Humanitarian wins $100,000 and notice for work in Bolivia

The Opus Foundation's award will help a Mendota Heights nonprofit build on its health efforts.

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Segundo Velasquez, left, helped staff members Dana Dallavalle, center, and Alison Cerve sort medical supplies donated to his Mano a Mano nonprofit organization.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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From his modest home in Mendota Heights, Segundo Velasquez has spent 18 years overseeing what has become one of the most successful humanitarian groups in Bolivia.

Its accomplishments are impressive: 807 miles of road; 130 health centers serving 700,000 Bolivians; 44 schools; 3.5 million pounds of medical donations. This week, Velasquez was watching another big number -- $1 million.

He, and his nonprofit Mano a Mano, were among three finalists for a granddaddy of nonprofit prizes -- the $1 million Opus Prize Foundation award. After months of wondering and waiting, Velasquez took home $100,000 at the award ceremony Thursday night -- not the top prize but a stellar honor for a former airline manager whose nonprofit has become a household word 5,000 miles away.

"This was one of the most difficult decisions we've ever made," said Tom Neureuther, executive director of the Opus Prize Foundation, based in Milwaukee, which honors unsung heroes conquering world problems.

"The top award recipient, Fr. Richard Frechette, [of the St. Luke Foundation of Haiti], is a man of great passion, rooted in his faith, and the scope and complexity of his work in one of the most difficult parts of the world is impressive. Segundo Velasquez is equally impressive in the scope of his work. For both, we're talking about ordinary people doing extraordinary things."

Velasquez said he's thrilled to simply have been a finalist, which is opening many new doors.

"We tend to work in the background; we don't look for limelight," said Velasquez, a soft-spoken man from Bolivia who has lived in Minnesota for decades. "We are grateful for the opportunity to tell so many people about our work, and to help even more people in Bolivia."

Mystery visitors

This "opportunity" is unusual not just for the size of the top award, but for the way it's given away. The three finalists -- which also included Brazilian Leonora Mol, of the nonprofit Ateliê de Idéias -- had no idea whom they were dealing with at first.

"Last summer I received a phone call from a man saying he represented an anonymous donor," explained Velasquez. "He said they wanted to make a site visit [to Bolivia]. He said 'This is not a prank.'"

And so, Velasquez escorted a half-dozen mystery guests to the rural villages where Mano a Mano has schools, medical clinics, ponds for farmer irrigation and more. He knew some of the people on tour were from St. Catherine University of St. Paul, including a couple students and staff. But he didn't have a clue about the others until the last day of the trip, when they revealed they were from the Opus Prize Foundation.

"They told us to reserve the date Nov. 8," recalled Velasquez. "At that point, we knew something would happen."

The St. Catherine connection also reflected the unusual nature of the prize. Each year the foundation selects a Catholic university to oversee its nomination process. St. Kate's staff solicited the initial round of 24 nominations and narrowed the field to three. Then it sent students and a staff member abroad to evaluate the finalists and help write the final evaluations to Opus.

Katherine Montenegro was one of two students who visited Bolivia. A nursing student from Ecuador, she had never seen anything like Mano a Mano, much less been asked to evaluate an organization for a possible $1 million prize. The experience wowed her. She hopes to someday bring what she learned in Bolivia to her own country. In the meantime, she hopes to volunteer for Mano a Mano.

"They don't just build a clinic, but they build housing for a doctor or nurse," said Montenegro. "They do the same for schools. And the people in the community are involved in everything. They helped build the schools, the water reservoirs ..."

Stuffed suitcases

Velasquez never set forth to become one of rural Bolivia's biggest benefactors. But he had a brother in Bolivia who was a pediatrician, who frequently asked him to bring medical supplies on his return visits. So about 20 years ago, Velasquez began stuffing his suitcases with stethoscopes, scalpels and other medical tools.

It quickly became apparent that this was grossly insufficient. So in 1994, he incorporated Mano a Mano with his wife, Joan, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Bolivia. Soon their small house became the nonprofit's headquarters, with boxes of surgical gloves, ointments, gauze and more stacked in all corners, and the pool table in the basement converted into the packing area.

"It was hard to sit down and eat dinner with volunteers coming in and out," he recalled. "So we'd join them."

But medical supplies weren't enough if there were no doctors around and little food beyond potatoes and corn. So the organization began building medical clinics, irrigation systems for farmers, and roads for them to bring crops to market.

Much of this was possible because of a $2 million loan that Velasquez received in 2000 from an anonymous donor. (Is there a trend here?) That funded the first 30 clinics. In 2004, that same mystery donor pledged $3.5 million to build another 40 clinics, provided Mano a Mano matched the donation and built another 40.

This year, the final bricks will be laid on that 40th clinic, putting the total number of clinics over 130. The government of Bolivia pays the wages of the medical staff at the clinics, as well as the teachers at the schools.

That arrangement impressed the Opus Prize Foundation, which funds only projects that can be self-sufficient. Said Neureuther: "What's remarkable is that after 10 years all these clinics are still up and running."

But Velasquez, and Mano a Mano executive director Dan Narr, see so much more need. The nonprofit expects to purchase a building and warehouse in St. Paul this month, making room for more volunteers, more medical storage space, and hopefully a new batch of supporters who have come to know about Minnesota's little secret.

Said Velasquez: "We still have so much more to do."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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