BOLIVIASegundo Velasquez founded Mano a Mano International Partners to improve the lives of rural indigenous Bolivians. The organization ships medical supplies, builds schools and develops aqueducts. BRAZILLeonora Micheiln Laboissière Mol invests in the future of Brazil through community development banks. She began her work by making small loans to poor women. HAITIThrough Saint Luke Foundation for Haiti, Father Richard "Rick" Frechette serves the people of the island nation. The organization operates orphanages and hospitals and employs more than 800 Haitians.

Photos by Douglas Ford Rea

A World of Good

The three 2012 Opus Prize finalists are living examples of faith in action.

By Andy Steiner

They transport medical supplies and work with isolated indigenous communities to build hospitals and schools; they empower poor women and their families through microloans, training and infrastructure development; they build and manage medical clinics and schools, care for orphans, and develop water irrigation projects in a desperately struggling nation.

"The three finalists for the 2012 Opus Prize, a $1 million award given to an unsung hero whose faith-based organization is dedicated to fighting the world's most persistent social problems, have all dedicated their lives to making the world a better place. And they are achieving that lofty goal. On November 8, 2012, the winner will be announced at St. Catherine University; the other two finalists will receive $100,000 each for their organizations.

During the spring and summer, St. Catherine sent three due-diligence teams — composed of students, faculty members and staff — across the globe to visit the finalists in their home countries and learn more about their work in order to make their final recommendations. During these site visits, which were so shrouded in secrecy that not even the finalists and their organizations knew why St. Kate's was there, team members quietly witnessed daily miracles. What they saw changed their lives forever.

Out of Isolation

Segundo Velasquez, Mano a Mano International Partners.

In May, after a long journey, members of St. Catherine's due-diligence team finally arrived in La Paz, Bolivia. Segundo Velasquez, co-founder of Mano a Mano, a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to improving the lives of rural indigenous Bolivians, was there to greet them.

"Segundo picked us up at the airport and stayed with us the whole time," recalls team member Renee Crepeau SP'13, a double major in international business and economics and marketing and management. "He's an incredible man, so humble and so well respected."

The due-diligence team's journey didn't end in La Paz. From there they traveled to a series of isolated mountain communities where 94 percent of residents live below the subsistence level to visit villages where Mano a Mano has guided the construction of some 130 fully staffed medical facilities and 44 schools. The nearly 20-year-old organization has also connected rural villages in the region to markets for their agricultural goods by building 1,300 kilometers of roads, and is providing access to water for drinking and irrigation through the construction of large-scale dams and reservoirs.

"The poverty in Bolivia is among the greatest in the world," says due-diligence team member Laurie Anderson Sathe, program director and assistant professor of St. Catherine's graduate programs in holistic health studies. "Many of the people there are poor and hungry. Villages lack basic amenities like clean water. Mano a Mano works with the people of those villages to identify problems and create solutions. On this trip, we saw the fruits of their labor."

Velasquez was born to a rural Bolivian peasant family but moved to the city to continue his education. Mano a Mano was created in 1994 when Velasquez, then a technical operations manager at a major Minnesota airline, worked with family and friends to ship surplus medical supplies to a small rural hospital in Bolivia, where his brother worked as a pediatrician. Inspired by the success of this first venture, he expanded his program to other poor communities with the support of his wife, Joan, a former Ramsey County information services director. Since then, Mano a Mano has shipped more than 3 million pounds of medical supplies to the country.

Today, the small staff of Mano a Mano operates out of two offices, one in St. Paul and one in Cochabamba, Bolivia. All projects are done in partnership with local community members, who provide volunteer labor alongside small teams of international volunteers.

Crepeau, this year's Student Senate president, was awestruck by Velasquez's dedication to improving the lives of the people of rural Bolivia. "He truly is an unsung hero," she says. "Mano a Mano isn't yet recognized for its work, but what they have accomplished is truly amazing."

Sathe says that even though she witnessed scenes of poverty and isolation, meeting Velasquez and seeing the work of Mano a Mano left her feeling optimistic for the future.

"Going on this journey was life changing," she says. "I had an opportunity to be with the people actually making the change. I left with a feeling of hope and a sense that dedicated people truly can achieve great things."

A Good investment

Leonora Micheiln LaBoissiere Mol, Atelie de Ideias (ADI).

Some might call it an act of faith. Early in her volunteer work with the women who populated the slums, or favelas, of her hometown of Vitoria, Brazil, Leonora Micheiln Laboissière Mol decided to take a risk. A risk no one else was willing to take.

Mol, who was raised in an upper-middle-class household, had been volunteering in Vitoria's favelas since she joined the Catholic Youth Movement as a teenager. After a bank turned down a loan to expand a program she'd created to help poor mothers sell their handmade goods in local Catholic churches, Mol decided to take a chance and loan the women $250 of her own money. The group turned a small profit and set it aside for future projects. From there grew the idea of Banco Bem (Good Bank), a community-development bank designed to provide small, low-interest loans to support small-business development and housing improvements for residents of the favelas.

Started with $4,500 in seed money provided by Mol herself, Banco Bem became the cornerstone of Ateliê de Idéias (ADI), a wide-ranging NGO that works to address issues of poverty in the community through self-sufficiency and financial investment. In late spring, Mol escorted members of St. Catherine's due-diligence team as they toured some of the many projects supported by her organization's investments.

Kate Barrett, associate professor of occupational science and director of St. Catherine's occupational therapy program, was one of the team members selected to travel to Brazil and learn more about Mol and ADI. She was "completely blown away" by the positive impact that a series of small financial investments can have on a struggling community.

"There is no doubt Leonora is doing really good work," Barrett says. "She has dedicated her life to it. You read about people like Leonora, selfless people who are working to make a difference against great odds. But to spend a week with someone like her, to watch her work and witness the impact it has on the community, is truly awe inspiring."

Leslie Muzulu SP'13 is a mathematics major from Zimbabwe who was also selected for the due-diligence team. She was inspired by ADI's microfinancing strategy and impressed by the wide range of projects — including improvements to crumbling housing stock, a wastewater treatment facility and a small ecological brick-making factory — that their investments have spurred. She believes that the organization is transforming its corner of the world one loan at a time.

"Leonora is a remarkable transformational leader and role model," Muzulu says. "There is a really big need for the work she does. And because her ideas are so easily translated into action, I think her work could be replicated around the world."

Barrett is grateful for the time she spent with Mol and ADI. "It was an honor to represent St. Kate's in Brazil," she says. "It was an honor to get to know Leonora. When we arrived she just opened up her life to us, even though she had no idea of the financial opportunity we offered. She is a very inspiring person who is doing amazing work."

Hope for the Hopeless

Father Richard "Rich" Frechette, Saint Luke Foundation for Haiti.

Before traveling to the island nation of Haiti, members of St. Catherine's due-diligence team were warned that the suffering and struggle they were about to witness could be deeply upsetting.

"I was well prepared for that," says Jennifer Donohue SP'15, a social work and public health major who served as one of the team's two student representatives. "What I wasn't prepared for was the hope and love that radiated from nearly everyone we met."

Donohue and her team were sent to Haiti to learn about the work of Richard "Rick" Frechette, C.P., a priest and physician who has devoted much of his life to serving the Haitian people. Father Rick founded an orphanage when he first came to the island in the mid-1980s. By 2001, in collaboration with a group of young Haitian leaders, he created Saint Luke Foundation for Haiti, an organization that provides education, healthcare and humanitarian outreach to over 150,000 Haitian people each year while employing more than 800 Haitian staff.

The St. Catherine delegation met Father Rick at Saint Damien's, a children's hospital founded by his organization. At night, they slept in tents on the hospital grounds, and during the day they toured some of the many programs run by the foundation.

Since its inception, Saint Luke Foundation has grown organically, launching new programs to meet the needs of people just as those needs are identified. This flexible, dynamic approach to aid sets Father Rick and the foundation apart from other charitable organizations, Donohue believes: "Because their nation is still recovering from the earthquake, the Haitian people are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, to floods and disease. That's why it's important that Saint Luke can respond quickly when needed."

Lahens Lee St. Fleur M'05, event logistics coordinator at St. Kate's, was the only staff member to travel with a due-diligence team. Born in Haiti, he was an orphan who lived on the island until he was 12, when he was adopted by St. Catherine President Andrea Lee, IHM. The due-diligence trip was the first time St. Fleur had been back to the island since leaving in 1996.

"It was an extremely emotional experience for me to return to the place where I was born," St. Fleur says, "but it meant a lot to meet this man who is literally giving his life to Haiti. That is what I saw when I toured the school and hospital, the orphanages and housing, and the other projects that Saint Luke Foundation has helped create. And Father Rick doesn't take all the credit. He has developed many young Haitian leaders who are giving back to their community."

In fact, Donohue was struck by the way Father Rick puts himself in the background. That means Saint Luke Foundation will be self-sustaining and continue doing good work far into the future.

"That's where the hope comes from," Donohue says, firmly. "It's Father Rick and his unwavering sense of faith and love for the people of Haiti. They are in it together. That collaboration is clearly at the center of everything he does, and that's why the organization succeeds."

Read about the St. Kate's due diligence teams »

Opus Pirze: Save The Date

About the Opus Prize

The Opus Prize is an annual faith-based humanitarian award that recognizes unsung heroes who — guided by faith and an entrepreneurial spirit — work to conquer the world's most persistent social problems.

The Opus Prize winner receives $1 million for her or his organization, and the two runner-up organizations receive $100,000 each.

Each year, the Opus Prize is presented in affiliation with a Catholic university. The partner university works with the Opus Prize Foundation to field and narrow the list of nominees, assemble due-diligence teams to observe their programs and select the three finalists. The awards ceremony typically is held on the partner institution's campus, offering students a unique opportunity to think globally and inspire them to lead lives of service.

The Opus Prize Foundation was established in 1994 by philanthropist Gerald Rauenhorst, founding chairman of the Opus Group and husband of the late Henrietta Veronica Schmoll Rauenhorst SP'49. The Opus Prize has been awarded annually since 2004.