they've been put in place. We've learned that when the water committees collect very modest amounts of money, a fund is built up to maintain and replace the pump if that becomes necessary. Everybody wins, because something we've done could last decades on that basis. You could have a village with five pumps and none of them works because they haven't been maintained.
There's an interesting project happening in the DRC, in Laputa and a series of villages nearby. The area has about 100,000 people involved. On their own, the people of Laputa several years ago found a water source in the mountains, and ever since have been trying to figure out how to get that water into the city. If I have it correctly, they've been looking for 15 years.
As it turns out, an LDS missionary couple living in Kinshasa became aware of this situation, and started the process for a project. And now the people in these communities are building a 20 mile trench by hand, in order to lay the pipes to get the water to the city. When I say they're doing it, they're doing it without compulsion and enthusiastically, because they know what it means for their families. Is everyone participating? As you know, the idea of regular employment is pretty rare in rural sub-Saharan Africa, and so having time to take the truck to the end of the line where the trench is and digging for a couple of hours is something that most people can do.
We also have a wheelchair program. We have provided over 50,000 annually for several years around the world. We are improving our program by adding to it, including skills training and helping the agencies who are working to properly fit wheelchairs. A misfit wheelchair may cause more damage than help. In addition, we're also working with our partners to provide help in terms of vocational training. We have people who say, “I've been on the ground my whole life, and I'm now in a wheelchair. If I could take the next step to do work and help my family, I'm really in a better position.”
We've worked with the WHO and others on measles vaccination campaigns. We've provided some funding, but more importantly, I believe, we've provided the volunteers, members of our church who have done the community mobilization work on these campaigns. In Nigeria in 2007 we had 18,000 members of our church participate in a three-day measles campaign.
Another big part of our humanitarian program is emergency response. We've done it worldwide in many different ways. We may provide money to Red Cross or a ministry of health. When it's feasible we provide volunteers from our church. And sometimes we ship material resources from the U.S. to the affected areas.
How are these activities funded and staffed?
The foundation of everything we do is based on volunteering and providing free will offerings of money. The bulk of our funding comes from modest donations from within the church every month. Obviously there are some people that give very large donations, but the back bone of what we're able to do is based on a wide base of people giving very modest amounts of money.
.We are counseled to fast once a month, meaning no food or water for two meals time period, and donate at least the value of the food we would have eaten, to fast offerings, to the church. We are also counseled to be more generous if we are able. We use that money to care for the poor and needy who are members of our church with rent, medical assistance, and in places where we may not have one of these bishops storehouses, we may purchase the food the family may need to survive. We are also asked to tithe. In addition to the fast offerings and tithing we have a humanitarian aid fund, to which people can donate at will.
That's where the funding comes from. The manpower comes from volunteers. That's the backbone of our domestic system. People go to canneries and put out beef stew or beef chunks or strawberry jam. They may also volunteer to help at an employment center or a Deseret store. Of the 100 or so Bishops' Storehouses, 18 are operated by paid people, and 82 are operated by church service missionaries.
How is LDS humanitarian work organized on the ground?
One of the important foundations for our humanitarian efforts if a group of about 75 couples who are volunteering their time and paying their own way to spend 18-24 months doing humanitarian work. For example, the Laputa water project, we had a couple assigned to Kinshasa. She is a native French lady, he a US man. They were going about their duties, finding opportunities to help, when they found this opportunity in Laputa.
The project wouldn't have happened had there not been an LDS presence. They were in Laputa because there are LDS branches in that community, and had been back and forth a couple of different times to that community. You can't simply land on an airplane in Kinshasa, and start driving up and down the street for two weeks, and hope to find an effective way to help. You have to live in the communities you want to serve. Not until you do that will understand their circumstances. We have the advantage that we have a church presence, some significant, some minor, in 160 countries, so we have church leaders that will also observe what the needs are and suggest how the church may be able to help with those needs.
The church leaders, who are also volunteers with jobs of their own, don't have time to do the humanitarian work themselves, which is where the missionary couples come in. Clearly we do more work where we have one of these missionary couples than where we don't. Now we call them missionaries because they are providing their own way and leaving their homes. They are not prosyletizing. We have other missionaries who do that.
In many ways missionary couples are the key to our humanitarian work. A missionary couple can't be assigned if they still have children at home. And so they range in age, but are almost always over 60. We believe in helping people keep active as long as possible.
What is the connection between proselytizing and humanitarian work?
There is no intended direct connection. But clearly if you've done good work, in the right spirit, people in the community and community leaders will know who you are, and the Church may benefit.
We see LDS missionaries all around the world. Are they involved in LDS humanitarian or development work?
Church leaders have instructed these young missionaries to provide 4 hours of community service a week, which they can do in any number of ways. It may be helping to clean up a park or reading to children in schools. When there's a terrible emergency, we almost always organize these young people into crews to help with the clean up effort. When they're in that situation, they're there to help, not there to teach.
Do you see LDS humanitarian work as unique, or bringing something different, than other faith-inspired or “secular” development organizations?
When we started our humanitarian programming, we didn't see the sense of duplicating what other community agencies already had. If the Red Cross has a warehouse, or if Mercy Corps has accountants on the ground, there's no reason for us to duplicate that. In terms of clean water, we don't have our own rigs - we contract with people to drill for us. For the distribution of wheelchairs, we work with organizations that are in the business of helping the disabled. Even in emergency response we partner with local organizations.
Some of our partners are faith-based, but it depends on what we're trying to do. Clearly if we're doing a vision project, a medical group is much more helpful than an FBO. For most of our work in Jordan, working with an Islamic organization would be natural. It's very context-dependent.
We do have an expertise to teach people how to grow food more effectively. We have agricultural roots - that's the way the church welfare program started, out of necessity. The trick is, I may be a water expert, or an agricultural expert, but how do I translate that expertise in a helpful and sustainable way, in a culture I'm not familiar with? That's where the hard work comes. We go to great efforts to explain to volunteers and longer-term volunteers, to help them understand that their solution is almost always the wrong solution. You get a water engineer who thinks, “I've been doing this for four decades, of course I know what I'm doing.” What we're trying to help them understand, is that you have to work with people in the communities, and draw from them what the right solution is. We try to make sure that that participation is not just the labor we ask the community members to do, but rather participation from the very beginning stages of planning. We ask, “What problems do you see? What solutions have you tried?” That kind of participatory process is something we stress with our volunteers.
When did the LDS church begin supporting humanitarian work?
It was during the terrible Ethiopia famine in 1985. Church leaders asked us to hold a special fast, and the money that was collected during that time period helped to provide goods that relieved suffering in Ethiopia. The amount of money raised was significant. It was actually two times that we had asked for. There were actually two collections; one that we did on our own, and then again when Pres. Reagan asked the country to donate. From that point, the church leaders made the decision that they would have an ongoing organization to support this kind of work.
The range of programs & wheelchairs, vision, emergency relief, water and sanitation & is diverse. Is there a coherent framework or is LDS humanitarian work more opportunity-based?
I think the correct answer to that is “sort of.” Our programs grow from opportunities, but our strategy is to make sure we have the volunteers and other resources to apply programs on a large scale.
Let me share one story with you so you can understand how opportunities may come.
There's a man named Ken Bering, who is very wealthy and owns the Seattle Seahawks. We were responding in many different ways to the crisis in the Balkans in 1996-97, and one of the requests that had been made was to provide a few wheelchairs in a particular community. Well, we hadn't ever done wheelchairs. But our director at the time knew that Ken Bering flew all over the world in a private jet doing all kinds of things. He picked up the phone, called Ken Bering, and said, “We need to send wheelchairs to Frankfurt. Would you mind taking a detour and delivering some wheelchairs,” Ken Bering said, “Sure, I was wondering what I could do!” And this man was not a member of our church.
Following that Ken started a foundation with a wheelchair focus. We partnered with him for several years, but after some time came to a position to do it on our own, and we parted ways amicably. This is remarkable example of how our programs evolve. To start with, we didn't have any wheelchair expertise. Now we have 23 volunteer rehabilitation specialists who are making themselves available to fit and repair wheelchairs. We developed this expertise only after we'd tripped over an opportunity!
Our neonatal resuscitation training started because we had a pediatrician who was a little older and became aware of the American Academy of Pediatrics neonatal program. Now we have a group of doctors who have gone to do this training.
The LDS church is growing like wildfire in many parts of the developing world. Do you think there is a connection between this growth and the church's humanitarian work?
I would phrase the question differently. If we were not doing humanitarian work, would the church be growing like wildfire? The answer is that the church would be growing like wildfire in some places, and in other places it's possible that the growth has been encouraged by humanitarian work.
I'll give an example. The first church representatives that went into Cambodia were there for the purpose of doing humanitarian work, and they very strictly adhered to the idea that that was what they were there for. Today, there are thousands of church members in Cambodia. Could it have occurred in another way? It probably would have, but just later.
Could we zoom in on one specific LDS emergency operation? What was the nature of your tsunami response, for example?
When the tsunami occurred, our leaders in Salt Lake and Hong Kong knew immediately. Both groups knew independently that this was big and that we wanted to respond.
The tsunami occurred on December 26th, 2004, and over the course of several days word got through the church, and a special fast was organized, with funds from the fast donated to tsunami relief. The next step we took was to send our representatives to Jakarta, Indonesia. We immediately started creating hygiene kits that were produced in Jakarta by our church members with more produced in Hong Kong by church members and shipped to the relief areas. The volunteer effort kicked right in.
One interesting and very tragic story: our representative was meeting with the Indonesian government and asked, “What can we help with?” The answer back was, “Our most urgent need is body bags. The effect on the people seeing bodies lie about is beyond imagination.” And so our people went to work. With considerable focused effort, we had 50,000 body bags in the hands of government leaders within a few days.
We provided significant assistance in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and a little bit in Myanmar, though Myanmar wasn't as severely impacted. We assigned three missionary couples to help with the relief. After the initial response, church leaders made the determination that we wanted to help in the following ways: with livelihoods, because we felt that it was critical to get people to get back to work in service of the reconstruction. The absolute worst thing you can do, when somebody who has been affected by something traumatic, is to leave people idle. We wanted to help with health services and reconstructing the health infrastructure. And we wanted to help with reconstruction.
In Indonesia, we worked with local agencies to help provide boats, fishing nets, tillers for farming, and paid for the expense to dredge out shrimp ponds so that people could get back to work as soon as possible. We provided looms, sewing machines, and funding so that some handful of people could get back to their textile work.
Also in Sri Lanka, and this is part of the reality of what one does in terms of relief and development, we tried to rebuild schools and homes. And the three projects we conceived of we weren't able to start well, it wasn't possible. Government indecision on land use was the main reason.
In Thailand, our focus was on emergency response. We helped build some libraries, but we didn't help with any home construction, because that wasn't a huge problem. Comparatively speaking, Thailand was more able to care for its own needs.
Most of our efforts were in Indonesia, where we helped with livelihoods and reconstruction. We built 902 homes with IOM (the International Organization for Migration), which had a giant rebuilding program in Indonesia. We provided funding for those homes and even helped with the design. The decision was made that if we were going to help people rebuild, it was going to be tsunami resistant and earthquake resistant. Indonesia is also in a high earthquake zone, and so those standards are important. Our building experts here in Salt Lake actually reviewed the designs. The toughest part, though, was not the design or the materials. The toughest part was that ensuring quality control and that the construction teams built the structures properly. We rebuilt seven schools and one hospital from the ground up and remodeled or refurbished three more hospitals. We also provided medical equipment. And did we ever learn some lessons on boats! In the drive to make sure the fishermen went back to work, they used green wood to build boats and, predictably, the boats didn't hold up. We replaced them with ones built with proper ones.
Our tsunami response was so intense for such a long time and we assigned a staff member from Utah to Jakarta and then Singapore. He returned to the states in October of 2007, about a three year commitment.
In addition to the LDS missionary couple that was in Jakarta, we also identified another couple from the US to move to Banda Aceh. They are a fascinating couple from the bush in Alaska. He's an engineer, and she's a pharmacist. Their church leader in Alaska said, “There is not a couple that would be any better prepared or more humble, resourceful, energetic, and committed than these two.” And they did a fabulous job, helping the Indonesians in the sense of helping them help themselves.
Our response to the tsunami is not exactly unique in terms of our history or expertise, but pretty close to unique. We don't normally get involved in housing construction.
Have you ever had any religious or secular groups refuse to work with you?
We have had groups that haven't worked with us, and they're almost always religious groups. It's almost exclusively Christian groups who prefer not to work with us.