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Project Alianza/Kristin Busum

Project Alianza/Kristin Busum

By Daina Chamness

She grew up in the Greenwood area and went to school here. She went to Butler for her undergrad degree in Psychology and Spanish, got a Masters in Public Policy at NYU and went on to work for a think tank in Boston evaluating statistics about sustainable food sources. Her existence was comfortable, her paycheck was steady and life was good. Then she took a vacation to Nicaragua. Life has never been the same.

Kristin Van Busum spent two weeks living with a family of coffee farmers in Nicaragua. She slept where they slept, shared their diet of beans rice and tortillas, babysat the children and experienced how the family lived and worked. After two weeks, she knew she wouldn’t just be juggling statistics on sustainable farming for the rest of her life.

When she returned to Boston, she set out on another remarkable journey. She applied for and received a Fulbright Scholarship to start the foundation that funds Project Alianza, a purpose driven organization to help coffee farmers and their children to overcome extreme poverty in Nicaragua.

Originally, the foundation set out to teach higher yielding, more sustainable coffee farming techniques and enable farmers to sell their coffee through free trade markets. But it soon became apparent that illiteracy and lack of relevant education and deep financial pockets was holding back that mission. So a school was founded to take the children out of the coffee fields and teach them to read, write, count and experience music and art in their own environment. Nutrition and medical needs are also addressed, teaching the children to garden and eat fresh vegetables they grow themselves. The hope is to restore the culture of farming to the area, enabling the people to raise fresh food and not rely completely on dry preserved food alone. They are taught about coffee farming and to develop a pride in what their country offers.  To add additional relevancy to the education, the children learn to count with rocks and paint with mud and flowers. The children learn better hygiene practices and a doctor and a nurse are brought in twice monthly to treat parasites in the children, the  most prevalent health issue.

Kristin no longer lives with the families she treats but she oversees staff hired locally to provide the services the foundation offers. She tells of twelve year old Maya who has never held a writing implement and has now learned to count. Her first day of school she held a crayon apprehensively, sure she could not use it. Kristin’s own brown eyes light up when she tells of how the girl can now write her name and numbers and can draw after four months at the school. Other children are excited to come to school each day rather than spending their time getting in the way at the coffee fields. They take back what they learn to their parents and are changing their families’ way of life, one small step at a time.

But the work is not without its frustrations. Kristin says there is a tendency to glamorize poverty when you don’t live it. The perception that poor people are happy is far from the truth. The “simple life” is anything but, as those who live on less than a dollar a day contend every day with food shortages, disease caused by poor nutrition, frustration at not being able to read or understand what those who would buy their products are saying or paying them. A partnership with IUPUI and IV Tech has developed a curriculum to help farmers learn to  not only seek better markets for their coffee beans but to develop new products as well, giving them year-round income. Such products are to include tea made with coffee leaves, edible coffee beans in various foods and ways to use coffee in other marketable products.

And so, what has Kristin Van Busum learned in doing all this? She answers quickly, “To accept and tolerate innovation and failure, but to be able to quantify success. And we can do that!” She beams.

The question arises, as it must after talking with this intelligent and impassioned young woman, what does Project Alianza need? What can concerned people here in our comfortable recliners do to help? Well, she needs  money, of course. Although some churches do send in donations the organization is not church affiliated. It is supported entirely by donations, grants, and corporate gift matching sponsored by some companies.  Paid staff to teach and work with the farmers requires more than good intentions. They must eat and be sheltered and live productively if simply. The children need school supplies and the adults need clothing, medical care and other basic necessities.

Consultants, advisors, professionals in many fields and board members are a great help in sharing wisdom and guidance, making the foundation sustainable and self-supporting. Visitors are welcome and assistance is vital to this ongoing work. More information is available at www.projectalianza.org/take-action or by contacting Kristin herself at kristinrvanbusum@gmail.com.

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