Many of us begin the journey to environmentalism as adults. Others start when they are still children. Recently, Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) had the privilege of interviewing 11-year-old Jack Potter, a soon-to-be 6th grader, who began his environmental journey by collecting and recycling #5 plastic bottle caps. Jack didn’t just collect a few bottle caps, he saved nearly 1,000. And this week at his county fair, he earned the right to exhibit his project at the Iowa State Fair. Jack’s determination to make a difference impressed us, so we asked him to share a bit of his story. — Publisher
BPGL: What was the purpose of your recycling project?
POTTER: My goal for the project was to raise awareness of the fact that plastic caps are almost never recycled. When they’re not recycled, they end up in landfills or in the ocean, and that’s bad for the environment.
BPGL: What motivated you to get involved in recycling plastic caps?
POTTER: My mom showed me a newspaper article about trash that had been washing into the Pacific Ocean. Some people had gone to pick it up. They found that there were thousands of toothbrushes, tires — all kinds of trash. But the most common thing they found was plastic bottles and plastic caps. So, I researched the plastic caps thing, and I found that they’re almost never recycled. There’s a company that does recycle them, so I thought I’d make a project showing how you actually can recycle them, so people will stop throwing them away.
BPGL: What happens to the bottle caps you collect?
POTTER: At my house, we have a vase near the sink, and whenever somebody drinks bottled water or uses something that has a cap on it, they just throw the cap in the vase. And when the vase gets full, we empty it into a Tupperware container that we have. After you’ve collected them, you can take them to an Aveda center.
A lot of spas that carry Aveda products will be participating in the recycling program. So, we’ll just collect them for a while and go to one of those spas, and if they accept them, they’ll take the caps and ship them off to Aveda. Once they get to their recycling center, the caps are melted down by themselves [not with other plastic types] and recycled to be used for Aveda products like shampoo bottles.
BPGL: How many caps have you collected so far?
POTTER: When I first started this project, it had been nine months into the collecting, and around then we had 650 caps. By now, we’ve probably collected about 1,000.
BPGL: Where do you get so many? Surely your family doesn’t go through 1,000 caps in a year.
POTTER: People use up more than you’d think. There are water bottles. There are pop and Gatorade bottles. There’s shampoo, ketchup, mustard, orange juice, milk — all kinds of things. Sometimes, if I’m out walking and I see a couple of caps lying around, I’ll just pick them up and throw those in the vase when I get home. So I suppose they’re not all from my family, but the majority of them are.
BPGL: Were you surprised at the huge number of caps — and bottles — that your family went through in a year?
POTTER: I was very surprised. I had no idea that we’d use that many. I just thought it made the reason to recycle them even bigger.
BPGL: Were your parents surprised as well?
POTTER: They were.
BPGL: Do you have any plans to spread this message to your school?
POTTER: Every year, our school has this thing called a penny war, where everyone brings in pennies and puts them in their class’s bucket… I’m going to try to see if we can do something along those lines with caps — to get our whole school to collect them and recycle them.
BPGL: What are your plans in the future?
POTTER: Besides the school cap drive, I know I’m going to be collecting caps. I’ve talked to my grandparents about it, and they have started collecting their caps and recycling them. They’ve talked to my aunts and uncles and their friends. They told me that all those people are going to start collecting too, and hopefully they’ll tell other people, and it will just become more common for people to recycle their plastic caps.
BPGL: Have you heard of viral marketing, Jack?
POTTER: No, I’ve never heard of that.
BPGL: That’s what you’re doing. You’re spreading the message like a virus spreads from one person to another; only, in this case, it’s a very good thing.
What else would you like to tell us about your project?
POTTER: One thing that I found really surprising was, when I took the amount of caps my family had, I did some math to figure out how many caps Iowa would go through every year —just a rough estimate. I took the amount of people from the US Census Bureau’s latest survey of Iowa, and it turns out that Iowa alone would go through more than 600 million caps every year.
BPGL: Wow! How did you determine that?
POTTER: I took the amount of caps our family had in 9 months, and divided that by 9 to figure out what one month’s worth of caps was. Then I multiplied that by our one year’s worth. From there, I took the US Census Bureau’s amount of people in Iowa, and divided it by the average family size, which I believe was 2.9 people at the time, so we’ll call it 3. And I just multiplied the amount of caps our family had by the amount of families, and came up with over 600 million.
BPGL: Were you doing this project with the county fair in mind the whole time?
POTTER: I was doing it with the fair in mind the whole time, because it started out as a 4H project. I was trying to make a tri-fold that people could read easily at the fair and learn a lot.
BPGL: What happened at the fair this week? Were you successful?
POTTER: The bottle cap project won a “State Fair consideration” ribbon. In the end, they decided to send it to State Fair. I had also done a different project on a trash pickup, and that got a blue ribbon.
BPGL: So did your bottle cap project also get a blue ribbon?
POTTER: No, it got a purple ribbon.
BPGL: Is purple higher than blue?
POTTER: Yes. The purple ribbon is State Fair, and the blue is just first place.
BPGL: When will the Iowa State Fair be held?
POTTER: August 13 through August 23 in Des Moines.
BPGL: Where can people find your exhibit? What hall will you be in?
POTTER: My exhibit will be in the 4H building at the State Fair. There should be an Issues section, where my tri-fold will be.
BPGL: Have you ever exhibited at the State Fair before?
POTTER: No, in 4H for Iowa, you have to have completed 5th grade before you’re allowed to exhibit at State Fair. I entered projects last year and they got an Outstanding Junior rating, which means it would have gone to the State Fair if I had been old enough. This is the first year I will exhibit at the State Fair.
BPGL: Have you been an environmentalist as long as you can remember, Jack?
POTTER: I like trying to find small ways I can help the environment. I started paying attention to these issues when global warming really became an issue and was on news programs all the time. I saw that, and I started seeing books and magazines and posters everywhere about trying to find small ways to help save the environment. I’m just trying to find my own small way I can help. I guess this is it.
Conscientious donors around the world give money to NGOs with the full expectation that their contributions will work toward the benefit of the intended recipients. But, as Earle Canfield, explains in today’s post, the reality is often quite different, with too many NGOs working ultimately for their own sustainability and not delivering “real help.”
Canfield’s NGO, American-Nepali Student & Women’s Educational Relief (ANSWER), is different. “Instead of fostering dependency,” Canfield says, “we empower students.” ANSWER gives “just enough help” to impoverished low-caste families by paying for one child’s private school education. The families, in turn, pay for a small part of their children’s school needs. By requiring a personal investment, ANSWER motivates families to continue the child’s participation through college, whereupon the graduate secures a good-paying job. Education not only breaks the cycle of poverty for the families, it also empowers low-caste students to become part of the new middle class that will overturn Nepal‘s caste system in their lifetime.
This is Part 2 of a two-part interview with ANSWER’s founder, Earle Canfield. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: What got you interested in helping children in Nepal?
CANFIELD: I went to Nepal first as a medical volunteer. I worked in a children’s hospital. All I saw was a revolving door of poor people coming in, getting fixed up and being sent out, and no [lasting] good coming of it.
During my first three months there, I went on a medical mission with the crew from a hospital. We went to a remote village where there was a community clinic. It had power; the village did not. The people would have to wait for hours to be seen by a doctor; there were four practitioners and hundreds of children to be seen. So we did some health education.
We put the families in a room, and they didn’t know what was happening. There was all this talk and buzz. We were going to show them some slides. None of them had seen a TV or been to a movie. So we quieted them down, and I ran the projector while a Nepali doctor gave explanations of the slides. We went on with our talk about malaria, until I flashed a slide of a mosquito. At that point, all the excitement died, and there was dead silence in the room. It was like a big weight of gloom and doom had come down on the people.
I asked the doctor who was translating, “What’s going on?”
She said, “They are afraid of that mosquito.”
“Well, they need to be afraid of that mosquito, it’s malarial!”
“You don’t understand, they’re afraid of this mosquito, right here. It’s got a four-foot wingspan.” She smiled, and I got it. She explained everything, and we finished the slide show.
That moment haunted me. As funny as it is, it made me realize that, if I take a microscope, a slide, and some pond water, and show them a germ and say, “That’s what’s making you sick,” they don’t understand. They think it’s that water right there, the water they’re looking at, that’s making them sick. They can’t understand scaling, so they don’t know how small a germ is. They don’t understand large numbers of germs.
There’s no way that you can teach health education to illiterate people. It’s just too demanding. And so the best way, the simple way, to do this is to educate the children. With a liberal education, they would have the math, the science, the literacy, the concepts to really grasp the idea. Then they can teach the fundamentals to the parents: “No, Mother, don’t drink that!”
BPGL: So you send children to school. Why not send them to public schools?
CANFIELD: The educational system is built with caste in mind. It reinforces the caste system. Only by paying enough money to go to a private school that teaches in English can you go to college. In the public schools, they teach English in the 3rd or 4th grade, but it’s really directed at being able to read Nepali words in Roman letters, not to learn English. At the end of the 10th grade, everyone who wants to do so will take an exam, and that will determine if their scores are high enough to go to college. But they have to score high in English. About 40% of the students nationwide fail that exam. Most of those who fail are out of the public schools.
Almost all nonprofits will help children in basic education, maybe even up to the 10th grade, but then they drop them. We have taken some of these children, who were sustained but dropped by other organizations, even though they did very well on 10th grade exam, and found spots for them in private colleges. After the 12th grade, the students take another exam, and that will determine whether they are awarded a diploma and/or go on to the university.
BPGL: Is your goal to send students to university?
CANFIELD: The university level is kind of a dead end. The kids want to become engineers, but they’ll never get a job in engineering in this country. The engineering jobs go to foreign contractors. So, even before the 10th grade, we’re discouraging them from going into engineering. Even so, some of the kids want to do it. So, “Okay, you can take the science that leads up to engineering. If you do well enough on the exam and get a scholarship, you’re in. But if you don’t get a job, you can’t come crying back to us. Your decision is made now.” That’s an iron fist in a velvet glove. We try to coddle these students enough so that they can do what we say and understand what we say.
BPGL: When you spoke in Iowa City, you mentioned a club for the high school students. What is the purpose of the club?
CANFIELD: What we do is not only put the kids in good schools — the private, high-caste schools — but we also have what’s called a Social Welfare Club. They meet on Saturdays for three or four hours. We work to educate poor people to the point where they can not only take care of themselves, but they also reach a level of understanding that they’ve been taken care of through the graces of help from outside.
About every other week, we show a movie. For the most part, they are Western-produced movies that have a morality theme. What we’re doing with these films is raising the students’ social consciousness. These are movies like March of the Penguins. One of the things that comes out of that particular movie is that animals have societies too. They have a struggle against the elements to survive, and they handle it by division of labor. The father’s job is to stay home and hatch the egg. The mother’s job is to go out fishing, and she brings home the dinner. Then the children begin to understand that there’s more than one way to look at society. Fathers can do child rearing, and mothers can have careers. We discuss things like that.
These meetings are structured to have discussions. Very few schools in Nepal have discussions; 99.9 percent use rote teaching. You spoon feed the answers, so that when it comes up on the test, you get back the answer. Nothing more than that, just the answer.
All of the kids are extremely shy, and it’s very hard for them to raise their hands. But after a couple of weeks like this, they catch on. They start participating, and they raise their hand. We don’t have an attendance problem on Saturday.
BPGL: Do you see your efforts working?
CANFIELD: I think we will be very successful in producing socially conscious and aware and active students. And that, in a Third World setting, is unheard of. They come out of a subsistence background, and in a subsistence background, you don’t share; not-sharing is a survival skill.
At the Social Welfare Clubs, we instill a sense of the power of sharing. We say, “There are sponsors on the other side of the world that believe so strongly in you and want to help you. You must be committed to helping others, too, because you got help. You couldn’t have done it by yourself.”
I remember asking one class, “Why do you think that people on the other side of the world care enough to help you?” There were interesting responses. I said, “No, it’s not because you are helpless.”
And one little girl said, “Because we’re just like them.”
I responded, “If you’re just like them, what about other poor people? Aren’t they just like you?” The lights went on all over the room. These kids do understand what the purpose is in all of this.
BPGL: Doesn’t it cost more to support a college student? How do you manage to continue supporting them?
CANFIELD: College is more expensive, but it’s only for a couple of years, so we put part of the commitment onto the families. We say, “You have to pay a certain percentage. We usually try to get a third of the cost of college from the family. If they still can’t do it, those children borrow from the college fund. And if they borrow from the college fund, they pay it back, so that other children can borrow from the college fund.
Everything we do is thought out pretty carefully in terms of sustainability, empowerment, and political/personal will.
BPGL: What else do the kids do in the Social Welfare Clubs to get involved in the community?
CANFIELD: We might go up to the children’s hospital and visit with patients there, or go to the old folks’ home and talk with the people. There’s only one government nursing home for the elderly in Kathmandu. We take our kids there, so they can socialize with the older people and find out their stories. These are people who don’t have relatives, who have been left alone to support themselves and were living and sleeping on the streets.
One time, we had a mother who was having a very difficult time at home. It was in Kathmandu in one of these little, 8 x 8-foot, one-room bunkers. It was a ground-floor apartment, and the floor was damp. There was mildew growing up on the walls. When you walked into it, it smelled like your worst science experiment. So I got the children together. The girls went to the well and fetched the water. We took the bedding off the bed. The girls helped the mother do the laundry.
When we took the bed up, the bottom of the mattress was all moldy and wet. And that’s where all of this was coming from. We put that out in the sun and sun-bleached the mold. The boys and I bleached the floor, the walls, the ceiling.
Afterward, we went to a momo [a Tibetan ravioli dumpling] shop, and talked about it. I asked, “Did we do good?”
The kids said, “We should feel good about what we did.”
“Was it sustainable?”
They said, “Oh, yes. The place is very nice.”
“Well, do you think we’ll have to come back and do it all over again?”
“No, not for a long time,” they said.
I asked, “Have we solved the problem?” Then I told them about the mattress, because they didn’t really understand the biology of mold. And I said, “What we did is, we put it out in the air. The air and the sun will dry it out, and the mold won’t grow. But if you put it back on the damp floor (with the seepage through the thin layer of concrete), the mold will just come back.
Then the kids were a little bit downcast. I said, “There are solutions to problems. What are the solutions to this problem?”
They know about beds being elevated off the floor, so we discussed that. I said, “Well, what are we going to do?”
“Oh, let’s buy them a bed.”
“Do you think buying things for people is going to solve their problems? When we send you to school, do we pay for everything?”
“No. Father pays for our sandals or tennis shoes.”
What I could have had them do is go out and make the money to pay for it. But it’s very hard for children to make money. So I said, “Why don’t we put up half the money, and have the father, who is a painter, put up the other half?”
The husband wasn’t going to buy a bed. We went back and talked to the mother, and the mother explained to the father that they could sleep on a bed again for the first time, and they’d only have to pay half of it. So when she presented it that way, they agreed, and that solved the problem. It was a very good mini lesson on development, on how to help. You don’t just provide aid. You have to give instruction and get them invested.
BPGL: Do you serve an equal number of boys and girls?
CANFIELD: We have two-thirds as many girls as boys, because the literacy rate — or the school occupancy rate, if you will — is two-thirds boys. The literacy rate is twice as high for boys as it is for girls. We in the West are savvy enough to know that we want to help girls more than boys, and the girls play a leading role in educating the family and providing health care to the family. So, no question, that money is well spent on girls. But we feel the necessity of educating boys, as well — even if it’s a third instead of two-thirds, which is to say it’s two to one in favor of the girls — because if you educate just girls and leave out the boys, then the boys will have no role models to follow.
It’s very important to provide the stimulus for the boys to improve, as well. Too often, it is the case that the women take care of the home, the families, the babies and so forth, and the men provide the work. But when there’s no work to be had, what happens to the men? There’s very little alcoholism with women in Nepal, but something like 30 or 40 percent of the men are alcoholics in Nepal. It’s very important that boys are not left behind. That’s why we don’t exclusively support girls. I think that is a shortcoming of many nonprofits that are strictly about girls’ education. Granted that girls have been left behind, but you’re going to have angry men, if you don’t do something for them; they’re going to rise up and keep the women under burkas and not let them out of the house. I’m speaking of Afghanistan, of course, but the sentiments are universal, I’m sure.
BPGL: Do you have more groups planned for children of other ages?
CANFIELD: By doing this for several years now, almost all the schools in the Kathmandu Valley feed into the schools where we do the Social Welfare Clubs. Now it’s time, as we get older students in college and high school, to take the next step, to have an Alumni Club. They will take control of what kind of social welfare they want to commit to.
We’re going to start that this year, because we have 40 or 50 college students now and a dozen graduates. The nucleus will be our nursing and health science students. We have a lot of those, and they’re graduating. They have greater social consciousness. They are respected by the others, because they have landed good-paying jobs. When we form this club, the other college kids will be coming in and getting a peek at what they’re doing. They know that when they graduate, they can participate, too.
Ultimately there will be enough graduates so that some of them can start sponsoring children as well. They can participate in other community activities — whatever they opt for. These things are designed to address empowerment and will and sustainability.
Slowly and surely, the board and the organization will be taken over by our own children. That’s probably about 10 years away. Ten years, for a nonprofit organization, is not a long time at all.
We now have approximately 500 kids enrolled in about 120 schools. At our present rate of growth, in ten years, we will have produced probably about 700 graduates. We’ll be sending out over 100 graduates a year. We’re talking about hundreds of a new kind of populace. These are low-caste children who have grown up with good educations, running their own businesses and having good jobs. These children will form a new social middle class. Education has always played a big role in overturning the caste society. Once the low castes become richer and more powerful, you replace the caste society with a socio-economic class society. This has occurred in feudal societies in the West and in Japan.
BPGL: I understand that Nepal has thousands of relief agencies. Are they making progress?
CANFIELD: Here are the statistics: There are approximately 40,000 nonprofit organizations in Nepal. Yet there are only 4,000 villages and towns and cities. Why is it, with 10 nonprofit organizations for every village, that there is an overall diminishing return, that the country gets poorer and poorer every year?
If we were all working together, we could save Nepal. It’s a country a little bit larger than Iowa. It’s 100 x 500 miles. Nepalis know, and people in the Third World know, that many NGOs are just self profiteering organizations, that the people who benefit are the ones who work for the organization. They may install a hydroelectric facility somewhere, a local village-run thing, but who’s going to maintain it? The country has dams, and the inspector comes in and signs off. They don’t do the inspection, they just sign off. So eventually, the turbine breaks down, and Kathmandu is without lights.
People in the Third World know that many nonprofits are self-serving. In Nepal and, I wouldn’t be surprised, in other parts of the world, nonprofits are called the “NGO Mafia.” I even see that printed in the newspapers over there. So, when we founded ANSWER, I told my country director, Som, that there was no way we were going to be part of the mafia, that we needed to make sure that everything was volunteer. And that was when it was just him and me.
As we have evolved, we’ve added a very few salaried staff. We probably pay 1/3 of what other NGOs pay and maybe even less than that, so we needed to find people who did it for the love of what they were doing, rather than for the salary.
Som started as a volunteer, because I wasn’t going to pay him. He wanted to go to school, so I paid for his education, and he got a master’s degree in hospital administration. When you start up an organization, it’s very important how you lay out the framework, because that carries on and on. So our staff is way underpaid, and they willingly work.
Ball, our other person in the office, is also in school. He gets minimal salary with a minimal stipend for education, but it all helps. That’s to keep the costs down so that our fundraisers can make enough money to support the organization, the administration. And in doing that, the sponsors can be reassured that all the money is going just for the education of that child, be it uniforms or books and tuition and so forth.
I am not salaried, I’m a volunteer. I do this from my own savings. I pay for my own transportation, everything. I’m self supporting. The administration is self supporting, and the children are supported entirely by the funds of the sponsors. We’re a 501c3, so that makes it deductible, too.
BPGL: This will sound like an insensitive question, but do you have a succession plan for when you pass on someday far in the future, to make sure your work will carry on in the US?
CANFIELD: The whole idea is to have the Nepalis to support their own children, isn’t it? As more of the children come on and take over the office, and the Alumni Club starts supporting their own students, then there’s no need for an office in Grand Rapids. They can fly on their own.
I used to think our mission would be done as soon as there was universal education in Nepal. But it won’t be done. You can just proclaim universal education, but unless schools are accessible, it won’t happen. Unless people have enough money and time — and motivation — to send their children to school, it’s not going to happen. It comes down to a problem of the caste system. I see our end goal not as trying to establish universal education so much as toppling the caste system.
We need to establish a level playing field — through education — to get out of that feudal society way of doing things and thinking, and create a society based on socio-economic class. ANSWER has a role to play. Let’s get to where the students’ own initiative can reap rewards, and they are not limited by birth. I feel that in a decade or two, at the most, we will be near the “tipping point.” Our growth and the impact of these socially aware children, both in quantity and quality, will be phenomenal.
Publisher’s Note: To find out more about sponsoring an ANSWER student for only $5 a week, contact Earle Canfield at email@example.com .
Part 2: ANSWER – Ending Caste in Nepal with Education and Jobs (Top of Page)
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)