Loans to Empower

At one WIL meeting for the micro-finance institute Fonkoze in Haiti, WIL co-founder  Linda Resnick ( right ) sings and dances with some of the women.

When they founded a group for women over 50, Linda Resnick, Bobbie Gohn, and Terri Gelberg shared an interest in travel and empowerment. The question: how to combine those passions?

So in 2007, the three formed WIL of Greater Philadelphia for like-minded women who wanted to travel, and not to just see the sights.

WIL, which stands for "Women International Leaders," makes loans in developing regions, then its members travel to these far-flung places (Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, among others) to witness the outcomes.

Today, with more than 100 members, WIL of Greater Philadelphia operates as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit that brings together women from diverse backgrounds. The organization has allocated more than $55,000 so far, mainly through microfinance loans and empowerment grants to women and girls.

"WIL is a group of Philadelphia women who care passionately about helping very poor women and girls," said retiree and current board member Bryna Scott, 58. "We come together with a common interest in global issues, constantly thinking of ways we can reach out to poor communities financially and spiritually."

About half of WIL's board members are retired, though the group also attracts women who are still working. Every year, members raise between $5,000 and $10,000 to fund a microfinance loan and a village "bank."

Since 2008, WIL has funded more than 15 such banks in Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Haiti, Tanzania, East Timor, and the Philippines. Each bank lends the money it receives to 15 to 20 women's small businesses. The borrowers pay back the money, which is then loaned to other local women.

WIL also gives grants targeting education, health, and politics empowerment.

In 2015, WIL provided more than $4,000 in grants to six different nonprofits in Haiti, South Africa, India, Nigeria, and Vietnam, including a $500 grant to the Bombay Teen Challenge, an organization that provides library books to young women and children who are victims of human trafficking.

"We choose nonprofits with a good track record where we're sure there's no corruption or misuse of funds," Scott said.

One of the latest nonprofits funded was Fonkoze, a microfinance institution in Haiti.

"Sometimes, the loans are as small as $30, so they can buy a cow or a sewing machine or open a store," said outgoing WIL president Loretta Raider, 69. "Some women would sign loan documents using a thumbprint. Oftentimes, they learn to write their names, as well. And that really struck me as self-determination."

Loans "help the whole family," Raider said. "Their daughters go to school because there's extra money, and that promotes their education."

Watching women become the breadwinners in their families was one of the main reasons Scott joined WIL.

"These women have no status in the household. Then they get a loan, achieve something, and have more say," she said.

WIL is a way to travel as well as give back, its members say.

"We've also provided direct service opportunities to WIL members, matching their skills to the needs of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), and conducted four trips to developing countries to explore women's issues in regions where we have provided microloans to women," Scott said.

A trip to Ghana is set for November, said WIL's new president, Caroline Wischmann.

"I've made a lot of friends through going on these trips," said Wischmann, 72, a retired designer. "There's nothing like it."

Said Raider: "We don't just travel somewhere and leave. We want to meet the women, see how the loans and grants are working in action and in their lives."

On Sept. 29, WIL will host, with Christina Kennedy from the Norristown-based Narenj Tree Foundation (www.narenjtree.org), an event about the lives of Syrian women and girls in refugee camps. Narenj Tree was founded by Renata and Nizar Alkurdi, a Syrian-Polish family living in Philadelphia.

The event is free and will be held at KPMG, 1601 Market St.; check-in is at 5 p.m. It is open to the public, but registration is required. To sign up or for more information, visit www.wil-gp.org.

On Oct. 20, WIL will host a day trip to the Mount Laurel home of suffragette Alice Paul to learn about her work.

And in November, WIL members will travel to Ghana, escorted by Leah's Dream Inc., a nonprofit based in that country. WIL has supported Leah's Dream with service by WIL volunteers and through a donation as a result of a presentation at one of WIL's educational programs.

earvedlund@phillynews.com

215-854-2808@erinarvedlund