As a teacher and a mother to four boys, Cynci Petersen couldn’t ignore the poverty she witnessed when she traveled to India, Kenya and Uganda with her husband, Jeff, a global outreach pastor. She remembers seeing a mother in India lead her boys to a muddy puddle of water to drink. Petersen’s heart broke knowing that people’s real, tangible needs were not being met.
“I’ve never seen poverty as I’ve seen in India,” she says. “The needs are just really great, and it affects you. I could ignore it, or I could step in and be a part of the change. I’m a Christian. I knew I needed to find a way to respond.”
After researching, asking advice and spreading the word, The Hope Venture became a reality in September of 2009. From the basement of a home and with the help of her trusted partners abroad, Petersen launched her first project, providing 1,000 backpacks filled with school supplies to students in India through $10 donations.
Nine years later, the Lincoln-based nonprofit has supplied 34,000 backpacks to students in India. It also provides fresh water to poverty-stricken villages, sponsors children to attend school, offers vocational training to women and much more to the disadvantaged living in India, Kenya and Uganda. In all, it coordinates about a dozen programs in the three countries, she says.
For Petersen, as its executive director, The Hope Venture has transformed from a part-time endeavor to a full-time job, growing its revenue by an average of 35 percent each year during the last nine years. It employs a handful of staff, uses the skills of college interns, has a seven-person board of directors and offices in downtown Lincoln. It focuses on helping the impoverished in the crucial areas of education, health, food, water and compassion. This year’s goal is to reach 20,000 people.
“We’re trying to do it right and be strategic about it,” Petersen says. “We’re trying to make sure real people are benefiting. We want to be the hands of Christ. We really want to make a difference and change lives.”
She knows they’re changing lives, sharing the story of Abraham, a boy from the slums of Kenya. With The Hope Venture’s help, he’s the first in his family to attend high school.
“Sixty percent, two-thirds of Kenya’s kids, drop out before high school,” Petersen says. “We’ve gotten Abraham off the street and into school where he has a bed and food and feels safe. He feels blessed. He loves being in school.”
She says the organization achieves such successes through a unique funding model. One hundred percent of the project money donated to The Hope Venture goes directly overseas to support the work abroad. The nonprofit’s administrative costs are addressed by a backbone team, donors who give separately to ensure the nonprofit runs smoothly.
Petersen also credits their trusted partners abroad, the local people on the ground with whom they’ve formed strong relationships, for helping the projects be most effective.
“Our partners know the families and communities, and they know where the real needs are,” Petersen says. “The people on the ground are extremely important to our work.”
Once or twice a year, teams travel to India, Kenya and Uganda to follow up on the projects, visiting the feeding centers and schools they’ve helped establish as well as offer additional support. For instance, Petersen says one of this summer’s trips included a camp for high school kids in Kenya, where college students from the United States bonded with the Kenyan students, playing games and studying the word of God. They’ve also built playgrounds and are in the process of constructing a K-12 school north of Delhi.
Lincoln resident Tracy Brester is just one of The Hope Venture’s ardent supporters. She, along with her husband, Chris, was one of the first to donate to the nonprofit. She has worked on its staff, has traveled to India twice and now serves on the board of directors. She was attracted to the nonprofit because of Petersen’s passion for her work.
“Cynci was seeing the immediate physical needs of the impoverished,” Brester says. “She is very raw, very authentic in her desire to help people in a tangible way and give them hope. From the beginning, The Hope Venture had a more intimate feel to it, and it seemed doable. OK, I can donate $10 for a kid’s backpack.”
Hearing Petersen’s stories prompted Brester to become involved and stay involved.
“It’s the knowing Cynci,” she says. “I know her character. I know her heart, and I want to be involved.”
Petersen understands there are real needs in the countries served by The Hope Venture, and she realizes she can’t address every problem.
“None of us is doing it all. We’re just one piece,” she says. “But if I can take one step, I’ll do it. Our recipients are getting food and they’re getting love. As long as people are supporting The Hope Venture, I’m going to help. We can’t change every problem, but we can provide hope.”
Her words and actions encourage others to be agents of change.
“Whether it’s with us or in your neighborhood or your school, take one step toward helping someone else. Do it somewhere. The world needs it,” Petersen says. “Just do one thing.”