Sharing rich blessings from God with the poor
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Joe and Judy Roetheli know what poverty is. Both grew up in humble surroundings: Joe on small farm near Hermann, Mo., and Judy in a small, sand-road town in Florida, where her father worked as a butcher/salesman and her mother ran an in-home daycare plus raised their own five children. Joe, who with his sister, was the first in his family to go past the eighth grade, went on to earn a doctorate in agricultural economics and Judy a degree in education.
photo courtesy of Joe Roetheli
New residents of New Haven Village in Guyana, built through the efforts of Joe and Judy Roetheli’s L’il Red Foundation and Food for the Poor, stand in the clearing near some of the houses. The village was dedicated in Jan. 2010.
Joe worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 18 years while Judy was both homemaker and teacher. They raised two boys, Steffan and Michael. And dogs. Especially Ivan, a dog with acute halitosis, bad breath.
To try and help Ivan combat his bad breath, which made close contact unpleasant for his humans, the Roethelis experimented with different recipes for dog treats that would get rid of the halitosis and taste good, and came up with Greenies®. The family became entrepreneurs in the pet treat business, and Greenies® sold in more than 60 countries. In 2006, Mars, Inc., a worldwide manufacturer of candy, pet food and other food products, and the 6th largest privately-held company in the United States, acquired Greenies®. The proceeds from the sale of the pet treat funded the Roetheli L’il Red Foundation, which had been established in 2003. Judy serves as president of the 501 (c) (3) and Joe is Chief Executive Officer. The name L’il Red is a redundancy, Joe said. His last name, Roetheli, means Little Red.
About the same time, visiting priests at their parish, Holy Family, introduced the Roethelis to Food for the Poor. Joe and Judy and their sons became interested in the international relief organization which feeds 2 million poor people every day. Eventually, the L’il Red Foundation linked up with Food for the Poor, planning to build villages for the poor in Jamaica. Food for the Poor suggested two other countries whose impoverished residents needed better housing, Nicaragua and Haiti, but because of their governments, the Roethelis elected to build in Jamaica. Eighteen months of bureaucratic hassles and roadblocks to the project followed, and they finally gave up and chose Guyana.
Guyana is on the northern coast of South America, bordered by Venezuela, Brazil, Suriname and the Atlantic Ocean. It was originally settled by the Dutch, and then occupied by the British. It obtained its independence from Great Britain in 1966. English is the official language of Guyana, the only English speaking country in South America.
The country is about the size of Kansas, with a population of about 750,000 compared to 2.8 million in the Midwestern state. The average per capita income in Guyana is about $1,200, while in Kansas the average income is more than $28,000. Yes, the Roethelis were no strangers to the challenges of being poor, but not like in Guyana.
According to Joe Roetheli, there are about as many people of Guyanese descent living in the U.S. as there are in Guyana. Most of the Guyanese are descendents of slaves, about 50 percent East Indian, 36 percent African and 7 percent AmerIndian. The remaining 7 percent are white, or of mixed race. About 8.1 percent of the population is Catholic.
Rivers flow through much of the country, the third smallest in South America, and water covers about 11 percent of the land. One of the major rivers, the Escondido, is about 17 miles across and 90 feet deep in places. Only 2.23 percent of the land is arable, and 75 percent of that is owned by the Guyanese government, which divided the country into regions. Hardwood jungle takes up the majority of the land. The country is rich in natural resources — diamonds, jasper, hardwood, bauxite aluminum ore and shrimp — again mostly under government control.
Many of the poorer residents of Guyana are gatherers — fruit and fish — and, Roetheli said, there is no safety net. “You either find food or you die,” he explained.
“The first village in Guyana was a direct God-driven project,” Joe said. They were able to get land for the village donated in Region 2, and with willing help from volunteers from Food for the Poor, the L’il Red Foundation and native Guyanese, the project was started on Oct. 4, 2008. Spurred on with the help of Ali Baskh, the chairman of Region 2, it was completed five months later, in March 2009. The village, named L’il Red Village, is home to about 600 people and consists of 100 houses, a school, two stores, a library, computer center and gardening area. A community center doubles as a worship center. Recently a 200-ft deep well, named Isaac after a Roetheli grandson, was dug to ensure safe drinking water and a water tower for its storage was erected. While there is no electricity yet, each house has its own sanitation block and shower.
Food for the Poor now manages in-country services for the L’il Red Foundation.
Later that year, the Guyanese government again donated land for a second village to be built with labor and donated materials from L’il Red Foundation and Food for the Poor. Region 2 chairman Ali Baskh showed the land to representatives from Food for the Poor on Oct. 4, the same date the L’il Red Village was started. The proposed village — to be named New Haven — was provided 40 acres of dense jungle reachable only by a 35-minute speed boat trip or 4 ½ hours by ferry. How were they to get the land cleared and the materials to the site in time to even start the project by the onset of the second rainy season of the year, in November?
“No problem,” said the soon-to-be residents. With axes and machetes, the people converged on the jungle and began clearing the site. Within a short time, with the aid of a borrowed chainsaw, they had cleared the 40 acres.
A second major problem soon reared its ugly head. The New Haven site is accessible only by small boats, which were not big or strong enough to transport all the building materials. Then an old man told them of a seldom used old 32-mile long Indian trail that stopped a few miles short of the site but would enable the volunteers and builders to get the materials to the New Haven acreage.
Again God drove the project, Joe Roetheli said. In just seven weeks, New Haven Village was built and families moved into its 70 homes. The village also has a store. Like L’il Red Village, the new village’s name has personal meaning for Joe and Judy: a granddaughter is named Haevyn, and the town of New Haven, Mo., is about 15 miles from Hermann, where Joe grew up. The village is also a new haven for the people who live there, he said. Joe and his son Michael, along with a friend from Holy Family Parish, Bob Meyers, traveled to Guyana in January to celebrate the ribbon cutting ceremony with Leon Davis, executive director of Food for the Poor in Guyana, Ali Baskh, the region’s chairman, and, of course, the people.
Both villages are on the eastern side of Guyana, Roetheli said, and paved roads are few and far between. In fact, he said, outside of Georgetown, its capital city, Guyana boasts only 550 miles of paved road. During the rainy seasons, the dirt roads and footpaths become nearly impassable. Water can rise rapidly due to flash floods; the Dutch settled Guyana and, Joe said, “built dykes like crazy to hold back the water.” Outside of Georgetown, however, including in L’il Red and New Haven villages, homes and other buildings are built on stilts. In New Haven, the creek that flows to it is tidal influenced. At low tide no boats can navigate it, at high tide, especially during the rainy seasons, the creek can overflow.
“We are working to get microenterprises in the two villages,” Joe said. “Their primary diet is chicken, rice and beans. So we thought maybe a small chicken farm and processing plant. Some of the women sew a lot, so maybe a dressmaking firm with a couple of sewing machines, and maybe a portable saw mill so they could make their own lumber.
“We need markets for the products to give the people a source of income.” Joe hopes to return to Guyana in the not too distant future with markets for microenterprise products and get them started.
Back home, the Roethelis are involved in a number of foundation-focused projects.
Judy works closely with the pet therapy component of the foundation, and Pets for Life, helping to bring pets to the elderly in nursing homes and to the hospitalized. Other areas the foundation focuses on include housing and education for the poor overseas, especially Guyana; helping budding entrepreneurs through the University of Missouri at both the Columbia and Kansas City campuses, Park University, Benedictine College and St. Mary’s University. They have translated from French to English two books written by Swiss cousins Serge and Nicole Roetheli, and are working on the productions of several inspirational documentaries.
They also enjoy spending time with their grandchildren.
Joe said that the venture into Guyana to build the L’il Red and New Haven villages was a giving back — serving others, especially the needy and the elderly through God’s rich blessings. God has been driving our projects, he said.