The Albanian Alps Institute
How Starting a Small Community-Based Nonprofit Can Make a Big Impact
I first traveled with my 12-year-old son to Albania in 1992. As a geography instructor, I was simply curious. We toured cities and villages with a new Albanian friend, staying in private homes all across what is considered one of Europe’s poorest countries. Since then, I’ve returned 10 times: to lead a trek in the Albanian Alps, to conduct research into village economics and women’s lives, to teach geography at the Universiteti i Shkodres with a Fulbright scholarship. During all this time I was conducting personal humanitarian activities as well, but my efforts were rather haphazard.
The idea to take my involvement to another level came when staying with friends in Boga in the northern Albanian Alps, while playing pick-up-sticks by candlelight during the endless power outages. I decided to set up a nonprofit to help these children. I replaced the school library that had been ransacked and looted when communism had collapsed 10 years earlier. I also brought school supplies. In 2002 my wife accompanied me and in addition to bringing more library books and supplies, we set up a small computer lab with donated laptops powered through inverters from a car battery. This allowed the school to have scheduled computer classes regardless of electricity availability.
With our only guidance from The Oregon Nonprofit Corporation Handbook we were registered with the IRS and the State of Oregon as The Albanian Alps Institute within six months. As a small, inexperienced organization we chose to make a big difference for a few people rather than a small difference for many. The Shkreli Komuna school district has about 1,000 students in five 8-year schools and four 4-year schools.
We established and continue to stock libraries, focusing on reading books rather than textbooks, believing that getting children excited about reading will benefit all other subjects. In the U.S. we buy picture books with 500 to 1,000 words; volunteers transcribe the text into Word documents and email them to volunteers in the U.S. or to an Albanian college student in Tirana to translate into Albanian. The translations are then typed onto labels, which volunteers stick into the books. In total, we’ve placed about 2,000 books into the school libraries.
Since English language knowledge is so important worldwide for obtaining better paying jobs, we hired English teachers in two villages. In 2005 two Oregon State Univ. students accompanied me, teaching conversational English for a month. They had a life-changing experience. The villagers embraced them, and they had full classes every day.
We also make what repairs we can to improve the schools. Our installations have included windows, a vault toilet, blackboards, and heating stoves.
A key to running a successful nonprofit in a poor country is to have people on the ground who can keep track of things on an ongoing basis. We are very fortunate to have Dr. Marash Rakaj, a biology professor at the Unviersiteti i Shkodres, who handles money and projects, and generally makes things flow smoothly during the 11 months when I’m not there. On this side my wife, a CPA, keeps transparent records.
Fundraising is the big challenge for all nonprofits, and ours is no exception. We’ve had little luck raising money from a broad base, but we do have a small cadre of very dedicated individuals who frequently donate money for specific projects. Being in a university town, we have a group of generous student volunteers, without whom we couldn’t function.
It is extremely rewarding to return to Albania each year and see the large impact of the small things we have done for the children of Shkreli Komuna. Beyond that, I truly enjoy spending time with the villagers and in their mountains.
For information on summer volunteer English teaching, for which AAI can cover basic in-country costs, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. For donation options go to www.albanianalps.org.