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Piedmont’s Lantern Projects continues doing lots with little

Lantern Projects founder Gail Uilkema has no favorites among the nonprofit humanitarian aid organization’s approximately 415 charitable projects. Reaching communities from more than 60 countries in the 17 years since its inception and with charitable donations as of July 2020 amounting to a figure of $1.7 million, the longtime educator, arts supporter and former Piedmont…

Lantern Projects founder Gail Uilkema has no favorites among the nonprofit humanitarian aid organization’s approximately 415 charitable projects. Reaching communities from more than 60 countries in the 17 years since its inception and with charitable donations as of July 2020 amounting to a figure of $1.7 million, the longtime educator, arts supporter and former Piedmont schools superintendent is most proud of something other than Lantern Projects’ impressive numbers.

Instead, Uilkema says in an interview it is the transformational power of do-a-lot-with-a-little projects. This is what causes her to leap into action, and it’s something as simple as a thank-you email from a project leader about a grain milling machine that stirs her heart. With the largest single donation at $67,000, Uilkema boasts primarily about the smallest: a 35-cent donation that bought pencils for students in Kenya.

“My whole purpose was for people to feel comfortable giving any amount. They can see their money makes a difference,” she says.

Lantern Project operates with a small volunteer board of directors to fund projects worldwide. 100% of the tax-deductible donations are directed to projects that provide a variety of goods and materials — from the $10 lanterns that launched the nonprofit in 2003 and allowed students in Kenya to study at night, to LED solar lights in Belize, to chickens and farm equipment in Cameroon, sewing machines in Nepal, furniture for U.S. foster youth, cataract surgery and glasses in Peru to clothing for infants in Oakland safe houses and more.

“My favorite type of project has to do not with the item,” Uilkema says. “The example I use is a project in Cambodia. They wanted bicycles for kids going to high school, and it was too far to walk. We supplied bikes, and the kids had to go to school and maintain decent grades. My favorite part of the project was that on Saturdays, they had to tutor younger kids in the village. Anything that can be tied to a social benefit, that’s really wonderful.”

And the email that resonates? Having procured for her village a milling machine, the message thanked Uilkema for raising the woman’s status.

“She was now seen as someone who gets things done. When she found the funds, solved the problem, was organized and accountable, it raised her profile enough to do other things because she’s now trusted by the elders.”

Trust is vital in the projects that Uilkema carefully selects. She never presumes the needs of a people or community.

“I never say they need bikes, stoves or latrines; they come to me with their needs.”

The approval criteria involve only projects proposed by people she knows directly or through one-step-removed relationships. Any partnerships are conducted exclusively with accountable organizations based in the project community. Because she is active as a docent with the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and with broad-based community groups such as the Rotarians — not to mention her connection in a worldwide network including schools, international clubs, the Mine Action Group, the Peace Corps and others — Uilkema always has her ear to the ground to detect current needs.

Project proposals state four key points: the need, costs, who benefits and the location. Placing the projects in a first-come-first-served queue with an accompanying photo sent by the applicant, projects are rarely bumped out of order; unless a natural disaster such as an earthquake or a tsunami pushes a project to the forefront. As expected, this has been the case with COVID-19. Of the four current projects, three relate to the pandemic. In Afghanistan, men who work as wheelbarrow vendors and women employed as street sweepers are out of work.

“Their livelihoods are gone,” she says. “We give them money for food.” A family of five in the country can be fed for a full week with $15.

In Kenya, $50 rescue packs provide one household with dry foodstuffs for one month. In America’s Navajo Nation, lack of water has created critical needs.

“There is a woman who has organized the delivery of water and hand sanitizer. Just $4 will provide six gallons of water,” she says.

In addition to 100% of donations going to projects, Lantern Projects are unique in that whenever possible, the goods and services are purchased in the project location. The protocol saves shipping costs, and one example demonstrates added benefit: Sewing machines provided to Afghanistan war widows were purchased for $30 instead of the $200 they would have cost if bought and shipped from the United States.

“The models they bought, they had all the right electrical attachments and the knowledge and skill to repair them right there,” Uilkema says. Solar panels sent to a remote area in Tibet are the only items she has had to buy in the United States for a project elsewhere.

Having come up with a remarkably simple initiative that empowers a child with less than a dollar or an adult with only $10 to make a life-changing contribution to the greater good, Uilkema hopes the realities of the pandemic result in a deeper understanding of the connectedness of humanity.

“This isn’t just happening in the U.S., Tanzania or Egypt. We’re all in it economically, socially, emotionally.”

Asked if she anticipated Lantern Projects’ success when that first donation came in, Uilkema says she only knew that $5 meant a project would have $5 more than it had had previously. From there, she adds, people’s generosity “just mushroomed.”

For more details about Lantern Projects, visit lanternprojects.org online.

Lou Fancher is a freelance writer. Contact her at lou@johnsonandfancher.com.

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