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West Jordan Journal

Founder will celebrate his 85th birthday this month, shows no signs of slowing down

Dec 11, 2019 03:09PM ● By Alison Brimley

Mayfield with CHOICE co-founder Dr. Tim Evans. (Courtesy of CHOICE Humanitarian)

By Alison Brimley | [email protected]

He was a Fulbright Scholar in Cairo. He’s studied 16 languages and can converse in six. He’s authored eight books and dozens of articles, traveled the equivalent of 38 times the circumference of the globe and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro at the age of 65. He’s the most interesting man trying to save the world. 

Dr. James Mayfield, who will turn 85 this month, is co-founder of CHOICE Humanitarian. CHOICE is a nonprofit located in West Jordan whose goal is to eliminate extreme poverty across the world. Extreme poverty, as defined by the World Bank, means that an individual lives on less than $1.90 per day. That sum doesn’t just cover food and shelter but everything--utilities, transportation, internet and more. 

To put it in perspective, consider that in the United States, “poverty” is defined as living on less than $34 per day. Chances are you live on much more per day than you realize. 

Eliminating extreme poverty is no small goal, considering that 736 million people across the world fall into that category. But CHOICE works one village at a time. And in many villages, they’ve achieved it.

Refining the expedition model

CHOICE was preceded by another organization, the Andean Children’s Foundation, started by dentist Tim Evans with the goal of bringing clean water to Peruvian villages. Mayfield, then a University of Utah political science professor and expert on village development, joined forces with Evans in 1983. Though CHOICE started with a focus on giving families opportunities to take humanitarian expeditions, they’ve since moved away from that model. It doesn’t allow them to be most effective. 

The term “voluntourism” has a bad rap. If you want to do some good for an overseas community living in poverty, many say, don’t take a humanitarian trip. Take the chunk of change you would have spent on a plane ticket and send it directly to those who need it. In the early years of CHOICE’s operation, Mayfield saw another flaw in the expedition system: Many of the projects completed eventually failed because they were not sustainable. If a volunteer group built a pump or a school, eventually, “the pump wouldn’t work, or the teacher wouldn’t show up,” he said. It became essential to create projects that were spearheaded by the village itself and merely supported by outside volunteers. 

Participant-funded expeditions continue to play a role in CHOICE. Mayfield has come to realize two major benefits to conducting expeditions: First, someone who goes on an expedition is 10 times more likely to send money as a donor in the future. Second, because the villagers themselves appreciate seeing outsiders willing to work with them in their communities. 

“There’s something almost magical about villagers seeing that they’re not alone,” Mayfield said. 

Their model has been refined over the years, and everyone involved has learned through trial and error. Mayfield has years of experience in development, but “he’s constantly willing to change,” said development associate Marissa Bernards. He wants to make sure CHOICE is not “so stuck in our model that we’re not willing to try new things or push the boundary.” 

What’s his secret? 

In 2010, when Mayfield was a sprightly 75, he had retired from teaching at the University of Utah and was ready to pass the baton at CHOICE as well. His wife, he jokes, was certainly ready for him to retire. But an experience he had in Nepal changed his mind. 

CHOICE had helped one village in Nepal to eradicate poverty. Mayfield traveled to Nepal when CHOICE’S in-country director, Bishnu Adhikari, was invited to receive an award. There, the president of Nepal announced that he wanted to support CHOICE, replicating the plan they had implemented in that village in 180 other villages. If successful, this would help bring 9,000 Nepalese out of extreme poverty.

It was an opportunity Mayfield didn’t want to miss out on. So, he kept working, and now, almost 10 years later, he hasn’t stopped. In the last year, Mayfield traveled to Nepal multiple times, staying a month or two on each trip and sleeping on the floor. 

The goal of the pilot program in Nepal was to eliminate poverty in all of these villages in three years. And it did. 

Now, CHOICE members plan to implement that same program in Guatemala. But Mayfield plans to slow down: He’ll travel to Guatemala only a handful of times in 2020. 

Some might suspect Mayfield has discovered the fountain of youth during his globetrotting. His real secret is much less glamorous; it comes from being conscious of his diet and consistent in exercise. He describes himself as “anxious to be healthy,” and walks or runs two to three times per week. He said he’s “very blessed.”

Today, Mayfield isn’t a paid employee of CHOICE, though he continues to come to its West Jordan offices weekly and Skype into meetings often. He remains involved. 

A hand up, not a hand out

Mayfield’s decades of expertise and commitment to effective solutions have been instrumental in creating the model CHOICE uses today. All of their projects are spearheaded by native in-country teams, employed by CHOICE in every country where they work. Those teams, Bernards said, begin their work by going into a village and interviewing every household, asking questions like, “Who do you trust the most?” This helps them find community leaders, because the elected leaders are not always natural leaders.

From there, CHOICE’s teams train individuals to be leaders, emphasizing gender equity. Leaders will hold a town hall where they determine the pressing needs which, if met, would allow their community to rise out of poverty. It might be clean water, a school or something else. Recently Bernards led an expedition that helped construct fish hatcheries, which would add extra protein to villagers’ diets and allow them to raise fish they could sell. Though outside volunteers travel to help with these projects, villagers themselves take the lead by coordinating the worksite and project schedule. 

All of it is done using “appropriate technology,” Bernards said. “We don’t send bricks from the United States. If we’re working in a community where they work with adobe, then we make adobe clay bricks with them because we want it to be sustainable.” 

It’s all part CHOICE’s model, which Mayfield describes as giving “a hand up, not a hand out.”

Looking into the future   

Is it really possible to eliminate extreme poverty? “I’m optimistic,” Mayfield said. He’s not alone. the UN made a goal to end extreme poverty by 2030. Two-hundred years ago, more than 80% of the world lived in extreme poverty. Today, that number has dropped to 10%. 

 “I would really like to see one country be free of extreme poverty, Mayfield said.” It’s something that to this day has never happened. Some of the countries CHOICE focuses on, including Nepal, Guatemala and Peru, are small enough that “it’s realistic.”  

But it doesn’t stop there. With the help of CHOICE or other organizations, a village may graduate from extreme poverty to poverty, but they keep going. 

“We’ve found that when we implement our model, and they get past that $1.90 benchmark, they continually move up,” Bernards says. “They’re continually climbing because they have the opportunities that they need, so a lot of them end up living on more than that as well, above the poverty benchmark.”