By Doris Degner-Foster
What do Batman character costumes have to do with helping children in poverty-stricken countries? Quite a lot, actually.
At the uniquely entertaining charity class during the inaugural Longines Los Angeles Masters show, JustWorld International’s Riding Ambassadors Laura Kraut, dressed as Catwoman, and Hannah Selleck, as Batman’s enemy Poison Ivy, were the first team to jump and set a pace that couldn’t be beat. They won the class and helped earn JustWorld International a check for $35,000.
JustWorld is an organization that links the equestrian world with humanitarian efforts to fund and sustain programs that provide basic needs to children with little opportunity to receive support from other sources. JustWorld works with organizations in some of the poorest communities in Honduras, Cambodia, Guatemala and Colombia. Rider ambassadors raise awareness and funds for the programs while learning about the needs of others across the globe as they give thousands of children a leg up to a brighter future.
When not competing in costume classes, rider ambassadors wear their signature blue show coats with the JustWorld International logo. But not all of JustWorld’s riding ambassadors are famous professional riders that are so visible; many are junior riders. “If there’s one thing we don’t want to be, it’s an elitist organization, even if the press and the celebrity issue focuses on the top riders,” said Jessica Newman, former Grand Prix rider, JustWorld founder and executive director. “That’s not at all the organization is about because we have some ambassadors that are kids in the Pony Club up to the Olympic level and everything in between. I tell our junior ambassadors, ‘I was you, the one out there with all those ponies and in the Junior Jumpers.’”
Life Changing Experience
Jessica’s parents both rode for fun and she began riding as a small child. “One thing led to another and next thing I knew, I was training with Robin Greenwood who got me on the pony circuit,” Jessica said. “I started doing the Winter Equestrian Festival when I was about 7 and things just grew.”
Beginning on the international show jumping circuit at the age of 16, Jessica competed successfully in the U.S. and Europe until she was 22. She took longer to complete college at the American University in Paris to keep up with the life-absorbing demands of the show schedule. “I started to realize that there was a lot more out there and that I was living in a very privileged circle,” Jessica said. “I’d done everything I wanted in the equestrian world as a competitor. I had been so fortunate; I had to do something to dedicate my life to doing for others, not just focusing on my own goals. So that’s when I decided to quit riding and go into humanitarian work. I worked as a volunteer in Honduras and saw poverty for the first time, and that completely turned my world around.”
While in Honduras, Jessica was stunned by the plight of abandoned children living on the streets and in garbage dumps and compared her circumstances with theirs. She asked herself, “As a kid, I lived such a privileged life, having great ponies and going to horse shows all over, so just how is it possible that these kids are living in the garbage dump and have no hope other than to continue to work in the dump or on the streets and become delinquents? I knew that [helping kids like these] was going to be what I’d dedicate my life to.”
She began by working in the non-profit sector in 1999 to gain firsthand experience with local and international humanitarian organizations. During the four years between the end of her riding career and when JustWorld was launched, Jessica established the Honduras branch of the Trickle Up Program; actively participating in the Friends World Experimental Education Program in Costa Rica and Nicaragua; and collaborated on policy advocacy at Oxfam America in Washington, D.C., to learn about the other end of the field work. Jessica explained that she’s a risk taker, but a calculated risk taker, getting the right background and foundation before acting.
The Start of JustWorld International
In 2003, with university colleague and friend Hilary Betaille helping with administrative responsibilities, Jessica launched JustWorld International. Working with local organizations in developing Third World countries, JustWorld’s efforts focus on long-term commitments of education, while also providing basic nutrition, health, leadership and vocation programs.
“We look for organizational partners with no religious or political affiliation that focus on education for children living in poverty, yet are small enough so that we can make a big difference.” Jessica explained that the philosophy “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for life” applies.
“Our partner organizations are teaching them to fish, and it’s not us teaching them,” she said. Before organizations are linked with JustWorld, they must first prove that they have their life plan to meet reasonable goals and can show how they’re going to meet them. Jessica explained that it would be counterintuitive for foreigners to come in and to impose standards if they weren’t already in place and that when standards come from the existing organization it’s much more successful.
Although JustWorld maintains offices in Wellington, Florida, it has a global presence at various events and has grown significantly with greater partner show outreach, including the launch of creative fundraising initiatives. Junior riders enjoy getting in on the fun with JustWorld horseless horse shows where they jump a miniature course without their horses, on their own feet. In Wellington, the annual International Fund Raising Gala held every January is a popular event with silent and live auctions. Hosting over 650 of the social elite in a tent beneath the stars, the event raised over $440,000 in 2014 to benefit JustWorld. To further aid financial efforts, Jessica works pro bono as executive director and operates with volunteers and only four full-time and one part-time employee so that the majority of donations go directly to the partner organizations.
JustWorld’s ambassadors are encouraged to go on a project visit to see firsthand how donations are being used to provide valuable programs for children. In Honduras, a country that has one of the worst educational systems in the world, it’s exciting and humbling to watch children happily greet the mobile library sponsored by JustWorld, and youths turning from drugs and violence in Guatemala to learn leadership skills. Even busy professional riders are able to make visits in spring and fall. Like Jessica, many rider ambassadors have found these trips to be life-changing experiences. These visits are also a key part of the organization’s evaluation system, providing eyewitness accounts of partner organizations’ progress.
CNN Everyday Heroes
JustWorld’s partner organizations are founded by very admirable individuals. Two of them have been spotlighted on the annual award-winning television special “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute.” The 2014 special was hosted by Anderson Cooper and honored individuals making extraordinary contributions to help improve the lives of others.
One of the top 10 finalists for the CNN Heroes of 2014 award was Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes, who founded Los Patojos in Jocotenango, Guatemala. While growing up in Guatemala, Juan Pablo watched many of his peers succumb to drugs, gangs and crime. According to the United Nations, the country has the fifth-worst homicide rate. He became a teacher in his hometown, and saw that his students struggled with the same issues his generation had faced. “Kids here are forced to grow up in a very harsh environment filled with violence, Juan Pablo said. “Their parents had no jobs; their families were disintegrating. They had no hope or motivation.”
A CNN Hero in 2008, Phymean Noun is a young lady who had struggled in Cambodia during Pol Pot’s regime and founded the People Improvement Organization after seeing children foraging through trash for food. PIO has outreach centers at the former city dumpsite, in the slum areas of Phnom Penh and on the outskirts of the city. The organization’s goal is to provide education and training to equip children so they’ll have access to regular jobs and become self-supporting to improve their lives.
With the help of people like Phymean Noun and Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes, Jessica is reaching the goals she set for herself back when she was the accomplished international rider determined to help others.
To learn more about JustWorld International, visit www.justworldinternational.org.
About the Author: Doris Degner-Foster rides with Harvard Fox Hounds when she is not interviewing interesting individuals in the horse sport. She is working on a middle-grade mystery series and a murder mystery novel where a horse strangely appears in different people’s lives to help them through a crisis. Look for her blog, Notes from the Field, on the Sidelines website.