Denver Bar Association
October 2008
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Bringing Hope to Guatemala

by Gene Branch

As my plane touched down on the runway in Guatemala City, I became acutely aware of the chasm between my world and the Third World. Our destination in the Guatemalan Highlands was a mere two-hour flight and short bus ride from the United States, but I found myself light-years from the comforts of my Tabor Center office. Given all the advantages I’ve enjoyed, I couldn’t help but think, "Perhaps I can make a difference here."

Gene and Dawn Branch with Guatemalan children.

The Denver-based nonprofit Pura Vida arranged our group’s trip to give us better insights on the daily conditions facing Guatemala’s native Maya people. Pura Vida’s mission is to facilitate the sharing of First World resources with Third World communities in a meaningful, respectful and long-term way. It does this primarily by providing educational opportunities for children in rural Third World villages through scholarships, tutoring and support of local schools.

I must admit that before becoming involved with Pura Vida, I’d taken many of my opportunities for granted — especially my education. Although Guatemala provides public education through sixth grade, children from rural areas typically average less than two years in school. As subsistence farmers, families frequently need their children to work in the fields or in the home; school is an unaffordable luxury. Girls especially are discouraged from attending school. For the few families that can visualize the benefits of education, private school is the only option beyond the sixth grade. It’s no wonder Guatemala has a literacy rate of less than 50 percent. But for the Maya, who primarily speak dialects of various native languages having no relationship to Spanish, the situation is even more difficult — not to mention that decades of civil war left the Maya oppressed, neglected and relegated to a life of poverty.

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Pura Vida is actively raising money for the second expansion of a school with more than 200 children enrolled, a number that should reach 360 within the next couple of years.

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Pura Vida aims to change this. By arranging scholarships and supporting the development of quality schools, Pura Vida hopes to foster a new generation of educated leaders. Although it is a relatively young organization, Pura Vida supports a class of roughly 75 scholarship students. Pura Vida is actively raising money for an expansion of a school for more than 200 children, a number that could reach up to 360 students within the next couple of years.

As attorneys, we are uniquely qualified to help groups like Pura Vida. Like most lawyers, I’ve developed the kind of personal resources that can benefit charitable endeavors. I’m not just referring to monetary resources. Our knowledge and professional networks make us uniquely valuable to philanthropic causes. Moreover, I’ve happily discovered that a legal career and charitable work can do more than simply coexist. Often, they can be a perfect fit for each other.

Specifically, lawyers can leverage their specialized knowledge about business organizations, tax matters, regulatory issues and the like, to open doors and help avoid pitfalls that nonprofits might miss on their own. Recognizing this, many firms and bar associations promote sharing such expertise pro bono publico — for the public good. Furthermore, lawyers are trained to be critical thinkers, providing yet another valuable asset for dynamic nonprofit boards.

"I’m a firm believer that having a lawyer on our board benefits us in areas beyond just free legal advice," says Mark Ely, executive director of Pura Vida. "Their connections and business savvy can provide priceless insight and support."

As lawyers, we are plugged in to extensive networks of attorneys, executives, entrepreneurs and philanthropists, each who can extend a nonprofit’s reach and brand awareness to audiences it might never have reached before. For example, I’ve recently started working with the Denver chapter of Keiretsu Forum, an angel investor network that encourages its members to participate in each other’s charitable causes. The organization has raised thousands of dollars for charity through its Keiretsu Foundation.

Gene Branch (far left) and Dave Money (far right) receive a lesson from Pura Vida's Mark Ely (center) on the educational situation in Guatemala.

When individual attorneys get their firms and clients involved, the results can be dramatically amplified. Many of my colleagues and co-workers at Townsend & Townsend & Crew are involved in charitable work, including foreign mission service, serving on nonprofit boards and volunteering for our favorite causes. Besides promoting team building and camaraderie, when the firm gets behind a cause, it can make a huge difference. For example, Townsend helped Pura Vida establish a computer lab in a Guatemalan school. First Data, one of Townsend’s largest clients, also embraces charitable causes. The First Data Foundation has contributed over $4 million to global causes, including Pura Vida.

 

"Pura Vida is doing phenomenal work in Guatemala," said David Money, First Data’s General Counsel, who has also traveled to Guatemala with Pura Vida. "The kids receiving scholarships through Pura Vida are bright kids who have little chance at education otherwise. And we are heartened to see our outside counsel involved in such worthy causes."

I can’t adequately describe what it was like seeing the children waiting to greet our group, as our bus arrived in the highlands of Guatemala. We weren’t there to assign scholarships, but to see the possibilities of what these scholarships could provide. In the process, we got to know their stories: a mother hoping to give her daughter a chance at becoming a secretary by attending the eighth grade; a bright young boy, hoping for the opportunity to travel two hours round-trip from his remote village to a school where he could attend the seventh grade; a painfully shy girl, discouraged by her family, but longing for the chance to make it one more grade in school; and a widow’s son who just wanted a chance at first grade.

Among many other benefits, the experience gave me a healthy dose of perspective. It was amazing to meet people maintaining a peaceful disposition in the midst of poverty, illness and violence. I went to Guatemala to help the Maya, never expecting that I would receive the greater benefit of the trip. And I’ve sense developed an appreciation for an entirely new dimension to the value of practicing law.

It’s one thing for me to donate $400 a year for a scholarship through Pura Vida. But it’s an entirely different matter to be able to use the resources of my legal career to support Pura Vida’s larger mission. It adds an entirely new dimension to the value of practicing law.

Gene Branch is an IP attorney practicing with Townsend & Townsend & Crew, LLP. For more information on helping improve the lives of Third World children, e-mail gene@puravida.org.


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