J uan Forster is the godfather of project fairs in Central America. Originally from California, USA, he moved to South America in 1956 while working for Catholic Relief Services and was transferred to Guatemala in 1969. He's been tackling issues such as food shortages and water scarcity ever since. "Over the years, I never made any progress," he lamented at a dinner to cap off the 2010 Uniendo América Project Fair, held in Antigua, Guatemala, in January. He was joking -- he and other Rotarians have completed hundreds of projects in the past decade alone -- but plenty of work remains.
Forster, a member of the Rotary Club of Guatemala del Este, founded the fair with Karl Stucki, of the Rotary Club of Oakland, California, who was working on projects in Guatemala. They decided to organize a meeting for Rotarians who were planning to be in the country in January 1994, aiming to provide information about club and district efforts that the visitors might want to partner on. Many clubs weren't carrying out international projects, Forster recalls. "Why? Because they didn't have any idea who to talk to."
That first year, the fair attracted 30 people from North America and about 100 from Central America. (Uniendo América means "uniting America.") It now draws more than 300 participants and is held in a different location every year. The first project fair took place in Guatemala in January 1994. Since the event started, the number of Rotary Foundation Matching Grants awarded to districts 4240 and 4250, which together cover all of Central America, has more than doubled. "Most of the projects in Central America are because of the project fair," says Jorge Aufranc, a member of the Rotary Club of Guatemala Sur and a former regional Rotary Foundation coordinator.
This year's event featured projects as varied as solar cookers, ShelterBoxes, and soy cows. Participants set up their booths in Casa Santo Domingo, a hotel built amid the ruins of a 16th-century convent that was destroyed in a 1773 earthquake. Also on the agenda were a microcredit conference (the fair was the launching pad for microfinance programs in Central America) and roundtables on topics such as health, water, and education.
Some Uniendo América fairs feature an optional travel component to allow Rotarians to sightsee as well as visit projects. "By mid-January, people are pretty well freezing and looking for any excuse to get out of the cold," Forster says. "They can come down and find a little sun and warmth in Central America."
Participants may speak in terms of "buying" and "selling" projects, but the personal connections make all the difference, they say. Alexei Oduber, a member of the Rotary Club of Panamá Nordeste, hosted a dinner at his house when the fair was held in Panama several years ago. That evening, he met the Rotarian who would help bring about a US$25,000 donation for textbooks in all nine of the country's provinces. "And now we're the best of friends," he says. "A lot of these projects develop fellowship that lasts many years."
This article is featured in the November issue of The Rotarian magazine .