A group of 10 from our parent company took an Opportunity International insight trip to Bogota and Cartagena, Colombia where we saw how microfinance and loving relationships can transform the lives of the working poor. This is the first in a series that will highlight the heroic stories of some of the people that we interacted with in a significant way, touching our spirits and in turn transforming us. It will also describe some of the outstanding work of Opportunity International, an amazing faith-based organization that provides microfinance and holistic life-giving services to the entrepreneurial poor.
Carmen Cecilia Oquendo and her husband Jael Betancourt own and operate Alucol, a small aluminum pots manufacturing operation located in a very dangerous part of Bogota, on a street that the police call “the street of death.” Carmen goes out of her way to hire and train people who otherwise might not qualify for a job. She and her husband are long time individual loan clients of Opportunity with a current loan of $15,000.
Carmen and Jael started their business 30 years ago and grew to employ 30 workers from the community. 15 years ago their daughter contracted cancer and she fought valiantly for 9 years before succumbing to the disease. Her treatments cost the family dearly, both psychologically and financially, to the point that they had to drastically scale back their operations. At that point Carmen and Jael were facing $55,000 in debt. When they were ready to expand again they went to Opportunity International for a small trust bank loan of $65 which for them was, in Carmen’s words, the “fresh air” they needed to make a new start. They went through 3 loan cycles, increasing their loan each time to their current individual loan amount of $15,000. The company is profitable again and now provides work for 12 disadvantaged people from their community. Amongst their current employ is a long term worker who “made a mistake” and is now a prisoner on house arrest but is able to work, eat and sleep at the plant while serving his sentence.
In October 2012 Carmen was given the great honor of being chosen to speak at the Grand Opening of the new Colombia Opportunity International Bank. Brian Olarte, the Marketing and Transformation officer with the Opportunity International bank, says that Carmen was chosen “because her story is very inspirational and we believe that cases like these are the reason why we are in Colombia; helping people who have the will, ability and just need a little push to work their way out of poverty.”
Carmen attributes her success to her “hard work, love of God and for God [and the people she helps by giving them work]. Most of all, my husband’s craftsmanship.” She is a true Colombian hero.
Opportunity International is the largest non-denominational Christian organization focused exclusively on microfinance. Generally, the organization makes three types of loans: small trust group loans, larger individual loans and still larger commercial loans. Trust Groups of 10-30 entrepreneurs co-guarantee each other’s loans, using their trust in each other and group solidarity as collateral for their loan. Carmen was initially a trust group loan client with a loan of $65, eventually graduating to a larger individual loan of $15,000 which she is now paying off. Opportunity International commercial loans are similar to those made by other banks. These larger individual and commercial loans generate the revenue to make possible the smaller (and administratively expensive) individual trust group loans that provide the impact of Opportunity International and microfinance!www.opportunityinternational.ca.