When Mike Deboski, an independent insurance advisor in Edmonton, first travelled to Mufumya, a community in the southeast African country of Burundi, he was immediately struck by the sense of determination among the local people. Despite the abject poverty that pervades the region, Deboski says, local leaders had ambitious goals for the community.

“There was leadership in place that had a vision for the community,” Deboski says. “They could articulate that well, and they had strategies as to how that might come about.”

That ambition was one factor that inspired Deboski, owner of Deboski & Co., to begin devoting much of his spare time to development efforts in Mufumya. The impoverished community of about 4,000, located in the province of Kayanza, has no electricity, no running water and no medical facilities. In fact, half of the population of the province cannot meet the daily caloric requirements for a healthy lifestyle. “There was significant need and very evident poverty,” says Deboski, 64.

Deboski first visited Mufumya in 2006, as part of a volunteer trip with Food for the Hungry (FH) – a religious organization dedicated to emergency relief and long-term development in impoverished communities around the world. FH already had initiated development efforts in Mufumya, and Deboski recognized the need for further support. He persuaded his church to partner with Mufumya through an FH program called Community To Community (C2C).

Deboski has been actively involved with FH for several years. He has served on the board of the charitable organization, including a stint as chairman from 2006 to 2009. Having always been unsettled by the injustices in the world, he felt inclined to find a way of helping the less fortunate – and FH’s international development efforts immediately resonated with him.

“It’s just part of my DNA,” he says. “I’ve grown up with a sensitivity to injustices, and those in impoverished situations.”

Under the C2C program, a Canadian community provides assistance to a community in the developing world through measures such as financial aid, child sponsorship and assistance with hands-on projects during visits to the developing community.

“The objective is,” Deboski says, “within an eight- or 10-year period, that the community actually becomes self-sufficient.”

In order for the program to have a successful long-term impact, Deboski says, leaders within the developing community must demonstrate the willingness to play an active role in the pursuit of change. That’s a key reason he is so encouraged by the high level of enthusiasm among the locals in Mufumya.

“The engagement starts with the leaders in the community,” Deboski says. “They must have a desire among themselves to become self-sustaining.”

Deboski has visited Mufumya four times since his initial visit, and he’s observed substantial improvement in conditions in the region each time he has returned. Specifically, the C2C initiative has led to the construction of a new school; another project currently underway will bring water into the community from a mountain spring about 15 kilometres away.

Deboski and the other volunteers have contributed to the construction of those projects during their visits to Mufumya. However, most of the hands-on work has been conducted by the locals themselves.

Deboski also has witnessed gradual improvements in the broader well-being of Mufumya’s residents. Deboski is particularly encouraged by the success of an initiative in which FH volunteers educate small groups of local women on matters such as nutrition, gardening, sanitation and health. Those women then share their knowledge with other families in the community.

The result has been the improved ability among local women to take care of themselves and their families. That progression has been rewarding to watch, Deboski says: “Their enthusiasm about what they’re learning, and the results they’re seeing in their lives, has been quite overwhelming.”

Despite the improvements, the residents of Mufumya have a long way to go in improving their standard of living.

In fact, witnessing their daily hardships – and contrasting those conditions with the luxuries that Canadians tend to take for granted – certainly puts things into perspective, Deboski says. Even after having visited Mufumya multiple times, he still struggles to fathom how difficult life must be for residents there.

“When you’re just there for a short time,” he says, “you just get a picture of the hardships and the issues and the struggles of their day-to-day lives. But I can’t say you really experience it.”

Deboski finds the poverty most striking in the schools, where each class is composed of as many as 80 to 100 students. In many cases, he says, a single desk, notebook and pencil are shared by up to four students.

Despite the crowded conditions, the students’ desire to learn – and the teachers’ motivation to teach – is unwavering, Deboski says: “The teachers have the same kind of desire and passion that a teacher would here in Canada. However, in seeing the lack of tools that they have… you see such a vast difference. It’s two different worlds.”

Deboski is inspired continually by the steadfast spirit of the people in Mufumya. Although Deboski’s trips to Africa are largely about educating the locals in methods of improving their quality of life, he finds himself learning important lessons from Mufumya’s residents. For example, Deboski says, the value of teamwork and co-operation is abundantly clear in Mufumya: “They teach us a lot about the sense of community. Individualism is just not apparent. It’s a community life.”

Deboski also admires the generosity of the people of Mufumya. Each time visitors arrive, the community welcomes them with open arms. Says Deboski: “They’re overwhelmingly hospitable. They’re very generous with the meagre things they have.”

Deboski carries these lessons back into his day-to-day life each time he returns from Mufumya. For him, everyday life involves advising business owners and professionals regarding life insurance and advanced financial planning needs. (He kicked off his career in the insurance industry in the mid-1980s as a career agent with Equitable Life Insurance Co. of Canada, then launched his own company five years later.)

Beyond Deboski’s involvement with FH, his life outside of work largely revolves around his family; he and his wife of 40 years have three grown children and seven grandchildren.

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