Karen Hanson Kotoske is the founder and executive director of Amistad International, a non-profit organization providing funds to grass-roots self-help and educational programs in developing countries around the world.
Question: How did Amistad begin? What inspired you to take up humanitarian work?
Answer: My work first arose from my desire to be useful to God. Religion is something you do. Talking about it is okay, but it is the doing that really puts the wind in my sails.
After I committed my life to God I used to go to a big rock in the Sierra Nevada Mountains each summer and pray for a work to do. It seemed that my faith should be the beginning of something that would benefit more souls than my own.
In 1980 I traveled to Mexico to visit my brother who was studying medicine in Guadalajara. Some of his medical school friends were enthusiastically flying medical care to the remote Sierra Mountains. Their volunteer pilot, Bill Baxter, was an Adventist pastor. Twice a week he’d fly them out to a tribe of indigenous Huichol who had no other access to medical care. There were about 25 rough airstrips where they landed, and the Huichol came by foot from all over the mountains to see the young medical students. On May 18, 1980 they invited me to come with them—the same day Mount Saint Helens blew up. Neither the mountain or I emerged from that day the same.
When we touched down on the first terrifyingly short strip, the Huichol surrounded our plane. They weren’t very interested in medical help that day, because they were hungry. They were in the midst of a serious drought and their farmers were suffering. There wasn’t a store within days of walking, and they didn’t have money to buy food even if there had been a store. Bill Baxter flew away to look for food, leaving me in the village alone because he needed my seat space for the dried corn he would bring back.
As I waited I wondered to myself whether this place of hunger and medical need was where God wanted me to roll up my sleeves. I had no idea what I could do for them since I was not a doctor myself. Then it came to me: why not help the medical students with their flying clinic? They always needed a few extra dollars to keep it going. I could tell people I knew about the flying clinic and the needs of the Huichol people . After returning home I established what was then called Amistad Foundation. From that point on it grew in ways and in directions that I definitely had never planned. Eventually we changed our name to Amistad International in order to reflect our expanded programs.
My family members were the first contributors to Amistad. Then friends started pitching in. I soon found that Adventists are the most generous people on the planet. If they hear of a need they will make enormous sacrifices to help, and many did.
I returned often to the Sierra Huichol, staying in villages with the people, living in their rock and thatched homes. I learned a lot about courage and resilience from the Huichol people, who treated me like family. One village made me an honorary Huichol and gave me the name Kupulli, which means soul. They are still my family. Now their children have children of their own and will be grandparents in the not too distant future. Staying with the Huichol allowed me to experience first hand what their needs were. At the top of the list was clean water, and so Amistad began to help build water systems. But that was only the beginning.
Question: Tell me about some of the projects Amistad currently sponsors. How many non-profit organizations do you assist, and in which countries do they operate?
Answer: We help about 20 non-profits throughout Mexico, India, Mongolia, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and the Dominican Republic. We’ve also done ad hoc work in many other countries. We support six schools in four countries: India, Mongolia, Kenya, and Mexico.
In Zimbabwe we support Paula Leen’s Murwira Orphanage. In the past seven months we’ve partnered with other organizations facilitating the delivery of about 60 tons of food for the hungry people whom Paula is serving.
In Mongolia we provide humanitarian aid to remote regions, and in Ulan Bator we help sponsor Achlal School for nomadic communities and for children who live at the city dump. We’ve also provided equipment to Adventist missionaries Beaver and Rebecca Eller, who are soon to establish a pioneering mission aviation program in Mongolia.
In South Africa we provide funds to the Lambano Sanctuary, which supports 25 HIV/AIDS infected children. And in Kitali, Kenya we fund a micro-finance program with 622 participants, representing approximately 3,000 families.
We have provided sustainable organic agricultural training for both Mexican and African farmers who can then turn around and teach the methods to others, and we also operate a mission aviation program in partnership with the Inter American Division in Mexico.
I’ve long ago lost count how many water systems, clinics, school kitchens, classrooms, homes, and churches we have built, but there are many. In all we provide at least 400,000 meals per year.
Question: How do you decide which projects Amistad will help?
Answer: There is no one way we find a program to help. Our ideal project is one which is operated by a grassroots organization started by someone who longs to help her or his own people. Some are social workers, teachers, or doctors. Sometimes a North American will tell me about some project they discovered during their travels in another country. If the project is a good fit with Amistad’s criteria and goals, and the instigator is someone who can stay involved by contributing time or funds to the project, then we give consideration to a partnership.
For example, Dr. Vesna Wallace, an Adventist and professor of eastern religions told me about Rajan Kaur, who was struggling to maintain a school for poor children in Varanasi, India. That was about five years ago, when Rajan had 60 pupils. Now Rajan has 220 students, grades K-5.
Question: How do you find donors? What do you need financially in order to support all of your projects for one year?
Answer: I always chuckle when I remember that in 1980 I told God that I’d be willing to do most anything except raise money. Naturally, that was one of the assignments he gave me to do, except that I don’t so much “find” donors as donors find Amistad. All I do is tell people about our wonderful programs.
I am a dental hygienist. One of my patients is someone of financial means, and I knew he would be happy to help a good cause. So I told him about Pathfinder Academy in Kenya and their need for classrooms, adding “Wouldn’t you like to give us some money for the building program?” So far he was donated $40,000!
Another dental patient told me he’d find money for me if I stopped reminding him to use dental floss. Of course I didn’t agree to his request, but he did end up facilitating about $80,000 in donations from a foundation with which he was affiliated.
The majority of our donors, however, are people with only modest means who want to know that their $10 or $50 makes a difference in someone’s life. Many people are fed up with large charities that have lots of staff, high overhead, and big salaries for their top executives. Of course, United Way and the Red Cross are doing a great deal of good, but now days many donors would like a more direct link with those receiving their help.
Question: The heads of two Amistad-sponsored non-profits in India recently received Wisdom in Action’s Unsung Heroes of Compassion award from the Dalai Lama in San Francisco. What was the experience like for you, as someone who has helped to make their work possible?
Answer: I was filled with joy— no two individuals were ever more deserving. Yet Rajan and Urmi would be the first to say that they only represent many other unsung heroes of compassion who haven’t received public recognition at all. I know several. Some are directors of other Amistad programs; one saint is Paula Leen in Zimbabwe. There are millions of unsung heroes, and some are probably right in our own homes or families. Rajan and Urmi and the other 48 who were honored in April are symbolic of these others.
Question: You are a Seventh-day Adventist, but Amistad does not discriminate on religious grounds when choosing which international projects to sponsor. What role does your Adventism have in your work with Amistad?
Answer: At its best, Adventism teaches that Jesus saw the world through a prism of compassion. He told us that our lives should be about feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty. I don’t believe there are any lines drawn between hungry Hindus or hungry Christians. I doubt that Christ asked anyone’s religious affiliation before he provided them with fish and bread.
That said, being an Adventist has given me the chance to form some strategic partnerships with the church in our efforts to serve the poor.
Question: What have been the greatest personal challenges or set-backs during your work with Amistad?
Answer: In 1991, our Huichol mission aviation plane crashed. Mission pilot Conroy Donesky and four others were killed, including two volunteer doctors. It seemed that the program would end. But Elder George Brown, then president of the Inter-American Division listened when I told him that the Huichol needed us. There were many donors who wanted to rebuild the Huichol mission aviation program, and the Huichol wanted us to return and help them. I’ll bless that man forever. Because of his intervention, the Division sent us another pilot and helped us buy another airplane. Then in 1993 our mission plane was stolen by drug dealers. Again the Inter American Division helped us.
Question: What future hopes do you have for Amistad?
Answer: Our hope is always that the programs in each country will either become self sustaining, or that they will become obsolete because people aren’t hungry anymore and children are no longer living and working in city dumps. My best wish would be for there not to be any need for Amistad. But until that day comes, we plan to keep going. For nearly 30 years we’ve been transforming the lives of children and adults in impoverished communities— providing health, education, and sustainability.
We join the hands of the rich with the poor, to break the cycle of poverty. Our hope is that we’ll be able to continue until the needs no longer exist.
Question: How can individuals, churches, or other organizations contribute to Amistad’s mission?
Answer: Anyone can pray for Amistad’s work. Anyone who wants to have a close link with healing and educating children can help by donating funds to Amistad International here: http://amistadinternational.org/pages/donations.html
In this tough economic climate, helping the needy both nationally and internationally has become a challenge for many faith groups and charities. Some of those who have been faithful donors now find themselves unable to give, while others have had to decrease their giving significantly. The result bodes disaster for the poor.
Karen Hanson Kotoske, Founder/ Executive Director of Amistad International also works part time as a dental hygienist in Palo Alto,California where she lives with her husband Tom Kotoske. In 2007 Karen received the Adventist Woman of the Year award for Philanthropic Excellence.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1742