How do you build a school in Afghanistan? You sell rugs in Juneau, according to Nate York, founder of the Anchorage-based nonprofit organization Solace International.
He is in Juneau this week peddling rugs and tapestries made in India and Afghanistan. Sales revenues will go toward the construction of schools for girls in Afghanistan.
York founded Solace International in Anchorage in May of 2002, after spending four months in Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan providing humanitarian aid to Afghans.
While working with Crosslink Development International, a non-governmental organization, and UNICEF, a program of the United Nations, York was struck by the inefficiency of the larger organizations.
"I got pretty annoyed with how inefficient and how wasteful the U.N. was, with their $60,000 SUVs and their surveys," he said.
York saw a simple problem: Afghan girls needed an education. So before he left Afghanistan to return to the U.S., he promised village elders and Afghan friends that he would try to raise money to build schools.
In February of 2003, he returned to Afghanistan with three volunteers and $40,000 to build two schools and provide desks, chairs and school supplies. He completed his task - "building the schools is the easy part," he said -and returned to Alaska this fall to raise more money.
Just as Solace International's philosophy for building in Afghanistan is different from that of other organizations - it buys supplies locally, hires local workers and consults with village leaders in every phase of a project - so is its fund-raising strategy.
Along with going after grants and asking for donations, York and administrative director Stanfill Marcus Stanfill, with the help of friends in India and Turkey, decided to sell rugs made in Asia and the Middle East in the United States.
"We're selling local fabrics and rugs that come from the region we're going to be working in," said Stanfill.
The rugs are individually made, with some "museum quality" rugs more than 60 years old, he said.
Rug and tapestry auctions in Charleston, S.C., Anchorage, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Atlanta and Oklahoma City in the fall helped the organization raise $120,000 - $30,000 less than what the organization needs to build the six schools it has planned for this year, Stanfill said.
"If we sell the majority of the stuff that we have brought here, we kind of think that Juneau has built a school," Stanfill said.
Villages often ask Solace International what to name new schools. Stanfill and York decided to name one of the schools after Juneau if they raise enough money here to build one.
Barbara Belknap, president of the Alaska Women's Network, helped Solace International organize the Juneau event after meeting York in Seattle last year.
"I think that what strikes me is the enthusiasm that they have and the fact that it's from the heart - it's just 100 percent from the heart," she said. "They're going to take every dime of this and they're going to do the best they can to help the girls."
Belknap contacted the Juneau chapter of Soroptimists International, a women's volunteer organization, and members of that group volunteered to help stage the auction.
Stanfill and York will take off for India on Feb. 1. After a week in India - buying rugs and printing some materials for the schools - they'll head to Kabul and then to Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan to set up an office.
They hope to build two schools this spring and four more later in the year, York said.
York didn't begin this project for the money, he said. He, Stanfill and three other staff members of Solace International earned a combined salary of $31,000 last year.
Nate York will give a presentation and answer questions about his work in Afghanistan from 6 to 10 p.m. Wednesday at the Friendly Planet Trading Company. The auction will take place from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Thursday at the Elk's Lodge. For more information on Solace International, visit www.afghanistanproject.org.
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