Renton's Hafner family turns loss into gain with Go For Hope

Sometimes a loss is a win. In Joe Hafner’s case, just two years ago his family lost almost everything. But instead of letting it knock them down, they treated it like an opportunity.

It took them down a winding road that led them to found Go For Hope International, a nonprofit charity that brings education to needy children in Central America.

Hafner grew up in Renton, met his wife Lindy while attending the University of Washington and started his own real estate practice.

“We started down the normal suburban path,” Hafner said. Hafner and Lindy bought a home in the same Rolling Hills neighborhood where he grew up, and his business was doing well.

Then the economy’s downturn served up a gut punch. His business faltered and eventually collapsed. They lost a rental property they owned. They lost their home. The long slow process gave the two plenty of time to ponder about what was next.

“Ultimately we came to the decision that we were given an opportunity because we were no longer bound to a place,” Hafner said. “If we didn’t pick up and go on an adventure now, when would we do it?”

The idea bloomed into full-blown plans soon enough. The trip would be nine months, so they would return in time for the kids’ swim season and the couple’s triathlon season. School wouldn’t be much of a challenge because they were already homeschooling their children.

They settled on Nicaragua because of its relative safety for kids, despite the fact that it’s the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. They bought round-trip tickets, signifying their mindset going in. They weren’t running away.

“We wanted to go on an adventure,” Hafner said. “And we wanted to live as neighbors, not as tourists.”

So on Aug. 12, 2010, they handed over possession of their former home to the bank, the family loaded into the car with its 17 bags and drove directly to SeaTac airport.

In some ways the trip was a blank slate. They weren’t on a mission trip, they weren’t part of any organization, and they didn’t have a plan.

“We were open to whatever God was going to lead us into,” Hafner said. “We didn’t go with the intention of volunteering or anything. We just wanted to experience life down there.”

Hafner said if they had gone with a mission, it might have colored the entire experience differently. As it was, they were able to see things with less of a bias.

And one of the things they saw was people, usually with the best of intentions, doing more harm than good simply because they didn’t understand Nicaragua. Take the instance of volunteers coming to Nicaragua to build homes or schools.

“You have volunteer laborers who have paid several hundred dollars in airfare, let alone lodging, to come down and essentially take work away from people who need it,” Hafner said.

Hafner also mentioned other seemingly good, but inefficient ways of helping in Nicaragua. He said groups will often donate computers without knowing that the cost of the electricity to use them is prohibitive for schools, or build a classroom in an area where there’s not enough funding to run it.

And that’s the key difference between Go For Hope and many other relief organizations is Go For Hope’s focus on a network of local, community-driven groups.

“If we can provide them with resources and a network of other local organizations we can do far more than if we were to come down and build a school, or send pencils, or whatever,” Hafner said.

One of Go For Hope’s programs is a Lighthouse Scholarship, which provides some physical needs for children’s schoolwork. Most importantly, it sets the child up with a Nicaraguan mentor who can encourage him or her and give guidance.

Go For Hope also works to support community schools and build classrooms. Hafner said having secure classrooms is essential because if the rooms aren’t secure, they’re robbed at night.

Many of the current classrooms are simple structures made of wood with tin roofs. Students have to carry school supplies, and even chairs, to and from school each day.

“Any school that’s not secure, you can’t put anything in it,” Hafner said. “You can’t give them a whiteboard, you can’t give them desks, because they will just get stolen.”

By finding local people who are efficient, who want to work, and who know Nicaraguan construction, Go For Hope can build classrooms much cheaper than most humanitarian groups.

“We find the most effective way to take a donor’s money and have a community benefit,” he said. “That’s why we exist. I want their money to go as far as it possibly can.”

Go For Hope chartered at the end of 2011. Hafner hopes to one day expand into other countries, but of course the organization wouldn’t do so without a full understanding of the country’s issues and who needs to be involved to make solutions happen.

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