Ernesto Lafontaine currently works as a business consultant in the food industry focusing mostly on individually owned restaurants or schools and locally managed institutions that serve food. Ernesto, also helps to organize the homeless outreach group, Los Servidores del Servidor, in South Florida. Ernesto explains what attracted him to our Rotary club.
Question, “What drew you to Rotary?”
Ernesto, “It’s very simple, I was looking for a group of people who wanted to help their communities, to get in touch with other individuals who wanted to give of their time and or resources to helping others, where the motivation wasn’t solely religious nor solely for business networking. While I believe religion and business are important, neither of these two focuses are everything. And so, I was looking to find a group that was in between the two concepts.”
Question, “What does Rotary mean to you?”
Ernesto, “In general I have found most humanitarian help comes from religious or governmental groups, however Rotary gives me the avenue to reach out to more people to be able to access more resources and to have more opportunities than these groups, which are somewhat limited in their scope and reach. And, business organizations are more about how I can help “me”, but I’m not into me, I’m more into others, the disadvantaged.”
Question, "What is service above self to you?"
Ernesto “I’ve never been into myself I’ve always thought that I have a greater purpose in life, helping other human beings that have trouble fending for themselves. I’m one individual of the many and life cannot consist in only fulfilling my material needs. That concept goes back to when I was a kid, I’ve always liked helping people.
Ernesto on some of his background, “I mean I went to school and studied business, but I never understood this concept about me, me, me where everything has to be focused with YOU, and where your life is only about making money. I always wanted to help people, I was back in Canada then looking for meaning, and that was it, I decided to leave and that’s when I got involved into going overseas. Initially going out to Peru.”
Ernesto continued, “In Peru, I worked as a business consultant for the Canadian government and because of my business background, I was sent to an area in the middle of nowhere to help local farmers improve their economic situation. For example, the main group I worked with would grow coffee, and once a year they would harvest their crop. When that happened, the banks and local merchants would get together and take advantage of them, by manipulating the market and paying pennies on the dollar for their crop. And so, these farmers were always starving, because they just never had enough.
I came in and helped organize them, I set up a small bank which they controlled, where they could save their own money and this gave them a mechanism to obtain loans and grants from foreign entities and governments. I created a fund where they would be able to finance themselves and bypass the local merchants. “
Question, “What was your earlier service like? Did it resemble a micro loan program?"
Ernesto, “Yeah, kind of but a little bigger than that and the loans were guaranteed by the crops. Once the product was sold at a fair price on the international markets they would pay off their loan and pocket the difference. After I set it up, it worked so well that the United Nations noticed and offered me a job. They had a project where they would offer local farmers substitute crops to the Coca leaf and they had to figure out a way of making these other crops economically viable.
Back then the Terrorists and the Narcos were working together and our project competed with the illegal cocoa leaf industry. Because of the success of the work I’ve was doing and the project overall, I was put on a list "to get rid of" and that’s how I ended up here in Miami.”
Ernesto on Rotary in Peru, “I always saw Rotary as a bunch of old men, if you will, just writing checks. But, through my Peru connection I saw they really did a lot of good, humanitarian work and that’s how I was brought to Rotary here. Through Rotary I can combine my efforts, my passion for helping people, with other people with similar interests, like our club. We’re out there, we all want to do more and by working together we can, because by ourselves, we can only do so much. I find Rotary to be a place that opens those doors, creating more opportunity to help!”
Question, “What would you like to see Rotary do?”
Ernesto, “I would like to see us get more of our clubs together and work more on collaboration, enabling us to get more done. There’s so much need out there, there’s so many things to do. And as I mentioned, one person, two people just can’t do it, this is a community effort. And, I’d love to be able to organize different clubs to work together on a common goal.
And what drives me, isn’t necessarily cleaning the streets or beautifying our communities, but more of that human contact. Being able to give someone that little helping hand, making their day. Giving a person in need something that will bring a moment of peace and happiness to their lives. Or, perhaps teaching our migrants workers how to manage whatever little money they have so that predatory lenders don’t take advantage of them. It’s a serious issue because a lot of these migrant workers send their money to their families in another country or cash their checks outside the legitimate financial system and pay dearly for the service.
There’s so much work to do, so much, we just need more people involved.”
Interview by Jeff McNabb