Richard Schopfer's house is tucked quietly away on a dead-end street in suburban Bethesda. Inside it is roomy and stylish, reflective of a man who had spent a good part of his life as a home builder in Montgomery County.
This was Schopfer's final project before he began a new career, one that is centered in his home but that he hopes will aid those in need around the world. In 1980, he retired from his business and founded the Alliance for Communities in Action, a small, volunteer-powered organization that has come to dominate his family's life.
The alliance is a nonprofit organization that links groups and individuals here to self-help projects in economically disadvantaged communities in Latin America. Today, the organization boasts an annual budget nearing $800,000 and intensive programs that focus on projects in housing, agriculture, potable water and health. Its largest projects are in Nicaragua and Bolivia.
The alliance secures funds and appropriate technology for these projects and then works with the Latin communities and other groups to implement them. Schopfer, 58, and other alliance members have worked with a variety of groups, including the Red Cross, the Maryknolls, the Mennonites and Central American University.
"The alliance shows that something can be done to help those in need," said the Rev. William Boteler, superior general of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in New York. "Instead of just complaining, they are working, helping people take control of their communities and regain lost pride and self-confidence."
Schopfer is adamant that the alliance is apolitical.
"We are not a political organization," he said. "Our objective is to help the poor, the marginalized."
Besides Schopfer, who is executive director, there are five others who comprise the alliance's executive board, including Schopfer's wife, Barbara, who serves as treasurer, and their son Don, who is director of development.
There also is a core group of 10 other volunteers who range from active professionals to retired workers. No one in the organization receives a salary.
The alliance's funding comes from a combination of individual contributions and grants solicited from private foundations.
The Schopfers' basement is the alliance nerve center. Beneath fluorescent lights are papers stacked high on a ping pong table and shelves bursting with books and notes.
The founding of the alliance was an outgrowth of Schopfer's experiences in Chile.
In 1960, he and his family moved there to work on a series of community development projects with a Catholic lay missionary group called Association for International Development before returning to Bethesda in 1966.
In Chile, "I saw that the poor had great desire and inherent ability," said Schopfer. "They were just lacking certain resources and I wanted to find a way to get these resources to them."
The first project was quite modest. In 1981, the alliance was invited by the Maryknoll missionaries to provide funds and construction expertise to convert a firehouse into a medical clinic in Nicaragua.
"We raised a few thousand dollars, which did a lot in terms of what it could buy, to renovate the building," Schopfer said.
"We restructured the inside, building walls to create waiting and examination rooms, and we also provided the facility with medical supplies."
Don Schopfer, who estimated that all three family members average more than 10 hours a day working for the alliance, said, "I get a lot of satisfaction in seeing change in people's lives. I'm committed to continuing this kind of work because there is such tremendous need throughout the world, and while we can't tackle the problems of the world, what little bit we can do makes a big difference."
The alliance work is divided into four programs:
The Food for Families program is designed to provide technical assistance, seed, fertilizers and tools for farming. But it also provides education on how to set up a revolving fund for a future self-sustained food production system. About 450 families have worked to grow basic food staples to feed more than 4,000 people under help from the program. This year's program is still in search of funding.
The Techo Rooftops program has provided shelter for many who would otherwise not have it, including families displaced by war and natural calamity. Under this program, 40 homes have been built and 170 have been renovated.
The water program, Agua Pura, provides funds and tools to build low cost wells so that the people can have pure water. Further, local people are trained to do the work so that they are employed and, in turn, they continue increasing the supply of pure water. Schopfer estimates that 15,000 people have been helped by this project.
The Alliance Health program is as wide and varied as is the problem of disease and deficiency in many of the Latin American communities. People suffer from parasites, blindness, skin diseases and infections that often go untreated and turn fatal. This program has reached 10 communities, Schopfer said, with an average of 2,000 people in each community.
Along with providing medicine and treatment, "we emphasize health education taught to the community by community members," said physician Richard Bissell of Greenbelt, an alliance member since 1983. Bissell and his wife, Robin, also a doctor and alliance volunteer, said that the group is a good way for people living in communities such as Bethesda to become active in the world scene.
Today, the Bissells head the alliance health program and maintain full-time careers. Although they have visited the projects many times, the bulk of their work involves hours of plotting health strategy from their home.
Said Robin Bissell, "I wanted to do more with my life than just make money. I wanted to help where there is desperate need."