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Posted February 28, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Local woman brings financial health to South African township

By Kim Walter

Project HOPE may be known for its outreach aimed toward improving the physical health of poor communities around the world, but according to Rachel Miller, financial health is just as important.

Miller, 24, a Winchester native and Millbrook High School graduate, recently returned from a volunteer mission for Project HOPE in South Africa, where she initiated a Village Savings and Loan program aimed at severely impoverished women at the organization's HOPE Centre in the township of Zandspruit, located about 30 minutes outside of Johannesburg. The HOPE Centre helps with testing and treatment for a number of diseases, but its focus is on chronic diseases like HIV and diabetes.

Miller attended James Madison University, where she studied third-world development, with a focus on the "economic and political side of things."

Village Savings and Loan programs aren't new, but when Miller was approached to lead the development of one in South Africa she had to do significant research and some tweaking to already established models to make it unique to Project HOPE.

The savings and loan program is an economic-strengthening methodology that helps people save money, make profit on their savings and take out loans.

"It's basically a grassroots form of microfinance," she said. "It's a little different, though, because we aren't injecting any capital or giving any loans. It's simply a methodology that's self-managed and self-financed."

After arriving, Miller got to work putting together a marketing campaign to spread the word about the program and about a meeting that would be held later on during her stay. She held a number of interviews to find a field officer to help her communicate with locals and who would keep the group going after she left.

Tsholofelo Mathebula, a 22-year old described by Miller as being "spunky," was hired as field officer. Miller said the young woman was able to speak seven of the 11 local languages, and was "able to pick things up quickly."

This being her second trip to a third-world nation, Miller said she noticed similar attitudes among women in the slums of South Africa and those she met during her first trip to Kenya.

"It's amazing that these people who have absolutely nothing to their name, walk with such pride. They wake up with smiles stretched across their faces, and nothing else matters but the health of themselves and their families," she said. "There is such a sense of optimism ... I think we lose sight of that here."

An early stage of a savings and loan program is the training of a health activist elected by the group. That person is educated on applicable health matters, like diabetes, nutrition and diarrhea, and in turn, they pass the education along to group and community members.

Miller said interest in the program was certainly there, as locals learned the benefits of "saving money for a rainy day."

"In that type of community, VSL is a form of insurance," she said. "The hope is that the program will compliment [Project HOPE's] existing ambitions of improving people's health and access to health care."

Describing the basics of a savings and loan group to the locals wasn't as difficult as someone might think, she added. The village deals entirely in cash, so the concept of currency was no surprise.

A savings and loan group is composed of anywhere from eight to 25 self-selected individuals who meet once a week so that members can save through the purchase of shares. The price of shares are determined by the group, but every member must purchase at least one share each week.

Miller said the amount of savings per individual is flexible from week to week, but even the smallest amount is important. She said saving once a week is better than leaving it to the end of the month, since chances are they might not have much at that time.

Groups maintain savings in a loan fund, from which individuals can borrow in small amounts, up to three times their individual savings. A social fund can also be created, which could serve as a "community safety net" to benefit group members and non-members.

Miller said the methodology is presented in a way that even the least literate person can comprehend the involved mathematical formulas.

"It's a successful program, you just have to be dedicated to the education part," she said. "When opportunities are provided to the community members, their eyes beam with hope. They want their children to grow up better than they did."

Since returning on Feb. 18, Miller said the group remains up and running. While she was there, she created both group and individual quality assessments of the program so she could find out if the savings and loan is performing as it should.

Part of the evaluation also asks individuals about their diets, exercise habits and concerns with how they're feeling.

Through the surveys, Project HOPE can continue to build on its savings and loan model so that it could potentially be spread to its other locations around the world.

"I just hope it leads to them taking better care of themselves," Miller said. "I believe that if they have a little money in the bank along with the health education, they'll be able to get the care they need."

To read more about volunteer experience at the HOPE Centre in Zandspruit, go to www.thehopecentresouthafrica.blogspot.com.

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com

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