Facebook Twitter

Liberated by hope

Returned Filipino missionaries learn business skills to improve lives

SHARE Liberated by hope

Narciso Magno lives on the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines. After serving in one of the 13 missions in the Philippines, he returned home and earned $75 a month selling oranges and fish to his neighbors. With a barely liveable income, he married civilly, hoping and praying to someday afford the 36-hour boat ride to Manila where he and his wife could be sealed in the temple.

The Mangos' first child was born a year later. Soon Brother Mango was called as branch president in his rural area. Life was promising for the family until Brother Mango's wife became ill. Her affliction wasn't life threatening, but medical expenses exhausted their resources and business capital.

Unable to buy oranges or fish, Brother Mango, now 27, was no longer able to provide for his family. Circumstances were growing desperate. A few days after praying for guidance, he learned of the Academy for Creating Enterprise. He became interested in its aim to help returned missionaries become self-reliant by learning and applying entrepreneurial principles.

In his application to the academy, he noted that not one of his 137 members was gainfully employed. Attending the academy, he said, would not only teach him to provide for his family, but also enable him to help his branch members.

"We were thrilled with the kind of student he was," said Stephen W. Gibson, co-founder of the academy with his wife, Bette. "He was eager and bright. He was early to class every day for eight weeks and sat on the front row taking careful notes while being actively involved in discussions."

At one point during the course, as Brother Mango was creating a business plan, he thoughtfully considered his personal, family and business goals and then wrote them on paper. With this list in front of him, he knelt next to his bed in prayer. He arose to make changes, then repeated the process several times before he was comfortable with his plan.

He returned home after completing the course and immediately applied what he had learned. Within several months, he earned 11,000 pesos, or $220 in one month. The next month his wife and two children took the 36-hour boat ride to Manila where they were sealed in the temple.

He has purchased a used motorcycle with a side car to carry his merchandise, and has future plans of buying another motorcycle and hiring a second employee. He works five days a week and devotes Saturdays to teaching business principles to his branch members.

"My dream," he said, quoting a theme emphasized at the academy, "is not to die in poverty, but to have poverty die in me."

Filipino missionaries face grave challenges upon their return home, said Brother Gibson. In a country where 49 percent of the general population lives below the poverty level, 69 percent of the nearly 500,000 Church members live in poverty.

After serving honorably for two years and acquiring the discipline and goal setting abilities of missionary work, continued Brother Gibson, missionaries return to circumstances of very limited opportunity. In the process of working long hours with meager returns, some become disheartened and easily fall into professional and Church inactivity.

"Returned Filipino missionaries are articulate, educated, but many have no money to pay for bus fare to attend Church," said Sister Gibson. With 750 missionaries being released every year in the Philippines, a sense of restless ambition exists among missionaries who are returning home having gained exposure to the world. "The timing was right for the academy," he said. "Returned missionaries are willing to work their hearts out. They just need a ladder to help them climb out of their poor circumstances."

The desire on the part of the Gibsons to create an academy through which students could be taught correct business principles, as well as receive financial assistance, stemmed from their entrepreneurial background and their love for the Filipinos.

Brother Gibson, an accomplished entrepreneur who volunteers at the Center for Entrepreneurship at Brigham Young University's School of Management, became concerned for their plight after traveling to the Philippines every nine months for five years as a volunteer for a non-profit foundation.

"I felt in that work I was serving all of Heavenly Father's children," said Brother Gibson about his efforts to teach entrepreneurial skills to the general public. "But I quickly recognized on my trips a growing problem among returned missionaries. Being an entrepreneur and having spent a lifetime changing problems into opportunities, I gathered materials and wrote a curriculum in hopes that we could one day follow our dream of teaching Filipino returned missionaries how to start and grow businesses.

"Opportunities for many members in Third World countries lie in creating self-employment," continued Brother Gibson, "since there are no jobs for the majority of those classes of people that tend to join the Church in these countries. They just need to be taught a few basic business techniques and their income will rise far beyond a survival level."

After much prayerful consideration and lengthy discussions, the Gibsons took a leap of faith into the unknown. They packed nine suitcases and loaded 13 boxes of books and training material and 10 laptop computers, then locked the doors on their home in the Edgemont 11th Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont South Stake.

They arrived in Cebu, Philippines, during the second week in November 1999. They had no place to live, no place to hold the academy and no students. But they had faith that after exerting their best effort, the Lord would provide. With the help of the Church Educational System, they began circulating academy applications among stake presidents and bishops.

After some investigation, they learned from a former Cebu stake president of a 12-bedroom house with seven bathrooms, two kitchens and a large living room that was remodeled into a training center.

Once the building was leased, concerns turned to preparing 5,310 meals needed to feed 25 students three times a day during each eight-week residential session. The home also needed to be furnished with bunk beds and bedding, tables, chairs, blackboards and other items before the first session was to begin Jan. 10, less than two months after they arrived.

"You can imagine how prayerful we were," Sister Gibson said.

Shortly after leasing the house, the Gibsons began daily treks to the post office to gather applications. Day after day they found nothing. Then one day two applications arrived, then four, then six.

"The taxi cab driver was confused at our joy one day as I ripped open 11 applications and read them with tear-filled eyes," Brother Gibson said. "The applicants were so wonderful, but sad in a way as they poured out their frustrations and problems in trying to survive temporally and spiritually without hope for the future. About six weeks after arriving, we had 95 applications from which we chose the first 25 to attend the first class."

From that class, two graduates were hired who were then trained to become teachers at the academy. "We knew the wisest thing we could do was train the Filipinos to take over leadership of the academy after we left," said Sister Gibson.

Since then, 172 students have graduated with another 25 currently attending. Almost two-thirds of the graduates are now gainfully employed or working in businesses they've launched. Returned missionaries from more than 50 of the 75 stakes have been accepted.

The Gibsons returned home in May 2001 after 18 1/2 months in the Philippines. "The thrilling thing for us is that the academy continues," said Sister Gibson.

"The experience of working with faithful returned missionaries has exceeded our expectations," said Brother Gibson. "We have made eternal friendships with hundreds of Chinese and Filipinos living all over the Philippines.

"We strongly believe that a key to self-reliance and having an abundant life for Church members in Third World countries is found in their working for themselves in small, micro-enterprise businesses, many of which initially are no more than a table or a blanket and buying and selling small fruits, vegetables, trinkets or handicrafts."

"Returned missionaries in the Philippines have progressed about as far as they can until the temporal aspect of their lives is brought into balance with the spiritual," Sister Gibson said.

"They are eager to do something about their circumstances but are often helpless. They face the added battle of overcoming the cultural attitude of the country which condones poverty and doesn't encourage entrepreneurship," she said.

"The academy creates a shift in their thinking. They no longer accept circumstances as they are, but learn that action on their part will improve the quality of their lives."

On the first day of class, for instance, students are taken to various open markets around Cebu. They are organized in companionships and knock on business doors, much like they did as missionaries. They ask the owners why they got into business, how they keep records and how they got started.

"All of a sudden," said Brother Gibson, "students feel empowered. They learn the good and bad practices of business owners and come back to the academy that first night believing they can operate a business too."

"We're finding that academy graduates are being called to leadership positions in the Church. They can now provide for their families in less time and have more time to serve," she said.

In the first group of applicants, the average age was 25.8 years. Seventeen had no jobs, even though 13 had four-year degrees from college. Three male students had degrees in nursing, while two returned sister missionaries had degrees in pharmacy. They were trained, but needed to be taught how to use their training to make a living.

The academy is funded by a charitable foundation principally financed by the Gibsons. "Our hope with the academy," said Brother Gibson, "is to create something of value, that lasts and multiplies.

"The thrilling thing for us is that it continues under Filipino leadership," he said.

For more information about the academy contact Stephen Gibson at GibSW@aol.com or write to: Called2Serve Foundation, 1095 Mountain Ridge Road, Provo, Utah, 84604.