In the latest chapter of our Look for the Helpers series, we’re taking a look at another of PRUMC’s global mission partners: International Support for Georgian Youth (ISGY), which is working to break the cycle of generational poverty in the Imereti region of the Country of Georgia. In addition to its Sponsor a Child program, which provides food, medicine and clothing to children, ISGY is working to provide vocational training programs that will truly help Georgian youth become self-sustaining and have hope for a better future.
We spoke with PRUMC member and ISGY founder Lynn Banks, who has shepherded the cause of Georgian children since her first mission trip there more than 20 years ago. Here’s what she told us about Georgia and how you have continued to help during the pandemic.
What has the pandemic meant for daily life in Georgia?
Oh my. It’s made an already challenging existence so much more difficult. They have no significant health care system, so they just immediately shut the country down, including most of the government itself, which was their only choice. That meant there was no transportation. No one was allowed to leave their home. I mean, you are not allowed to leave without penalty and fine in some cities. Things are really quite desperate economically, because in normal times unemployment is 70%, give or take; now it’s well over 90%. Think about this: a pension for an older person is the equivalent of about $50 a month. That’s for food, medicine, living expenses, everything.
The good news is that the government has done a good job of managing the pandemic itself. They’ve been doing tracking and strict quarantines. If someone is found to have been positive, they quarantine the whole village. As a result they’ve kept cases and deaths low [as of mid-June, approximately 15 deaths in a population of 3.7 million].
How are the children and youth you help being affected? Are you still able to help?
Of course, the pandemic and lockdown everywhere meant that our team couldn’t make our scheduled mission trip there in May (we also won’t be going in October). And that’s not only because of the shut-down of travel but because our work takes place inside the schools we support, and all schools were completely shut down at the beginning of March.
That’s hard for these kids in so many ways, but one of our most immediate concerns was food. Thanks to Sponsor a Child, all of our students were receiving a hot lunch every day at school. Suddenly their one guaranteed, nutritious meal each day was gone. Also, they cannot learn remotely the way we have adopted here, because they don’t have electricity, or computers or books. So education pretty much stopped for them on March 1. And, we are concerned about them financially – the students and their families, the teachers and all the staff there. Some of these people may have a little plot of land on which to grow fruits and vegetables, but they have no money.
So we had to find a way to help that was very different from what we’d done before.
What did you come up with, given all of these limitations?
Well, one component of Sponsor a Child is nutritious food, right? So we decided to take those moneys and other money from private donors and start a monthly food distribution to every student family and to the teachers and staff at our schools. That includes the laundry lady, the kitchen staff if they have it, the guard, everybody. It turned out to be about 300 families. The Georgians named it Project Hope and Love.
We started in March, and it has been a challenge! We’d never have been able to make it work without Vaso Natroshvili, who works for us and is our “feet on the ground” there. You’d think we could just order, say, flour and sugar in certain quantities for each household. Nope. We had to find contractors, who sell us our food in bulk, and then Vaso and one of our school directors take in all of the food that’s delivered and divide it up into measured portions for each family. That first month, we provided each family with three kilograms of flour and sugar, three liters of oil and five kilograms of beans, and we continued each month through May. In June we were able to find and purchase pasta, so each family also got five kilograms of pasta. Food is extraordinarily expensive there, in part because their currency is plummeting as the economy does. These items, once a month, for 300 families, are costing us 8,500 U.S. dollars. We’re fortunate that we have U.S. dollars to spend, which go further.
Now, remember that the government has shut down and there’s no transportation. Also, Vaso lives in one of the cities where you get a penalty and fine for leaving your home. So how do we deliver this food to all of these families? Vaso got special dispensation from the local government for two days each month in which he could do all of this. Just two days! So this is a mammoth effort and requires a lot of organization, with people staggered in time slots to come out in front of their homes or along the main road to pick up, all abiding by government regulations. [Note: ISGY has recently gotten permission to deliver food directly to any family not within walking distance of the schools.]
The other aid we can give is to support any medical emergency with a child in our schools. We would arrange for their care with Vaso’s help. Luckily we haven’t had anything related to the pandemic, though we did have a girl who had a blood disorder and we paid for her treatments.
Where do things stand going forward?
We’re in a waiting mode. We just do not know, so we maintain the hope. We have enough money left for July and August deliveries with Project Hope and Love. I am so grateful that we were able to hold Sponsor a Child at PRUMC in February. The church schedules the event, and had it been scheduled for April we would have been closed and ISGY would have had much less money for this. And we’re so grateful for our sponsors, many of whom have given extra money for Project Hope and Love. Vaso and Tamuna Grigolia, who oversees all of the logistics of our operations, have told me repeatedly that this effort is saving lives.
Our hopes are that there will be a vaccine available by the end of May 2021 so that we could go back. I’ll be lining up for the first shot! I should probably point out, though, that I’m speaking on behalf of the team as individuals, our hearts. We certainly wouldn’t do anything foolish, and we wouldn’t want to take anything into their country when they’ve been so successful at keeping their case numbers low. The numbers have started increasing as they’ve opened up a little, and the government is now considering not starting school in September. We hope that won’t be required.
This has long been a very personal cause for you, hasn’t it?
Oh, yes. We’re in our 21st year of doing this. Around 150 people have gone over as part of our teams over all of those years. This is a long-term commitment, and we have long-term relationships with these families and our staff. The only time we’ve ever cancelled before was back in 2008, when there was a brief war.
As hard as it is for all of the people struggling in America, our country has food banks, churches, nonprofits of all kinds. We’re a giving country and one with resources. Georgia has none of that. There are no other agencies that are doing relief in this region, no other teams that ever go in. There’s no food bank. They have an Orthodox church, but it doesn’t have money. That’s why, when people ask me, “Why do you go there, go that far?”, I say, “Because they have no one else”.