Paul Eun, a Washington physician, runs a non-profit with projects ranging from local food distribution to funding a school in Uganda. When he didn't find a charity that gave 100% of donated funds to its projects, rather than overhead, he decided to start his own.
Question: You run the Fountain of Life Foundation, a charitable organization with projects near your headquarters in Milton, Washington, as well as in rural Uganda. First, can you tell us a little bit about your local projects?
Answer: We have two local projects. The first one is a free grocery distribution event we host once a month in two cities in the Seattle area. The events are open to any individuals and families in need. They sign up online through our website for the distribution event, and we shop for groceries including fresh vegetables and fruits, dairy products, and meat in addition to nonperishable items such as cereal, pasta, and canned food. We load up the groceries in a rented U-Haul truck and drive to the distribution site where people start lining up about an hour early. We recently celebrated our 100th event! People are very appreciative of the groceries they receive.
The other local community service program we operate is a school supply project in which we partner with several elementary schools located in low-income housing areas. The schools request certain items they need for a given school year and we try to meet their needs. In addition to school supplies, we often provide school uniforms, winter clothing items and shoes. We love to see the big smiles on the kids’ faces when they receive the items they need.
And please tell us about Uganda. How and when did the Foundation get involved there?
I traveled to Uganda for the first time in January 2014 when I joined a mission team from Texas to work in a clinic they built there. I didn't know anything about the country, but I felt that perhaps there was something there we could become involved in. But I believed that if we were supposed to be doing something there, God would have to clearly reveal that to me since I was not in a position to go out and search the country for an opportunity.
To make a long story short, I was informed about a possibility within the first hour after my arrival to Uganda. During the week, I was shown land for sale and told of the need for a school in the Ndagga village. Before I left the country, I made a commitment to fund the purchase of the land. By April of that year, we started our school with first and second graders in a primitive, temporary wooden structure functioning as classrooms (which later got blown away during a rainstorm). Within a year, we built the entire elementary school in addition to teachers' housing units. We added a health clinic shortly thereafter.
We partner with a local nonprofit organization called Canaan International Outreach Ministries, which is in charge of operating the school on a day-to-day basis. We monitor the progress and maintain financial oversight.
Our health clinic is staffed by a full-time nurse practitioner who not only takes care of all of the students, but also many villagers from the surrounding region. She has living quarters in the clinic building and is called on to deliver several babies a month. We have a highly qualified all-Ugandan teaching staff, with each one so passionate about their profession of teaching.
Most recently, we built a large auditorium that can house the entire student body in assembly. It also doubles as a church on weekends.
Last year, we had our first graduating class from the elementary school and constructed a high school campus across the street just in time for them to continue their education. Our long-term plan includes a large commercial farming project that can bring revenues to the school so it can be self-sustaining. We do not intend to be a perpetual financial sponsor for the school.
There are numerous student sponsorship programs all over Africa, but almost all of them stop funding their education beyond high school. This means that students learn English, math, science, and geography but are left with no marketable skills to get a job. Those who excel academically cannot attend university because of the high cost involved. So, these sponsorship programs ultimately fail to bring about a lasting change. We must do better and complete the process of education by helping our students attend trade schools or universities that will allow them to secure gainful employment. In short, we want to partner with the local community and empower them to help themselves by taking ownership of their destiny, instill a sense of hope, confidence, and pride. This is how we can break the cycle of poverty.
How does your Sponsor a Child program work?
Our primary and secondary schools in Uganda depend on the sponsorship that will enable them to receive education. The cost to educate these children comes to $30 a month per student and we have sponsors (mostly from the U.S.) making monthly contributions for this purpose. The sponsorship money goes to pay for all operating expenses for the school including uniforms, school supplies, maintenance and repairs, medical expenses, two meals a day for students, and salaries for all staff.
I should mention that we do charge a nominal amount of tuition for high school students who can afford to pay as the operating expenses are substantially higher for the high school.
We have photos of unsponsored children on our website, so anyone who is interested in sponsoring a student can go there and select a specific child to sponsor and sign up with a credit or debit card. Recurring monthly charges can be authorized until canceled. Some sponsors simply ask us to assign a child for them which we can do as well. It has been a challenge to keep the photos and records up to date because of frequent changes in student and sponsor status. Unlike most other sponsorship programs out there, we send 100% of donations to Uganda and do not withhold any amount for administrative costs. We always have some unsponsored students attending school in the hope that they will eventually be sponsored.
How many trips have you made to Uganda? I believe you made a trip in February 2020 — you were lucky to get there just before the world shut down!
I have been there about ten times. I made as many as three trips in one year when the project was just starting. We typically make a trip about once a year with a number of volunteers that may include physicians, dentists, nurses, and teachers as well as others who play critical supporting roles.
In addition to the nurse practitioner in our health clinic we also have a physician from Kampala, the capital city, who comes once a week to see patients. However, there are no dentists serving the area, so we try to bring two or three dentists each time we visit so our students and villagers will be able to have necessary dental care. We have purchased two portable dental units for our dentists to use when our team is there. We have installed solar panels for electricity throughout the campus that allows us to use this equipment. One year we took a youth group from my church and they put on a Vacation Bible School-like program for a week that was a big hit!
Yes, we were last there in February 2020 just before the lockdown when we celebrated the grand opening of our high school campus. These trips provide an amazing eye-opening experience for our participants that will never be forgotten.
With the pandemic still affecting people's lives all over the world, have you found even more people need your help?
Actually, we have not experienced more demand for our services during the pandemic. Our school in Uganda was closed for a number of months last year and we are currently in the process of gradually reopening. Even our food distribution project has not experienced greater demand during the last year. We did have to cancel our food distribution events for two months at the beginning of the pandemic. Many local schools we have been working with were also having online classes only, so demand for school supplies has been down.
When did you start Fountain of Life? Who else is involved in the organization?
We were organized in June 2012 and are registered as a nonprofit corporation in the State of Washington. We were subsequently granted 501(c)(3) status as a private operating foundation by the Internal Revenue Service in 2013. A number of my friends who share my passion serve on the Board. In addition, there are several individuals who serve as consultants in different areas of our operation. I am fortunate to have a number of friends and family members who make significant financial contributions.
Why did you decide to create another nonprofit organization, when there are already literally thousands of nonprofits in existence?
Given the plethora of nonprofits already in existence, it is a fair question to ask why we felt compelled to create yet another one to accomplish our objectives. Why not just work with ones that are already operating?
I personally subscribed to this easier path. Then I realized that for the vast majority of nonprofit organizations only a fraction of what I contribute actually ends up where I want the money to go to. This is primarily due to the very high cost of overhead, including the huge salaries of some of the executives running these organizations. I said, “We can do better than that!”
So, when we organized Fountain of Life Foundation, we made a commitment that 100% of donated funds that come to us will go directly to charitable and educational programs and none of it will be spent on overhead. The Board made a commitment to cover all overhead costs. Thus far we have been able to live up to this commitment and plan to continue indefinitely. We understand this could be a challenge if we grow into a very large organization somehow, but I suppose this will be a good problem to have.
Also, around the time we were starting our organization I came to believe in a particular philosophical approach to charitable work. When we think of poverty, we typically associate it with lack of sufficient material things like money, food, clean water, clothing, and housing. Of course, impoverished people do need these things, otherwise they probably wouldn’t be called poor. So, it is natural for us to address poverty by simply providing material things because we think this will relieve the problem and we would all feel good about it. And of course, poor people do often need immediate relief.
However, our attempt to help can actually end up hurting when we only focus on giving things away. People living in poverty don't define their lives in terms of lack of material things. When you ask them to describe what it means to be poor, they are more likely to talk about shame, humiliation, powerlessness, voicelessness, isolation, hopelessness, and worthlessness. None of these words relate directly to not having enough food, clothing, or adequate shelter.
This underscores a stark reality that poverty goes much deeper than the lack of material things. If we are not mindful of this fact, our efforts to help may actually end up hurting. For this reason, we try to focus on combining our efforts with the talents, resources, and assets that people in need already possess. By partnering with those whom we serve, we seek to effect lasting, meaningful life changes.
You have what must be a very busy day job as a doctor in your women's health practice in Washington. how do you have time for Fountain of Life? Do you do volunteer medical work for the foundation?
Technically I am in half-time clinical practice, so I should have plenty of time left to devote to the Foundation's work. The Foundation has a medical services division through which I have provided surgical services in a number of countries including Guatemala, Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Kenya, Vietnam, India, and Yemen.
By partnering with other groups who organize these surgical missions, I usually go on about three such trips a year and perform gynecologic surgeries and help train local physicians. However, due to the pandemic, I haven't been able to participate in the last year.
What goals do you have for Foundation of Life in the future?
We will continue to do what we have been doing both locally and internationally. Our bylaws specifically state that we will be involved in promoting the elimination of prejudice and discrimination and will defend human and civil rights.
We have worked with Northwest Family Life, a local nonprofit organization focusing on domestic violence prevention and intervention, and provide support for the operation of a shelter housing unit. Most recently, we have made a commitment to become more actively involved in social and environmental justice issues. As the first step in this endeavor, we are now preparing to kick off our social media campaign designed to inform the public within our reach and hopefully inspire real transformation that will usher in a more just society as Jesus envisioned. It's a very tall order, but we have to start somewhere.
Does Foundation of Life have any official connection with the Adventist Church?
We have no affiliation with the Adventist Church although many board members are active in their local churches. We make a statement about our "faith in a God of love and compassion" on our website which serves as a framework upon which our work grows from. However, we are a charitable organization, not a religious organization.
What can people do to support the Foundation's projects?
The simplest way is to go to our website and make a tax-deductible donation to fund our various projects.
You can also volunteer your time at our grocery distribution events if you live near the Seattle/Tacoma area. Since the inception, we have been operating with all-volunteer staff which is how we are able to keep our administrative expenses to a bare minimum (around 2-3% of annual budget). Now this is about to change a little as we implement the social media campaign, but it won’t be significant.
How big is your budget? Where does the money come from?
Our annual budget varies depending on our specific project needs for funding during the year, but it has ranged between $200,000 and $500,000. The board members provide the majority of financial support, and the rest comes from our friends, relatives, co-workers, and acquaintances. A relatively small portion of contributions comes from the general public. We believe in complete financial transparency and our annual tax returns are available on our website.
Paul Eun is an obstetrician gynecologist with a private practice in Puyallup, Washington, and he has worked in obstetrics and gynecology since 1990. Before moving to Washington State in 1994, he had a private practice in Sacramento, California and also served as assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the School of Medicine at University of California, Davis. His undergraduate degree in biochemistry is from Pacific Union College and he attended Loma Linda University School of Medicine for his MD.
Photo courtesy of Paul Eun.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
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