Imagine at your family dinner table your conversation takes you traveling to all seven continents around the globe, and instead of booking a comfortable hotel alongside a stretch of white sandy beach on your next vacation, you opt to stay with Buddhists in Bhutan, celebrate your younger daughter’s birthday with Bedouin “terrorists,” or volunteer in the schoolhouses of the indigenous tribes in Africa. That is what Santa Barbara Middle School’s Sanborn family of five has chosen to do over the past 12 years.
Eric Sanborn, SBMS parent, recently shared some of these stories in his younger daughter’s class at Santa Barbara Middle School. His main reason for addressing sixth- and seventh-grade students was to share the success and enthusiasm his family has had loaning money to people in some of the world’s poorest countries. It’s not a new concept, but it is a rewarding one. It’s called micro-financing.
During the past seven years, the Sanborn family has helped finance loans to more than 2,500 individuals and their small businesses in more than 60 countries around the globe.
“We ‘lend’ money to people rather than ‘give’ money to a cause, so that the loan beneficiaries can build their businesses and prosper,” Sanborn said.
Nearly 99-percent of the loans made by the Sanborns have been repaid.
“It’s such a rewarding experience to reach out to people,” Sanborn said. “You can’t go to these places and not be changed; it leaves something in you.”
Currently, 60 SBMS students are trying this idea on for size in their own “pay-it-forward” experience. Lessons in micro-financing in John Seigel-Boettner’s sixth- and seventh-grade social studies classes, with help from Sanborn, are centered on Kiva.org, the Community Action Fund for Women in Africa and other micro-financing organizational models.
The students are learning about currency rates, interest rates, social obstacles to business development in Third World countries, and how to distinguish between charity and loans. The curriculum was designed to allow the young people to connect first with the outer journeys of the Sanborn family as they traveled the world. Then the students joined the more personal inner journey that the family took, which was mostly completed around the family’s dinner table. It was these dinnertime conversations that compelled them to “do something” for the people they had met and ultimately led them to micro-financing.
The Sanborns have generously given each student the minimum investment amount of $25 with the hope of teaching the students that their investment decisions have real-world application. Students choose from thousands of people and businesses in need of financing. Online Kiva.org provides a business description, photo, country of origin and spells out the repayment risk of each investment.
Seigel-Boettner is always trying to connect his students with other cultures throughout the world.
“The human connection is something I always try to do in my teaching,” he said. “The other half is to empower kids to be part of it. This unit is helping put a face and a name on the world.”
Seventh-grade student Alea Hyatt chose to invest in a woman from Ghana who sells fish for a living.
“Instead of saying we’re going to make a change, but end up not doing anything, we actually are changing lives by investing $25,” Hyatt said.
Seventh-grader Daniel Solomon chose a Colombian man who installs gas lines for his micro-loan. Solomon says this work makes him feel good about himself.
“You actually feel like you’re making a difference,” he said. “You get to change someone’s life.”
Another business investment is Deryn Gersoff’s loan to a women’s business consortium in Guatemala that makes sweatshirts, weaves baskets and raises animals. Like many of her fellow students, Gersoff has already received partial repayment.
“It’s hard to believe that there is actually someone on the other end, and when the money is repaid, this whole experience becomes more real,” Gersoff said.
“In social studies we learn ways to make a difference, but in this way we actually are making a difference,” seventh-grader Jaime Schuyler said with a smile.
That’s music to Seigel-Boettner’s ears. He hopes that when his students put their head on the pillow at night that they think about someone on the other side of the world. He says the final exam of this lesson plan comes seven or eight years later, when he receives a postcard from one of his former students saying, “I’ve started a soccer camp in Tanzania, or I am in Philadelphia at an inner-city school teaching children.”
Seigel-Boettner said he is always eager to know which lessons of his have made a real difference in the lives of his students.
Most every student says that once repaid they plan to reinvest with another new stranger or business venture somewhere else in the world. Sanborn is hopeful that the seeds he has planted will take hold, and the students will come out different on the other side of this experience.
“You can tell they have made a connection with the people they have loaned to,” Sanborn said, “and it’s that connection that is important.”
“In social studies we learn ways to make a difference,” seventh-grader Jaime Schuyler said, “but in this way we actually are making a difference.”
— Larry Good is a Santa Barbara Middle School parent.