I certainly graduated from VLS with the sensibility that there was nothing I couldn’t do.”
When Carolyn Tonelli retired last year, she headed south. Instead of plans for R&R, she packed inspiration from a Bangladeshi economist, $12,000 she’d raised from friends, her fledgling Spanish, and a desire to help Ecuadorian women build financial self-sufficiency. Tonelli’s Randolph, Vermont church has contacts in the Andean village of San Cristóbal, so it was there and in nearby Cuenca, Ecuador’s third-largest city, she began her next phase of life.
Years of activity in Randolph’s local economic development, and her study of 2006 Nobel Peace Laureate Mohammed Yunus’s micro-credit system convinced Tonelli that local projects could combat poverty: “San Cristóbal already had a development mentality,” she says, crediting her church’s colleagues there. “They just needed the capital.”
Taking her direction from the local women’s decisions about their needs, Tonelli helped establish a village microcredit bank and a commercial laundry at a Cuenca shelter for battered women and their children. With many men working in the U.S. or elsewhere, “All along, the women made the decisions,” Tonelli recalls, “which was absolutely essential to their success. My goal was that by the time I left, they wouldn’t need me.”
Tonelli divided her funds between the two projects, which were vastly different. “Ecuador had a good history of community banks. In the village, everyone knew each other and could make personal guarantees for the loans.” The rural women used the money to buy and raise chickens and guinea pigs to sell and to set up sewing businesses to make the traditional embroidered skirts the women wear. None of that social capital existed at Casa Maria, however, where the urban environment and strained personal histories meant that trust came hard. “These 15 women had never worked collaboratively, they had no skills, and they lived together 24 hours a day.” Tonelli notes. Her cash bought washers and dryers (rare in Ecuador), funded repairs, paid the women’s salaries, and started a small loan fund for “alumnae.” Still, there were disputes that weekly meetings with staff couldn’t quite dampen. “Two-thirds of the way in, I was so discouraged at the women’s squabbling. But the director told me, ‘You have no idea of the before and after. These women had no prospects, and now each one knows what she plans to do when she leaves here.’” Those prospects included opening bakeries, beauty salons, and other small businesses.
Tonelli describes her year there as “emotionally excruciating,” given her language limitations and the newness of everything. Her grown daughter’s reaction while visiting changed from “You are so out of your mind,” to “This is really good for you—you can’t be the authority on anything!” Tonelli wasn’t involved in legal work, but was grateful for her legal experience: “It gives you a breadth of confidence. I could understand legal systems and could learn the mechanisms quickly, even with the language limitations.” She adds, “Because I was a lawyer, I had credibility (unfortunately or fortunately). And I certainly graduated from VLS with the sensibility that there was nothing I couldn’t do.”
That sensibility was contagious: The San Cristóbal women have built their loan fund from $5,000 to $8,000. The laundry business continues, and has made its first loan to a woman leaving the shelter and starting a business. Tonelli will return every year, she says. She loves the people, their lively indigenous/Latin culture, the work, and, she adds, “It transformed me personally.”