by Melissa Wilson
Few business owners donate their profits to charity and few charities are operated as businesses, but Keith and Karen Jaspers use their four hotels and travel agency in Branson and St. Louis to finance the Rainbow Network.
Founded in 1995 by the Jaspers, the Rainbow Network is a Springfield-based nondenominational ministry dedicated to helping the people of Nicaragua, who are among the poorest in the world.
The Jaspers and their three grown children own and operate the Day's Inn, Red Roof Inn, Howard Johnson and Day-By-Day Tourism, in Branson, and the Windgate Inn, in St. Louis. The Rainbow Network is run with the same business guidelines and procedures as the hotels and travel agency, the Jaspers said.
"I always had a vision that if a businessman were to start and operate a project like this and manage it with the principles of business, that we could get a lot done in a relatively short period of time," Keith Jaspers said.
Due to recent flooding by Hurricane Mitch, approximately 15,000 Nicaraguans have been relocated to a small area of land. Nicaraguan government officials have deeded 20-by-33-foot plots to each family and given them pieces of black plastic and a few boards to build shelters with. However, Jaspers said, the refugees were given no medicine, food or clothing.
Temporary relief from agencies such as the Red Cross is expected, but Jaspers said there will be nothing done long-term for the refugee village, now called Villa Nuevo. He estimated the cost to aid the people of Villa Nuevo to be at least $200,000 a year for an indefinite period of time.
Jaspers said children are already dying of disease and malnutrition in Villa Nuevo.
"We arrived in Nicaragua the day after the hurricane left and immediately pulled our staff off their normal routine work, rented trucks and went into the city of Managua and bought truckloads of beans, rice, cornmeal, cooking oil and chlorine, which is used to treat the drinking water," Jaspers said.
"We were delivering food to stranded families a week before the Red Cross, the Nicaraguan government and our government got down there."
Rainbow Network staff and volunteers delivered food to more than 1,500 families in 19 villages for two weeks after the hurricane, and in many cases staff and volunteers waded through knee-deep water for a mile or more to reach families who hadn't eaten in days.
"Beginning this week, we're getting back to more of a normal routine of working within our established area, but we still have perhaps 300 families within that area that we'll be delivering food to for a couple of months until they get on their feet," Jaspers said.
The Rainbow Network is also working on establishing a loan program for families who lost their crops and livestock to the flooding.
The six Rainbow Network staff members, five of whom are Nicaraguans, comprise two doctors, an education coordinator, a project director, an economic director and a housing director. Jaspers said the Rainbow Network is now looking for a fluent Spanish-speaker who is willing to make a three-year commitment to the project to fill another staff position in Nicaragua.
The staff and 9,000 Nicaraguan volunteers provide assistance to the people of Nicaragua in four different areas: health care, economic development, education and housing.
Major accomplishments have been made in the area of public health, including vaccinating thousands of children against diseases such as malaria, chlorinating all community wells and assisting families with the digging of sanitary latrine holes.
"These people are so poor that we often have to loan them a pick and a shovel to dig a latrine hole," Jaspers said.
The area of economic development assistance includes organizing villages into what Jaspers calls "borrowing clubs."
"We loan money to member families, usually about $150 per family, to be used in some sort of business endeavor, because there are no jobs. We then teach them how to make brooms, grow vegetables to sell in the city or use a horse and a cart to make a living," Jaspers said.
Rainbow Network staff and volunteers also build new houses for 15 families each year. The houses cost about $1,500 to build and are given to the families with the agreement that the network is to be paid back, interest-free, within 10 years.
"Some of the huts these families were living in were too small for all the family members to sleep at the same time. They had to sleep in shifts on the dirt floor, which turned into a mud floor during the rainy season," Jaspers said.
Education is the biggest factor the Rainbow Network works to improve.
When the organization began working in Nicaragua three years ago, there were only nine small government-run schools with no teaching materials, Jaspers said.
"There were no books, no pencils, no tablets, no chalk or chalkboard, nothing. A teacher might have had a little scrap of paper she would tear off and hold in the palm of her hand and a little stub of a pencil. She would write a word on that, pass it around and then erase it, and write another word," Jaspers said.
"That's how the children were supposed to learn to read, write and do numbers."
Classes were not held every day. Many children didn't want to go to school because they had no shoes or had only rags to wear, and many parents didn't want their children attending school because they had to walk several miles each way to get there.
"We started working with the existing schools, so they now have all the necessary materials. We started setting up additional classrooms and providing instruction to teachers, and today I'm happy to say we have 37 schools operating every day of the week and teaching 1,700 children, who now have clothing and shoes due to the generous people of the Ozarks," Jaspers said.
One of the Rainbow Network's major goals is to send both children and adults to high school, which Jaspers said is a challenge because the only high schools in Nicaragua are in major cities, such as the capital, Managua.
"Sending a kid to high school in Nicaragua is a little bit like sending a kid to college in the states," Jaspers said.
"It costs about $200 a year, and the average family just can't afford it."
Because of sponsorships of $18 per child per month, there are about 130 children going to high school this year and more than 300 will go next year, Jaspers said.
The Rainbow Network relies entirely on donations and receives 95 percent of its donations from the Springfield-Branson area.
Because all overhead costs are paid by the profits from the Jaspers' hotels, every dollar contributed to the Rainbow Network is used in Nicaragua and is tax-deductible. Donations may be sent to:
The Rainbow Network
3844 South Ave.
For more information about the program, call 889-8088.
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