Vermont man helps Afghanistan in small ways

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(Host) For the past two years a Vermont man has been traveling to Afghanistan to help in efforts to rebuild the country.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, Jonathan Hoffman is a kind of one-man relief organization operating in a world of large international aid groups.

(Hoffman) “This is the school we built for the girls.” (Sound of girls singing on a video.)

(Zind) The young Afghan girls in Jonathan Hoffman’s video wear bright tribal dresses. They’re standing in front of a green banner with the words “Welcome to Our School” written in English. The ceremony is their way of saying ‘thank you’ to Hoffman. It also marks the opening of a low three-room mud and clay structure that will be a school for 83 girls in this rural area. Their previous school was a tent. The building cost $3,000. It was paid for by money Hoffman raised from donations.

Hoffman is a self-described fry cook who teaches culinary classes at the Essex Technical Center. Words tumble out of the energetic 45-year-old bachelor as he talks about how he’s spent his time off for the past five years. Using small amounts of money donated by a network of supporters, Hoffman has traveled to war torn areas to help people rebuild.

Now he’s about to leave on his third trip to Afghanistan. The Afghan military provides security when it’s needed, but Hoffman says he’s never felt in danger. He says by working independently and using local materials and labor, he’s able to build these small projects faster and for less money that the big aid groups can.

Hoffman says he pays his own expenses and all of the money he raises is used to help people in Afghanistan. He says for his next project he wants to pipe water to the school he funded.

(Hoffman) “Some of these students are walking ten kilometers one way in the middle of the summer in 100-degree heat to get to school, with no source of water once they get there.”

(Zind) Asked if projects like this are too small to make a difference in a country where so much needs to be done, Hoffman retells a story about a man walking along a beach littered with millions of stranded starfish. He picks up a starfish and throws it back into the sea

(Hoffman) “…And this guy walks up to him and goes, ‘What are you doing that for? There’s millions of them and it’s never going to make a difference.’ And as he picks up another one and throws it back into the ocean he says, ‘It does to this one.’ Well, what’s going to happen with those 83 girls and then the other 83 girls who go to that school?”

(Zind) Hoffman has established his own non-profit called Direct Aid International which concentrates on funding educational and agricultural projects. He plans to leave for Afghanistan early next month.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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