CELS alumna’s community spirit reaches to Guatamala

Bethany Eisenberg Zeeb (rear) is surrounded by children in the Luz de Maria Orphanage in Guatamala, one of four children's institutions her non-profit fund aids.

By Rudi Hempe
CELSnews editor

When Bethany Eisenberg Zeeb was graduated in 1987 with a Masters degree from Natural Resources Science she not only embarked on a career to become a stormwater expert, she also came away with a deep commitment to community service.

“It felt like the people in the group I was with in NRS were concerned with more than just themselves or just getting a job”,” she says. “They were not there to just get an education for the purpose of making money, but to have an impact with the work they chose. While their school work focused on improving the environment for plants, animals and humans, they got into other activities to help others as well.”

Thus it is not so surprising that today Bethany is the founder and president of the Guatemala Aid Fund which provides aid to children in that poor country.

Ever since she was 14, she relates, “I wanted to adopt children—I babysat for a family with an adopted child.”

When she got married she and her husband, Peter, decided to adopt children and today they have two children, John-Diego, who is 14 and a daughter, Joseline, who is 13.

She said one of their reasons for choosing to adopt from Central America, was because they wanted their children to have the opportunity to maintain a connection with their homeland, and the relative closeness of Guatemala would allow for visits.  Both children were under one year old when they adopted them. Bethany learned to speak Spanish and also hired Spanish tutors to teach the children a proper Spanish accent and provide information about the culture.

When they adopted their first child, John-Diego, the whole experience was a bit of a “blur” says Bethany. It was on their return to Guatemala to adopt their second child, Joseline, that Bethany felt the need to somehow help support the children in Guatemala in some way.

They had visited a middle class apartment/home in Guatemala City when they were there, she says, and in Guatemala the definition of a middle class home may be one with a communal shared water source and cooking area. In the outskirts of cities, most homes have dirt floors and many are one room dwellings made of corrugated metal.

“What can we do to help out?” Bethany recalls asking a Guatemalan family, and their response was “On no, nothing—we are very well off.”  Says Bethany, “I was completely overwhelmed with how much we have and how little they have.”

Eventually it was suggested that the Hermano Pedro Hospital & Orphanage in Antigua, Guatemala could use help and that was the starting point for Bethany.

That Christmas, she came to the conclusion that the many gifts they receive were things she and her family really didn’t need and she made a suggestion to friends and relatives that perhaps they could forego gift giving and instead purchase everyday necessities to be shipped to Guatemala.

The response was terrific, she says, noting that the donations for Guatemala became a tradition in their home every Christmas.

Eventually she had to apply for a 501(c)3 non-profit status with the IRS so that larger donations and cash could be accepted. After a few years, the idea of sending things was stopped and instead money was collected and sent. Shipping costs were very high when items were sent, often more than the items in the box, and by sending money, the programs in Guatemala can spend the money for exactly what they need and the influx of money supports the local economy which is in need.

Today the Guatemala Aid Fund forwards all the funds they raise to help three orphanages (one includes a hospital) and a fourth program that is an outreach effort called the Happy Hearts Program. The Guatemala Aid Fund is staffed by volunteers—no one is paid—and the fund’s headquarters is Bethany’s Massachusetts home. There’s a Guatemala Aid Fund banner on the front of the house.

Bethany’s paying job is as Director of Stormwater Services for Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc., in Watertown, MA. Her Masters degree at URI helped prepare her for this job and she has been working in the field of Stormwater Management since graduating.

Guatemala currently does not allow international adoptions and the need for financial help is even more critical.  Raising money is difficult.  “My goal is to raise $30,000 a year but we have not come close to that yet,” she says.

Bethany says having a website has helped the cause as it gets the word out to many more people who have some connection to Guatemala or who wish to help those living in poverty around the world. Generally all the donations from their fundraisers are from friends, family and neighbors. Some of their fundraisers are a lot of work, such as their recent used sports equipment sale in front of her house, and she is always looking for new ideas to raise money. Recently she spread the word to fund supporters, including a couple of local schools, seeking used sports equipment and her house was soon overwhelmed with donations. “We had golf clubs in the bathroom, hockey skates in the bedroom and basketballs in the kitchen.” The sports gear was sold and the proceeds sent to Guatemala.

One source of funding is their webpage link to Amazon. While it is a small percentage of their donations it is very minimal effort for GAF and absolutely no cost to those purchasing on Amazon. If you go to your own personal Amazon account from the Guatemala Aid Fund Web page, a small percentage of the purchase goes directly to the Fund account. This was set up by another URI graduate and former member of the Guatemala Aid Fund board, Kathy Marvin Stubbs.

While the Guatamala Aid Fund is not large, it really helps these children get some of the essentials they need and can also supply funds for special request situations. The fund recently supported a hernia operation for an abandoned baby boy named Andres that saved his life. Every little bit helps.

The Guatemala Aid Fund can be found at www.guatemalaaidfund.org.