Oct. 11, 1996
Professor Helps Nicaraguans Help Themselves
by Ellie Walradth
UW-RF News Bureau
When a local professor found out that people in Wisconsin were making a difference in people's lives in Nicaragua as they responded to an earthquake, he knew he wanted to help.
UW-River Falls Professor Tony Jilek of the animal and food science department returned last month from his seventh trip to Nicaragua. Jilek has been volunteering his time, expertise and dedication to improving the lives of Nicaraguans in a Wisconsin partnership program for almost 16 years.
"It is a great feeling to be recognized as a friend in these countries. It is like watching your own kids grow and develop; when they accomplish certain things, you take some personal satisfaction in being a part of it."
Jilek is now president of the Wisconsin chapter of Partners of the Americas, a non-profit organization formed in the early 1960s that links regions in the United States to areas in Latin America. Volunteers assist in economic and social development and training, while fostering inter-American friendship.
Partners volunteers carry out development projects in areas such as agricultural development, natural resources management, environmental conservation, child health and nutrition, vocational training for disadvantaged groups, emergency preparedness and drug abuse prevention.
The Farmer-to-Farmer project-in Jilek's area of expertise-is designed to promote agricultural development and allows agriculturalists to share technology. The Farmer-to-Farmer committee recently selected several projects to pursue over the next five years.
"Many of these projects deal with the business end of agriculture," Jilek said. "At the moment, the biggest thing they need is technical assistance."
As an illustration, Jilek points to their latest projects involving a small cooperative that has just begun raising, harvesting and processing a biological pesticide produced by a Nim tree. This organic pesticide, which protects plants from insects and diseases, is being sold and marketed by other suppliers in the United States.
"This cooperative is sitting on a big business deal, but they don't know how to run it as a business," Jilek said.
The Partners' goal is to work with these producer groups to help them become more productive and to improve their quality of life through advanced business management techniques, Jilek said.
Nicaraguans are willing to work, but they lack knowledge on the best ways of doing things. "If we could just improve their business skills so they could have a better quality of life, we would consider the project successful."
The Partners committee meets on a quarterly basis to determine how they will utilize their resources and contacts to help Nicaraguans help themselves. "There are a tremendous number of well-qualified people in Wisconsin who could provide the needed technical assistance to people in Nicaragua-there are some top people in agriculture in Wisconsin," Jilek said. Partners often works through UW-RF and its Extension office to network with other volunteers.
As Partners president, Jilek wore many hats in Nicaragua during his last visit. He toured several cooperative sewing centers and was greeted by gifts, welcomed with parties and treated like a family member.
"It is really rewarding and it humbles you: getting gifts from people who have less than you do. They are so willing to give when they have so little."
After visiting one of the sewing centers, Jilek said, he will never forget a student from a university who traveled 150 miles to see him. "There were four or five instances like this where I was treated like a family member coming home," Jilek said. "It really tugs at your heartstrings."
Jilek's interest in the welfare of Nicaragua was sparked when he taught and lived there with his family in 1971-72. After an earthquake in 1972, the professor remembers supplies being sent to Managua from the United States. Later he found out that these supplies were sent by Wisconsin Partners. "At that time, I started working with Partners to help," Jilek said.
Jilek encourages anyone interested in helping with the Partners program to call 715/346-4702.