Alumni Awards Recognize CRS Staff Commitment, Compassion

Two CRS senior staff members, Gaye Burpee and Dennis Warner, have just been recognized with alumni achievement awards from their alma maters.

Dennis Warner, CRS’ Senior Technical Advisor for Water and Sanitation, received the 2010 University of Illinois Alumni Humanitarian Award, recognizing “significant leadership or service to improve the lives of others and the welfare of humanity”.

Gaye Burpee, CRS’ Deputy Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean received the 2010 Scripps College Distinguished Alumna Award, recognizing notable achievements and highlighting Scripps’ role in the education of women. The award each year is presented during Reunion Weekend.

Dennis Warner

Dennis Warner, CRS’ Senior Technical Advisor for Water and Sanitation, does an assessment at a school in Indonesia that was destroyed in the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Photo by CRS staff

Dennis Warner just returned from working on the Haiti emergency response, where he collaborated with a team of Haitian engineers and technicians to restore basic water and sanitation services in some of the camps and orphanages.

Warner has spent nearly four decades working in the humanitarian field, and calls it his ‘mission’ to help those in need. A look at his impressive career in the water and sanitation sector yields an insight to his invaluable knowledge and expertise. Warner still travels the globe and is away from home many months of the year. “When you have the skills and opportunity to help poor people lead better lives, I feel you don’t have the right to quit,” he explains.

Warner’s work has taken him to remote villages around the globe, from Pakistan to Burma, Ethiopia and Swaziland, and while much of the poverty and suffering he’s seen may have been disheartening to others, to him it has always been an inspiration to keep going.

In 1964, as a new Peace Corps Volunteer on his first trip to Tanzania, he sat on the steps of a government rest house one day. He looked up and saw a small boy standing in front of him. The boy was perhaps three or four years old, wearing dirty shorts, shirtless and barefoot, with a swollen stomach that was a sign of severe protein deficiency. As the child stared at him, he remembers thinking: “Why are we so different? Why do I have education, opportunities, and boundless resources, while he seems to have so little?”

“This is part of why I came into international development,” Warner says. “Can I fully explain to others what is keeping me in my work? Probably not. But I can see the humanity in the eyes of the people here. This surely is worth the long flights, the lost luggage, the chaotic airports and so many other disagreeable aspects of the work. It is good to be here and to see people in their villages and to shake hands with the grizzled elders. This is part of the pay, the reward, the satisfaction.”

In addition to B.A., B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees from the University of Illinois, Warner also holds a PhD in civil engineering from Stanford University

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Gaye Burpee

Gaye Burpee has brought her expertise and compassion to Latin America for CRS since 1997. Photo by CRS staff

After earning a B.A. in Sociology and Latin American Studies from Scripps College in 1969, Gaye Burpee served in the Peace Corps for two years in the West Indies establishing pre-primary schools and a rural library, training teachers, teaching secondary school and organizing swimming camps.

She spent the next years conducting socio-economic research at the University of Michigan and Grenada, West Indies, followed later by research in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua as a soil scientist and joined CRS in 1997. She was most recently based in Guatemala City from where she oversaw relief and development programs in Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

In her current position at CRS, Gaye travels to 13 Latin American and Caribbean countries. She pays special attention to agriculture and natural resources in Central America and to Haiti, where livelihoods depend on rehabilitation of degraded ecosystems. Through her ongoing studies, research, field work, and publications, she has demonstrated a lifelong commitment to helping others and working toward positive social and economic change. She also holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Soil Science and Sustainable Agriculture from Michigan State University.

Gaye Burpee is also a strong supporter of microfinance programs geared toward rural women farmers in developing countries, which involve forming groups of 10 to 20 women to save 25 cents, or whatever they can afford, every week or two.

Burpee tells of a young Salvadoran colleague in Central America named Mabel, who works for CRS and who was trained in the savings-led microfinance method. At first, Mabel had doubts about the usefulness of community savings groups and wanted to learn the method first-hand before training others. So she formed groups with neighbors, family and office colleagues and became an enthusiastic promoter.

In the first village she went to, the priest didn’t think this method would work because villagers were all “too poor to save money”. But Mabel introduced the savings group method anyway.

The priest asked villagers, “How many of you have money to save?” Silence, no hands. Mabel had noticed a few cell phones in the room and knew that the owners must have purchased cards with cell phone minutes. She asked, “How many of you have a cell phone?” All hands went up. There was a long pause followed by much laughter, as Mabel’s point became clear.

The village priest now says these savings groups are the best development tool he has ever seen. They give women the independence, confidence and cash they need to buy vegetable seed, a goat and a maize grinding mill or start small business ventures. “Mabel now has a mandate to oversee all savings group activities throughout Central America. Each time I visit her, she has new tales that remind me over and over again why I love my job.”

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