Without an education, even a tremendous work ethic could not open the doors of opportunity for Miguel. Now this capable and intensely faithful Latter-day Saint is breaking down those doors that one time appeared bolted shut.
By the time President Hinckley declared the formation of the Perpetual Education Fund in 2001, thousands of returned missionaries were completing missions in countries like Mexico, Brazil, Chile, the Philippines, Peru, Argentina, and Guatemala, returning home to find only menial work available that paid scarcely enough for them to survive. While many courageously went forward and found ways to improve their lives, it was clear that we needed to do something to improve their opportunities.
While I was in Brazil not long ago, an outstanding brother translated for me while I trained Church leaders in the principles of the Perpetual Education Fund (PEF). I asked him what he did for a living. He answered that he was the president of a major North American company in Brazil. I then asked him how he had achieved this great place among his people. He answered that it all stemmed from his bishop arranging for him to receive several years of English training during his teenage years, and also providing him with financial assistance.
Later a group of businessmen, including former mission presidents that served in Brazil, had given him a loan enabling him to obtain a master’s degree in business. He had repaid the loan and advanced to his present position by working hard, but it all hinged on the opportunities that his Church leaders had opened up for him in his youth. Along the way he had served as a stake president and mission president.
Providing a way to open these doors of opportunity is the reason the Church developed the PEF. Similar stories of young people going on to greatly improve their discouraging situations are now being heard from PEF loan recipients around the globe. Now, three years after the announcement of this program, the Church has granted loans to more than 13,000 recipients, with hundreds of applications continuing to arrive each week from the eleven international areas in which the full program is now available.
We Have a Problem
Because Church leaders constantly travel and tour missions, they knew the problems that many returned missionaries from poverty-stricken countries were facing—and they knew these problems were worsening. These problems weighed heavily on the minds and in the hearts of the Church leadership across the globe.
Leaders sent suggestions and information to Salt Lake, and area presidencies made regular formal reports to the General Authorities and to the Area Committee. This information accurately supported the conclusion that we had a problem that was persistent and growing.
On March 31, 2001, during the General Priesthood Session of General Conference, the Prophet announced that the Church would establish the Perpetual Education Fund.
President Hinckley began his message by relating the monumental problem the Church leaders faced under Brigham Young in 1849. They wrestled with knowing how to help the thousands of converts from Great Britain, Scandinavia, and other parts of Europe join the body of the Saints. Eventually, it seemed likely these converts would number in the tens of thousands, and almost all of the new converts wanted to join the body of the Saints in their new western home. Most of them were of modest means, many owning little or nothing of this world’s goods.
Brigham Young had the answer. The Saints, most of them poor themselves, would contribute money and in-kind property to a new and separate Church fund called the Perpetual Emigrating Fund, known to Latter-day Saints as the PEF. From this fund those of limited means could borrow enough to allow them to join the body of the Saints in the mountains of the West with their families. After they became established, they would repay their loans as best they could to assist those who followed them, thus the adjective “perpetual” in the fund name.
But where was President Hinckley leading us with this reference to Church history? The Prophet quickly switched to the present day Church and current problems by saying:
We have many missionaries, both young men and young women, who are called locally and who serve with honor in Mexico, Central America, South America, the Philippines, and other places. They have very little money, but they make a contribution with what they have…They become excellent missionaries working side by side with elders and sisters sent from the United States and Canada. While in this service they come to know how the Church operates. Then comes the day of their release. They return to their homes. Their hopes are high. But many of them have great difficulty in finding employment because they have no skills. They sink right back into the pit of poverty from which they came. (Conference Report, 31 March-1 April 2001, p. 67.)
The solution to the current problem was to borrow the concepts from the old PEF. Church members were invited to contribute to a new fund called the Perpetual Education Fund. From this fund loans would be made to ambitious and worthy students, enabling them to to receive education and training in their own countries. By this means they could qualify for jobs, earn a better living for themselves and their families, and provide much needed leadership to their wards and branches in their own countries. He suggested that loans from the fund would begin that fall, in the year 2001, on a modest basis, but added: “We can envision the time when this program will benefit a very substantial number.” He next shared his vision of the good that could come of the program.
With good employment skills, these young men and women can rise out of the poverty they and generations before them have known. They will better provide for their families. They will serve in the Church and grow in leadership and responsibility…As faithful members of the Church, they will pay their tithes and offerings, and the Church will be much the stronger for their presence in the areas where they live. (Ibid, p. 68.)
Stressing the principle of self-reliance through repayment of the loans, President Hinckley expressed his confidence in the future recipients of the loans.
The beneficiaries will repay the money, and when they do so, they will enjoy a wonderful sense of freedom because they have improved their lives not through a grant or gift, but through borrowing and then repaying. They can hold their heads high in a spirit of independence. The likelihood of their remaining faithful and active throughout their lives will be very high.(Ibid, p. 68-69.)
At a loan committee meeting held on September 4, 2001, members of the newly organized committee considered the first handful of 35 loan applications, granting the first PEF loans. That was an exciting day for those involved. At the December 13, 2001 loan committee we approved 340 loans and expected to approve 100 more the next week. We were off the ground and beginning our ascent. The major areas sending in applications were Peru and Chile. We ended the year with hundreds of loans granted and a program beginning to take shape. We all felt tremendous gratitude and optimism as we headed into 2002.
One of the unknowns in establishing the PEF department was whether Church members would provide the massive voluntary monetary support and whether Church officers and employees would provide the administrative support required to carry out a worldwide program of such magnitude. Another was whether the huge organization of the Church could withstand the strain this vast new undertaking would place on it. Latter-day Saints all over the Church answered the first question with a resounding “YES!” When the contribution reports came in for December 2001, it was clear that the size of the fund was already far ahead of what any of us had anticipated.
How and Why it Works
In his initial announcement of the PEF, President Hinckley explained principles underlying PEF by saying: “I believe the Lord does not wish to see His people condemned to live in poverty. I believe He would have the faithful enjoy the good things of the earth.” As a well-known scripture in the Doctrine & Covenants avers, “there is enough and to spare.” [D&C 104:17]. But the Lord also states that help for the poor “must needs be done in [His] own way” [v.16]. This implies that the Lord knows what will be most helpful to all concerned in the process. Throwing money at a problem has usually proved unhelpful and even harmful. Helping people help themselves builds people and allows them to maintain their self-respect and independence.
That is why loans rather than grants are given. Some have suggested that the young people for whom the initiative has been designed should be given grants or scholarships instead of expecting them to repay loans. In most cases this undermines the principles on which the PEF is based. By doing it the way designed in the program, the recipients of loans not only help themselves, but by repaying their loans they help those that come after them.
Creating the PEF in this way has also effectively captured something deep within the people, as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands that have gladly and voluntarily invested in the fund, with regular and heartfelt donations. The vast international scope of the program immediately caught the imagination of the people, and tying it historically with past initiatives to assist the poor, such as the Perpetual Emigrating Fund, has given it a tie with history that has proved a remarkable motivation to many of us.
Realizing the Dream
As we entered our third year of administrating the PEF, the questions began to change. People wanted to know if the program was meeting expectations. Were the loan recipients paying back their loans? Had some of them graduated, and if so were they getting good jobs? These questions could be summarized as: Are we having success as President Hinckley envisioned? Had the Prophet’s vision become a practical reality? Had the youth grasped the opportunity and shown that they could benefit as envisioned?
We gathered together groups of young people that had been involved with the PEF to find answers to our questions. We wanted to know what the students were thinking and saying, and we wanted to meet them in person and see their faces.
One twenty-seven-year-old returned missionary from Brazil reported:
I came home from my mission six years ago and eventually found a wonderful wife. However, all my efforts to gain an education were frustrated. The free courses I took were ineffective, and the good courses were expensive and, therefore, totally inaccessible to us. When the Perpetual Education Fund was announced, it gave me new hope about becoming self-reliant, about having a promising career. Today I am training to become a radiology technician thanks to a loan from the Perpetual Education Fund. After my graduation I will find a job that will give me the time and money to take care of my family, help me serve better in the Church, and eventually enable me to attend college.”
Shining a Bright Ray of Hope
The PEF has shined a bright ray of hope on the path to education, training and independence. Church members have become more generous as they have sacrificed to help those needing help, and in the process are gaining spiritual blessings themselves.
Both those who contribute and those who gain skills, assist in the development of desperately needed Church leaders. Because of the self-reliance built into the Perpetual Education Fund program, lifting up our less-advantaged brothers and sisters will be done in the Lord’s way, fostering hope and building character that will bless generations to come.