REVEAL Q2 2017 - Page 29

Q & A The ANNE HALLUM Dr. Anne Hallum, the Founding President of AIR-Guatemala, tells us about the charity our First Anniversary Party will benefit. of the Mayan farmers whom we met. I will always believe that God rescued me on that first trip to Guatemala, and I found his purpose for my life. Anne, you are the founder of a very successful nonprofit that plants trees in Latin America, and so much more. Why did you start this organization? How has it grown or changed over time? In the early 1990s, I was a Political science professor at Stetson University in Florida, but I was also facing a difficult personal time of loneliness and loss. When Stetson announced that they needed a professor to take a few students on a trip to Guatemala because the original professor could not go, I recklessly volunteered. I always say, “recklessly,” because I had never had a passport to travel anywhere, I didn’t speak a word of Spanish and knew little about Guatemala. But I learned quickly! The first thing I noticed flying into Guatemala was the barren mountainsides and mudslides everywhere. “Where are the trees?”, I kept saying. The second major thing I noticed was the incredible warmth and courage One of the students from that trip visited me after graduating and suggested that we form our own organization. It was just the catalyst that I needed, and we immediately went to a restaurant near Stetson and came up with the ambitious name, “Alliance for International Reforestation,” with the handy “AIR” acronym. We had a luncheon with a few people we thought would be interested— including an environmental philanthropist who shared the vision then, and still does. She especially liked the approach I wanted of “community-based” reforestation which was a cutting- edge idea at the time. She gave the first substantial gift, and I returned to Guatemala to hire the staff one by one. AIR’s staff are all Guatemalan professionals and implement the projects year- round, while I stay in almost daily contact via email and travel to Guatemala as often as I can. In October 1996, I married Jan Allan Wilgers, who became the leader of volunteer trips to Guatemala—organizing the teams and motivating hundreds of volunteers over the years. But Jan succumbed to lung cancer in 2011. I realized that I could not continue to teach and manage AIR as well without his help. I left my job at Stetson, sold my house and moved to Atlanta in 2012 in order to answer this calling full-time as AIR’s (non-salaried) founding president. I have never looked back. So, since 1993 until the present, AIR has grown and changed immensely! For one thing, I decided in 1997 that AIR’s salaried staff would all be themselves Guatemalans, i.e., people who know their own country and people the best and who are the most trusted teachers. That same year, I decided that Cecilia Ramirez would be AIR’s Executive Director—a woman in a machismo culture who has earned the respect of government officials and everyone she works with for her organizational, financial, and inspirational talent! Secondly, AIR’s technicians/teachers are second to none. We have grown from one staff person to eight—and hope to hire another one soon. Each technician is in charge of six different communities and schools, so we have grown from six communities to about 40 at a time, for a total over 23 years of REVEAL | Q2 2017 29 over 200 communities and 3,000 families trained in Agro-Forestry. We have won awards from CNN Heroes; from the National Arbor Day Foundation; and twice from the United Nations—I would never have expected all of that 20 years ago! Can you tell us about the work your organization does and the programs you run? Well, first, as noted above, I don’t run them—I fundraise for them to keep going, but the Guatemalan staff actually run the programs. Naturally, I visit often to see the results, and I am always amazed! AIR provides four integrated programs—they benefit local families AND the entire planet: • We train farmers in Sustainable Farming with trees; • We plant hundreds of thousands of fast-growing, native trees every year; • We build efficient stoves that are appropriate to the culture, ventilate harmful smoke and conserve precious trees; and • We provide rural school programs to reinforce the training the farmers are receiving—including school gardens and tree nurseries, curriculum we wrote, and scholarships.