KU Student Volunteers

May 6, 2010

Graduation stories: Ben Alexander volunteers at Paraguayan orphanage

LAWRENCE — By making the most of his options, Ben Alexander of Lenexa will be able to graduate from the University of Kansas with bachelor’s degrees in environmental studies, geography, global and international studies and Spanish.

In four years. No summer school. With nearly 200 credit hours.

Ben Alexander (Photo by David McKinney/University Relations)

Being a National Merit Scholar enabled him the freedom to concentrate on classes and to not have to find outside jobs to pay for his education, he said. KU allowed him to transfer 51 hours of advanced-placement credit from Shawnee Mission Northwest High School and Johnson County Community College.

But what really made a difference was what he calls “the bureaucratic freedom” offered by the KU’s Independent Study program to combine for credit his academic and volunteer service interests, particularly in Latin American countries. He’s fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and has especially valued the enthusiastic mentoring from Paul Sneed, assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese.

“Ben created his own study abroad program in fall 2008 working at an orphanage outside of Asunción, Paraguay, by signing up for four independent studies at one time,” Sneed said. “He’s one of the most freethinking and gifted students in our department. KU professors helped him apply a broad range of studies to his work with orphans, including aspects of soil science beneficial for community gardening and readings about drug gangs, street children and the crisis of violence and social exclusion in Brazil.”

Hogar Unidos por Cristo, the orphanage, houses about 200 children and teenagers all directed by Patricia Bozzano, its founder, who lives onsite in a mansion with acreage, supported by volunteers and generous donations.

“Some were abandoned, some had been running around the streets just trying to stay alive,” Alexander said. “Some at the orphanage had been in the ‘City of God’ (among the most dangerous areas in Rio de Janiero, Brazil). Lots of the same things in Brazil happen on a smaller scale in Paraguay.”

Most food is donated. As a small supplement, the orphanage has about 60 chickens for meat and eggs and a garden for fresh fruit and vegetables. Alexander tried to expand the garden area and improve the soil to increase the onsite food production.

“We tried to amend the soil with chicken manure and leftover bits of charcoal from trash firewood, most of it eucalyptus,” he said. “They have a year-round growing season. Someone could donate a lot of leftover fresh eggplant, but by the next day it was spoiled and had to be thrown away.”

Wanting to understand the economic and political background of the region, Alexander studied the history and context of the War of the Triple Alliance fought from 1864 to 1870 between Paraguay and the allied countries of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. The conflict killed most of the male population of Paraguay and caused more deaths than any other South American war.

“It weighs very heavily on modern-day Paraguay, very much like our Civil War.”

Among other topics that became part of his KU independent studies involved Paraguayan land conflicts between wealthy landowners and peasant farmers and the resulting rural violence and crop destruction over the last five or 10 years.

Alexander took on community building and advocacy roles in rural Paraguay where the villagers spoke an indigenous language. He went to Asunción, the capital, and assisted in obtaining a grant to fund building improvements to rebuild and reroof a chapel and community building and construct fencing.

Working with peasant farmers in Paraguay first piqued his interest in sustainability and environmental studies, he said.

He saw how the village’s major cash crop, cotton, depleted the soil and began studying how readily available byproducts such as chicken manure and leftover charcoal could be recycled as soil amendments. Through an undergraduate research award administered by the University Honors Program, he conducted lab studies with Daniel Hirmas, assistant professor of geography.

“He sponsored my soil studies and was very gracious in helping and allowing me to use his lab for probably hundreds of hours,” Alexander said.

Alexander is the son of Phil and Cindy Alexander. His father, a counseling psychologist, received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s of business administration from KU. His mother is a school nurse.

His future plans include getting married in July to Sofie Strohmeier of Overland Park, who will receive her bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in Spanish from DePaul University.

Alexander had originally enrolled at KU planning to major in Spanish and journalism. Now he plans to work or do graduate study or work in sustainable agricultural development, including the Peace Corps and missionary service. Alexander is vice president of the KU Student Farm organization and a member of Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

Working at New Roots for Refugees, a Catholic Charities program based at Juniper Gardens in Kansas City, Kan., Alexander saw firsthand how some technical assistance could help refugee or migrant farmers bridge cultural differences and successfully sell the produce they grow.

If they raise corn, “sometimes it may take a lot of convincing to get them to harvest sweet corn early the way people in the Midwest like to eat it and not wait until the ears are full and hard the way they ate it in their country,” he said. “Or that when you sell fresh cilantro, you don’t have to pull up the whole plant and take it to market, just cut off the leaves so more will grow back.”

Contact: Jean Kygar Eblen, University Relations, (785) 864-8852



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