While the nation continues to mourn and cope with the recent Newtown tragedy, a glimmer of hope remains strong for many Darienites, some of whom have given the better part of their lives to helping others in need.
Darien native Don Livingston is one of those people. Livingston began collecting computers for impoverished children in Guatemala about six years ago, but he never expected his philanthropy would morph into an organization that has now provided roughly 1,800 computers to the second poorest Latin American country.
Now he’s expanding his horizons. He’s been talking with another Darien resident, Sean Sullivan, about bringing the Computers for Hope program to Peru, where Sullivan operates a charity called Children’s Hope.
Both men were former Peace Corps volunteers, and are determined to break the poverty cycle that keeps children at work and leaves many uneducated, especially women.
“There were 20 kids who died in Newtown, and as tragic as that was, there are 19,000 kids who die every day from easily preventable diseases,” Livingston said, trying his best to be sensitive to the Newtown murders while also providing perspective. “But people don’t know about it. My advice would be to find out what’s going on in the world… Find out how you can support the poorest of the poor.”
Sullivan echoed his colleague, adding that money is not what Newtown needs, but support. Donors have provided more than $2 million for the Newtown relief fund, and town officials have called on donations to be channeled to other organizations due to the overwhelming charity shown by people from around the globe.
Through Children’s Hope, Sullivan and his son, Devin, provide financial assistance to Father Omar Sánchez, a priest who runs an orphanage for abandoned children. Sullivan also hopes to build a restaurant in Lima to provide a workplace for sexually abused girls who are forced to leave a group home upon turning 18.
“The girls have to leave this home at 18, so where do they go? A lot of them go to the streets,” Sullivan said. “The hope is, a lot of them can go to work in the restaurant, and maybe we can get some kind of dormitory or some apartments where they can go to school, work in the restaurant, and be self-reliant.”
Self-reliance is a common theme in Peace Corps circles, the men said, as it nurtures a sense of pride and deters aid dependency. When Livingston first started giving computers, after being asked by a Guatemalan nun for 16 devices, he visited the place that got the computers and discovered they weren’t being used.
“When we first started out, we gave them away, which is not the way you’re supposed to do it,” Livingston said. “I went back after we gave them away and they weren’t being used. So we started to charge $10. And everybody said they couldn’t afford it, but they did.”
Communities raise about half the money needed for the computers, and friends and family members raise the remaining money. The profits have gone to the creation of a new high school in Santa Eulalia, where more than 200 students are now learning from 23 teachers, all of whom are paid through fundraising efforts within the community.
“It’s sustainable and it empowers people,” Livingston said. Sullivan said he has an IT person ready in Peru for when he and Livingston decide the best way to approach helping that country with computers.
“Corruption is terrible in these countries,” Sullivan said of developing nations, adding that even though their work is for children, customs agents often won’t let things in without paying hefty bribes masked as fees.
Livingston has worked with a local mission group to help get his items into Guatemala without paying customs duties, and has also begun helping other charitable organizations bring their much-needed goods into the country safely and without the excessive expenses.
Livingston’s connection to Guatemala began in the Peace Corps in 1967, where he provided assistance with agriculture. About 12 years ago, he began sponsoring children through Compassion International. One of his sponsored children, a young boy from Kenya, came to the U.S. on a speaking tour, and Livingston surprised him on stage during a speech at Baylor University.
“They told me that day, they signed up more sponsors then they ever had before,” Livingston recalled.
Over in Peru, Sullivan is helping a young man become a chef so he can manage the restaurant Sullivan hopes to open soon. Both men said Darienites are very generous, but that sometimes there may be obstacles that keep people from helping a charity.
“First, starving children — we’ve been hearing about it forever,” Sullivan said. “I think it becomes an abstraction, so they don’t really grasp how bad it is.”
The second barrier, according to Sullivan, is the integrity of a charitable organization and how its donations are distributed.
“I think those are two barriers that get in the way, but in Don and I’s case, 100% will go to help these children,” Sullivan said. “There’s no administrative cost.”
Another former Peace Corps volunteer, Tom Van Loan, advises people to give to AmeriCares, an organization that provides relief to victims of man-made conflict and natural disasters.
“I’ve done their Christmas in April program, it’s quite worthwhile endeavor,” Van Loan said. “They do stuff all over the world. It’s a very useful organization.”
Livingston also vouched for the Save My Starving Children program, which packages food items for children in developing countries, and has a strong presence in Darien. World Vision and Save the Children were also notable charities, Livingston said.
“We live in such a privileged community in Darien, I beg the people to go out and see what the world is really like,” Livingston said. “With the Internet, we can read about it. We can’t say we don’t know about this poverty. Now, if we don’t know about it, we should now about it. We have an obligation to do something.”
Recalling President Barack Obama’s words after the Newtown shooting, Livingston urged people to look at all the world’s children as part of the human family.
“Like President Obama said, these are our kids.” he said. “But that applies to the whole world. You say out of sight out of mind, but they’re not out of sight any more.”
c/o Sean Sullivan
7 Homewood Lane
Darien, CT 06820
Computers for Hope