Ken likes people. And he especially likes to know that he has helped them achieve their goals for a better life. A founding member of the Quaker Bolivia Link board, Ken has been helping people in a variety of ways all his adult life. Born in England, he got involved with the Society of Friends (Quakers) while in his thirties when he attended his first meeting at Birkenhead, a shipbuilding town across the River Mersey from Liverpool. “I liked their simplicity and their emphasis on good works,” he says. For 27 years he taught grades 3-6 in the Liverpool system. In between times, on summer vacations and school holidays, he worked as a volunteer for Amnesty International, serving as national AI coordinator for Colombia, Ecuador and Peru from 1985 to 1990. He traveled to Colombia and Ecuador at this time to build contacts with human rights groups there.
At the Quaker World Conference in Honduras in 1991, he met another teacher, Pam Jeffery, from the Baltimore Yearly Meeting in the U.S. The two were married two years later, honeymooning in Bolivia. Moved by the beauty of the land, the friendly nature of the indigenous Aymara people and the tremendous poverty of this land-locked South American nation, the couple returned to England to organize a tour for twenty fellow Quakers, and on their return the group founded QBL .“We were just lucky,” he recalls. “We sat down around a table in Warwick meeting house, and within an hour, we had set up an organization.”
During the first four years, the group made a lot of mistakes because they were not experts in setting up water systems and greenhouses, Ken confesses, but they learned from their mistakes and hired four local “technicos” from the University in La Paz to oversee their projects. After that, “people came out of the woodwork” to request projects for their villages. Just as they were returning home once a man even ran out to their plane on the runway to bring a proposal.
QBL has had a British board since its inception and an American Board since Ken and Pam moved to the U.S., in 1999. About 10 years ago, QBL also set up a Bolivian board, which takes requests and provides input, technical expertise and on-the-spot supervision. Robert Vincent, American Director of Projects for QBL with extensive experience in Latin America, makes frequent site visits and reports back to the board on a regular basis.
Although QBL was founded by Quakers and receives support from over 170 Quaker congregations in the U.S. and Britain, Ireland and Germany. It does not evangelize; the organization limits its work to engineering, agricultural and economic projects initiated by the people in small villages on the Bolivian Altiplano (high plains over 12,000 feet above sea level). Non-Quakers are represented on the QBL board and among the organization’s growing number of supporters.
Asked why he chose to help people so far from the land of his birth and his adopted country (he became a U.S. citizen in 2007), Ken replies, “Poverty knows no boundaries. Bolivia is the poorest country in S. America. The average income there is one-fifth that of the average income in Mexico.” But thanks to Ken and his wife Pam’s vision–as well as the QBL board members, numerous supporters, and the indigenous people who contribute hard labor to projects—several thousand villagers in the Bolivian Altiplano are enjoying better health and more time away from back-breaking labor in which they can acquire an education and work toward an improved standard of living for their communities.
Editor’s note: Although Ken says poverty knows no boundaries, soccer is a different story: “I was actually born in Manchester, but I don’t admit to it,” he says with an impish grin. Having lived in Liverpool for a major portion of his adult life, he is firmly on the side of that city’s team Everton in the famous Liverpool/Manchester rivalry.