Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Keith Burris


Quiet group is changing the world, saving lives



Have you ever heard of Opportunity International?

Neither had I until former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner told me: “You have to meet Mary Sabin. She’s the real deal.”

I had no idea what he meant by that or what I was in for. But Mary Sabin is, indeed, the real deal.

Mary, who lives in Perrysburg, started her professional life as a political operative. She worked for Wisconsin Sen. Bob Kasten and for George Voinovich — the first time in a losing campaign to Howard Metzenbaum. That’s how she got to Ohio.

Eventually, Ms. Sabin became a skilled fund-raiser. And that was a challenge, because when she started, she was too shy to go up to people and speak to them.

She still thinks the world of Mr. Voinovich. But not so much of politics. After a while, politics didn’t seem so urgent. She concluded that you couldn’t change the world with elections. And, anyway, most of the money raised goes to TV commercials that are scurrilous at worst and unhelpful at best.

So how can you change the world?

Mary Sabin has found a vehicle in Opportunity International, which is headquartered in suburban Chicago. It builds small — very small — businesses in the Third World, with micro-loans.

The average loan is $192.

The small businesses are fruit stands, general stores, a lady who raises quail, a lady who loves to sew and started a tailoring business.

Since 1971, this much-too-unheralded organization has been giving business loans, school improvement loans, and customized training in how to run and sustain a start-up business to the poorest of the poor in this world.

Opportunity International also helps people set up savings accounts, instructs them in how to save for future investments, and it insures them.

The organization’s philosophy is that it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish.

Opportunity, not toxic charity.

Empowerment, not pity and a pat on the head.

Except that 90 percent of their loans are to women. Not men.

Women — in Columbia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, Serbia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, to name just a few places where Opportunity International has a presence — work hard. And they pay back their loans.

Some 98 percent of the loans given out by this organization have been repaid.

Opportunity International now has 5 million clients and it has loaned out $605 million in its lifetime. The average interest rate is 2 percent.

And when the loans are paid back, they are funneled right back into new loans.

Other than its self-sustaining loan process, Opportunity International is 100 percent supported by private giving, which is where Mary comes in. Her job is to sell the mission of the organization to donors, often by taking them into the field. She has transferred her fund-raising skills to something very different; something radically positive.

Bill Gates is a believer.

So am I.

Anyone can have a concept, a philosophy. This organization actually works.

Two things are key: All the field workers and loan officers are indigenous — people from the country they are working in. Second, each loan comes with a Trust Group, also local. The Trust Group holds the person getting the loan accountable, and it helps that person — coaching, supporting, and even substituting in the business if the entrepreneur is sick or has a sick child.

Local loan officers carefully screen applicants and just as carefully construct the support group.

Through Mary Sabin, I was able to meet Vicki Escarra, the fairly new president of Opportunity International. She is a former chief marketing officer of Delta Airlines.

How did she get into this line of work?

After 9/​11 she decided she had to do something different with her skills — something that involved giving back.

Now she and Mary travel the world drumming up support for Opportunity International and taking would-be donors to see, first-hand, how a small loan to a woman who wants to make scarves or grow tomatoes can change the world. How empowerment can end poverty and oppression.

This organization is profoundly inspiring. I hope to write more about it in the coming weeks and months, and learn about specific projects and the nations where Opportunity International works. Rwanda is a place that has suffered immeasurably, and Mary tells me that many of the people there glow with gratitude and kindness.

Opportunity International’s goal is 20 million clients by 2020. I think it will get there.

To learn more and to support this not-so-small miracle go to this site.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.

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