by Britt Aamodt
For 14 years, David Flannery was the face of the Elk River Area School District. Summer of 1987 through summer of 2001, he inhabited the role of superintendent of schools.
At the time of his departure, Rogers had broken ground on a new high school; Zimmerman Middle School was expanding to include grades six–12; and Elk River’s senior high was getting a major renovation.
He had witnessed the district’s student body swell from 5,000 to 10,000 students. He’d seen 1987’s kindergartners through to high school graduation.
It was time for Flannery to move on, seek the next challenge. But what was that?
He spent over three years as the interim executive director of the Perpich Center for Arts Education. He traveled internationally. He consulted.
Then in 2009, he encountered Sarah Mechtenberg, a graduate of the College of St. Benedict in Stearns County. She was living in Carmen Pampa, Bolivia, serving as a liaison between the local college and a Minnesota-based nonprofit, the Carmen Pampa Fund.
She told him about the college, Unidad Académica Campesina-Carmen Pampa (UAC-CP), and its mission to transform the second poorest country in the Americas, second only to Haiti, one Bolivian at a time. The tool of transformation? Something so simple it was revolutionary: education. Flannery could get behind that.
“Twenty years ago, when Sister Damon started the school, there was no opportunity for someone from rural Bolivia to go to college in La Paz or Santa Cruz,” the nearest metropolitan centers, says Flannery, now on the board of the Carmen Pampa Fund.
Sister Damon, a Franciscan nun from Boston, had gone to Bolivia to teach English. She quickly figured out that in a country where 59 percent of the population lived in poverty, the indigenous Indians numbered among the very poorest. Being that poor meant a reduced life expectancy, limited work opportunities and, of course, little or no chance of a higher education.
In 2011, a record-breaking 752 students enrolled in classes at the UAC-CP. They majored in one of five subject areas: agronomy, nursing, education, veterinary science and ecotourism.
The majors are tailored to the remote mountainous area surrounding Carmen Pampa and the communities whose livelihoods by and large depend on small farms and livestock holdings. Tourism is a growing sector.
The college nestles on a mountainside, 45 minutes from Coroico, the largest nearby city. Students come to UAC-CP from local villages. One of the Carmen Pampa Fund’s roles is to raise money to offset the cost of tuition. Still, each student’s family must scrape together $600 every year.
Flannery flew to Bolivia in 2010 to spend a semester teaching English at UAC-CP. He wanted to see for himself how the school made a difference.
“One of the first graduates to stand out to me was Carlos, an education major. He returned to his community to start an elementary school,” says Flannery, explaining why schools were few and far between in Carlos’ hometown. “To get there you take a 16-hour bus ride. Then you walk five hours up a mountainside. In Bolivia, the higher up you live, the poorer you are.”
Another graduate started a co-op to help farmers sell produce outside their small network and to earn fair market prices. Veterinary graduate Claudia Cerruto won a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship. Education major Pedro Argani works with homeless children in El Alto. Two graduates are currently teaching Spanish at the Adams Immersion School in St. Paul.
“One student said that if not for the school, she would be selling vegetables on the streets. Many will tell you they’re the first professional in their family,” says Flannery.
Like a lot of nonprofits, the Carmen Pampa Fund saw its donations shrink with the recession. Also, many of the fund’s supporters, who’ve been with the organization from the beginning, are ageing. As a board member Flannery is focused on fundraising and recruiting a new generation of supporters.
“I’ve spent my whole life in education and believe in its power to transform,” he says. “But I really see it in Bolivia. It’s so obvious there the impact education has.”
At a glance:
Carmen Pampa Fund
Founded in 1999, Carmen Pampa Fund is a St. Paul, Minn.-based nonprofit that generates resources to assist with the growth and development of the Unidad Académica Campesina —Carmen Pampa, a unique and internationally recognized college in rural Bolivia that serves poor families of Bolivia through education, research, production and community service projects.