Real-life ‘Willy Wonka’ builds charity to rescue families from poverty
MANILA, PHILIPPINES – From a small school house below her apartment, Sheryl Latorre is living her dream. She runs a preschool that she owns. It’s something that she never imagined would be possible just a few years ago, as she and her husband worked nights in a call center. The couple hardly got to see their two daughters.
“It was very difficult, since I had to leave them with a very young babysitter,” Latorre said, adding that she would often have to sleep during the day.
She eventually got a job at an area preschool, and not long after was presented with another opportunity by the owner.
“She offered the school to me,” Latorre said. “She asked me if I wanted to buy the school. I said, ‘How in the world would I do that?’ Because I didn’t have any money.”
She found the help she needed. Workers with the charity Mentors International helped train her on bookkeeping, accounting, and helped her form a business plan. They also provided her with a loan.
“I am able to work at home,” Latorre said with a smile. “I’m always with the girls. I am able to take care of them.”
Latorre is just one example of the millions of people who have been helped by the charity, Mentors International since the early ’90s.
Menlo Smith, now 92 years old, decided he wanted to reach out to the people of the Philippines while serving as a mission president there for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints about a decade before.
“I had seen poverty before, but didn’t realize the depth of the poverty, and the stringent impact it has on these people,” Smith said. “Typically, about 50 percent of the people in any developing country will have a paycheck. The others will never see a paycheck. They’ll be always dependent on whatever they can devise to put a little rice and beans on the table.”
Smith made his living and fortune by creating many well-known candies, like SweeTARTS, Pixy Stix, and Lik-a-stix, to name a few. His company, Sunmark later went on to sell the Willy Wonka brand candies, that have since been sold off to Nestle. The candies all evolved from a Kool-Aid-like packet that his father sold during the World War II times. Smith said his father later sent him out to carry on the family business in other parts of the country.
“Found out that St. Louis is the best place to distribute and manufacture confectionery if you’re going to do it on a national basis,” Smith said.
After returning from his mission in the Philippines, Smith said he and a team of others eventually formed Mentors International. One of the biggest challenges he found was in figuring out how to lend money to people that had no collateral. He also says those he met in poverty also told him that if they were given a loan, they would never be able to pay the money back.
“People that are in financial difficulty, are in difficulty for two reasons,” Smith explained. “Number one, they don’t know how to get money dependably. Number two, they don’t know how to manage money if they do get it, so they’re always going to be in financial difficulty.
While giving out low-interest micro-loans is a major component of Mentors International, Smith points out that a bigger part of it is in teaching bookkeeping and money-management skills. And to keep clients accountable, his team came up with a system referred to as village-lending.
“If you want a loan, you find five other people who also want a business loan, and you form what is referred to as a solidarity group,” Smith explained. “You make a pledge. You’ll help one another with their business problem, and you also make a pledge that you will make your payments timely.”
If one person in a group fails to make payments, funding for all of them is cut off until everyone is caught up. Smith said so far, the program is working, with a 96 percent repayment rate, and only a 2 percent default rate. Mentors International, now based in Draper, Utah now serves communities in eight countries, with plans to open an office in Nepal soon.
“The real need is not just money,” Smith said. “The real need is to help these people develop character that they are then in a position where they can create value for other people.”
While the Mentors program is based upon principles of the LDS church, Smith said the help is open to anyone in the areas they serve. Applicants are required to get referrals from religious or community leaders. The success of starting a small business can be contagious too. Latorre’s husband too came up with a business plan: to become an events photographer.
“I told him, ‘OK, we will buy that camera that you really wanted, but make sure it will generate a lot of income,’ and it sure did,” Latorre said, smiling.