A Durango nonprofit that works with rural villagers in Myanmar, a country in Southeast Asia, is expanding into a new region of the country under the direction of a new executive director.
The Shanta Foundation was started 13 years ago in the southern Shan State of Myanmar by Durangoans Mike and Tricia Karpfen. In the Shan State, the nonprofit works with 18 villages.
Last year, it started working with villages in a more impoverished and drier part of the country, known as the Pauk region in western Myanmar, said Mike Karpfen, who is an adviser to the nonprofit.
Shanta’s new executive director, Laurie Meininger, a former U.S. diplomat, started leading the organization in August and has been overseeing work in the area. Meininger worked in Africa, Iraq, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Micronesia during her career.
Meininger considers Durango her home after moving to the area from California about 10 years ago. She was drawn to the Shanta Foundation because of its sustainable model of development.
“I spent almost 20 years living and working in the developing world and seeing a lot of government intervention with humanitarian aid or development assistance, and I had never seen a model like Shanta’s,” she said.
Shanta works with villages over six years on development projects that benefit the entire community, such as roads. Ten villages have graduated from Shanta’s program and residents in those areas are maintaining their own infrastructure and improving education for their children, among other projects, she said.
“This is a not a flash in a pan. ... This is a commitment to transformation,” she said.
As part of its work, Shanta develops a leadership team in each village that includes men and women.
Shanta also requires villages to start a community bank because it can fund residents’ projects, and the interest residents pay can be used to fund community development.
In Shanta’s new region, community projects include pig farming, establishing libraries and possibly growing turmeric, a root that is in high demand, she said.
“You want to find income opportunities that everyone can benefit from,” Karpfen said.
In the coming years, Shanta expects to work with two new villages in western Myanmar as part of a grant provided by Vibrant Village Foundation, an Oregon-based nonprofit.
Meininger said she also plans to develop new partnerships between Shanta and governmental agencies and creative businesses. For example, the nonprofit may work with a company in Myanmar that makes products out of inner tubes from motorbikes.
Shanta relies heavily on support from Durango, with about two-thirds of its funding coming from community, Karpfen said. The nonprofit has an annual budget of about $750,000.
“For this community to give to an organization that is working outside of here, I think says a lot about the trust in the work and the world connection that people in Durango and Southwest Colorado have,” Meininger said.