Agros Blog

Reflections on Kurt Meyer

Kurt Meyer.  I met him almost 30 years ago in Guatemala when we were both young men.  He heard about my dream for helping the rural poor in Guatemala through land ownership, and instantly responded with his heart.  Over the years, he poured himself into the Agros cause in so many ways – as a board member and president of Fundación Agros in Guatemala, as a dreamer, friend, and encourager.  And most of all, as one whose love of Jesus translated into loving the poor.

Kurt and I sharing some moments in the Ixil in 1998.  Photos courtesy of Mike Yukevich.

Kurt and I sharing some moments in the Ixil in 1998. Photo courtesy of Mike Yukevich.

For many years Kurt ran a successful business growing and exporting bromeliads – plants that grow and thrive without roots in soil, such as orchids. His plants and flowers were of high enough quality to be in great demand in Europe.  Not surprisingly, Kurt had an encyclopedic knowledge of flora of all kinds.  On our many trips from Guatemala City to the Ixil Region to visit our Agros villages, Kurt would sometimes abruptly ask whoever the driver was to stop in the middle of nowhere.  Then he would leap out of the car and go over to the side of the road, and excitedly show those of us who followed him out of the car some rare or not so rare variety of bromeliad or other plant, give us its Latin genus name, and tell us all about its scientific classification and related orders.  Every trip with Kurt was a learning experience – not just about his beloved world of plants, but about life as well.

He was a sophisticated man with elegant manners.  He spoke Spanish, German, and English with equal fluency.  He and I shared a deep love for classical music, and every so often he would ask me to bring with me on one of my trips a particular recording he could not find in Guatemala.  These were, of course, pre-Amazon.com days.  He also had his share of suffering in life.  Along with thousands of others of German descent, he was deported from his native Guatemala during World War II.  He did not like to talk about that experience.  In more recent years, he lost his beloved wife to a sudden illness, and his only daughter in a tragic plane crash.

Kurt and I on the same trip the Ixil. Photo courtesy of Mike Yukevich.

Kurt and I on the same trip the Ixil. Photo courtesy of Mike Yukevich.

Kurt’s roots in agriculture helped us in so many ways as we built the Agros village model, and helped the people to become successful farmers.  Early on, he dreamed of building a training center in the Ixil Region where Agros villagers and others could learn the best in methods and practices to enhance their production and their lives. He even drew sketches laying out what the center would look like, with training classrooms, living quarters for visitors, and demonstration plots.  That dream was realized with the inauguration of the Agros Ixil Technology Center in Nebaj in 2007.

Kurt Meyer died early morning January 29, 2012, after suffering a series of strokes and heart attacks during recent months.  He leaves behind three sons, Kurt, Dieter and Helmuth.

The Agros Story

Why is the Agros story so sweet?  This is the question my wife Cyd and I recently pondered when we were discussing her impressions of the best-selling book “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson, the story of one man’s efforts to bring schools to rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.

We were comparing the Agros story to the experiences related in Mortenson’s book. As we looked back on the 27-year adventure called Agros, the one word that kept coming to mind: “sweet.”

Some might find that a very strange characterization. I might even agree. I could put on my analytical hat, and come up with a list of rational explanations for why the word fits. But I don’t think I would get very far.

Over these 27 years there have been plenty of hardships, trials, sadnesses, and uncertainty. Even the last 12 months have been challenging as Agros has navigated its way through the most precipitous economic downturn of our lifetime, adding to that difficulty a significant leadership transition.

Through thick and thin, the most enduring impression I carry for the Agros story is one of inexplicable sweetness. Is it because of God’s extraordinary faithfulness when we very ordinary people respond to his call to help the poor? Or perhaps it goes back to the unforgettable smiles on the faces of children in Agros villages? Might it be the many hundreds of people who have thrown themselves into the adventure as volunteers, donors, and workers?

Whatever the explanation, if there is one, the Agros story must be told. In written form. In a book.

My dear friends on the Agros board and staff have been pushing me for several years now to write the book, to get all that history and recollection out of my head and onto the printed page. Three years ago the board even released me from board duties for a time so I could concentrate on writing the book.

I got as far as outline and chapter titles, an introduction, and a first chapter. Then the writing engine stalled. I had my excuses, the most insurmountable (in my mind) being that my boxes of files from the earliest days of Agros, dating back to Feburary 1982, had been lost. No one remembered seeing them for at least 10 years. We all thought the files had been accidentally thrown away during one of the several Agros office relocations.

I mourned the loss of those files – at least 10 years of notes, journals, letters, emails, memos, news clippings, photos, and memorabilia gathered over countless trips, meetings, telephone calls. I felt uneasy about writing the story based solely on my very fallible memory. I feared mistaking dates, sequences of events, names.

Then came a belated but priceless Christmas gift in early January 2009. One of my law partners had loaded “junk” in his garage onto a pickup truck, and was set to go to the dump, when he noticed one of the boxes had “Agros” written on its side. He looked inside the box, and several others, and saw old, dated Agros notes and materials. He called me to ask me if I wanted these boxes.

Can you imagine my feelings of joy when I received that telephone call, and finally got my hands on the boxes? Four old banker’s boxes full of materials dating back to… 1982. It is amazing how a flood of memories can be triggered by a single piece of paper with handwritten notes on it. Think of the history that lives in four boxes full of notes and files.

The stalled writing engine has been reconditioned, oiled, and restarted. What’s more, Cyd has committed herself to helping me this time around.

These three years when the engine was idle have given me, I think, an even better perspective for writing the story.

Most significantly, I am convinced that the Agros story is not just my story, but a story of many. So many of you who have joined in this adventure over the years are integral parts of the story. Agros is people. The story of Agros will be a story of people – young and old, rich and poor, North American and Ixil Indian, and more.

So here’s my request to all of you who have joined in this great Agros adventure – write down, and send me your written memories. Don’t worry about making it “publishable” writing. Incomplete sentences, bits and pieces of recollections – I welcome every bit you can contribute.

If you don’t have the time to write, speak those memories into a tape recorder or a video camera. Include dates, names, places. Tell me what made you laugh, what made you cry. Tell me about those experiences that you now find unforgettable. Send me photos and video clips too.

I can’t guarantee that anyone will have a chapter to themselves, or even a footnote. But I do know that the collection of memories and impressions from all of you will add a richness and color to the grand tapestry of the story that my memory alone could not possibly provide.

Help me capture the sweetness of the Agros story.

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My email address:  cdlatelmlawdotcom  (cdlatelmlawdotcom)  
Or, you can mail or drop off your materials to the Agros office.

Hans Theyer selected as President and CEO of Agros

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 14, 2009

Hans P. Theyer selected as Chief Executive Officer of Agros International

HansSEATTLE, WA. Agros International announced today the selection of Hans P. Theyer as President & CEO, effective June 1, 2009.

Theyer brings to Agros extensive international experience working in the IT, manufacturing, and banking industries as well as a deep understanding of the challenges faced by underserved, rural communities in Latin America and Asia.  Most recently he was a key player in Microsoft’s Rural Computing effort at Microsoft, an initiative to empower emerging markets throughout the rural, developing world with access to information and communications technology.

As CEO, Theyer will oversee strategic development for Agros and work closely with donors and partners invested in Agros’ unique holistic development model.  Theyer succeeds Gregory Rake, who has taken a new position with the Rural Development Institute, and interim CEO Donald J. Manning.

Theyer is eager to apply his leadership skills and international experience working with rural communities, businesses, and governments in developing countries to the non-profit sector.  Hans was born and raised in Chile, and has managed projects throughout South East Asia, India, China, and Latin America.  These experiences have provided him with an intimate knowledge of the rural poor in developing countries and have reinforced his commitment to serve underprivileged communities.

I am inspired by the Agros vision of ending poverty one village at a time, Theyer says.  Globally, we are at a critical juncture and sustainable solutions to poverty are vitally needed. With almost forty village projects in five countries, I believe Agros is implementing the most unique poverty-alleviating model in international development.  Having worked around the world at building relationships between rural communities and diverse partners, I am truly excited to serve Agros villagers, staff, and donors.”

Serving remote, rural village communities throughout Central American and Mexico, Agros provides long-term credit for the purchase of farmable land, integrated technical services and training, and holistic community development.  The work of Agros has empowered thousands to work their way free from the devastating effects of poverty.

Founded by Seattle lawyer Chi-Dooh ‘Skip’ Li in 1982, Agros International has previously won recognition for providing “lasting solutions to poverty” from an alliance of the World Bank, the UNDP, and the Inter-American Foundation.  Most recently, Agros won the prestigious 2008 World Bank Development Marketplace Award for its innovative approach to poverty alleviation.

Hans’ background and experience make for a unique combination of leadership skills that can help Agros scale up its efforts to help the poorest of the rural poor everywhere achieve the dream of owning their own farmland,” Skip Li says.

Theyer holds a Master of Business Administration from the London Business School, a Bachelor of Commercial Engineering from Universidad Gabriela Mistral in Santiago Chile, and was formerly General Manager at COMPAÑAIA INDUSTRIAL DE ALGINATOS.  He moved with his wife and two sons from Chile to Seattle in 2006.

DON VALENCIA, 1952 – 2007

Agros lost a great friend on December 8, 2007.

Don Valencia, board member since 1995, and co-chairman of the board from 2000-2007, died of liver cancer after a 15-month battle that was inspirational to all who knew him.

The possibility of cancer was first discovered during an Agros board retreat at the Valencias’ Whidbey beach home in late September 2006. His casual statement about a persistent pain in his side during dinner the first night of the retreat caught the attention of Larisa Kaukonen, another board member and a physician. She insisted he go to the emergency room immediately, and told him she would go with him. Many tests and several different diagnoses later, the worst was confirmed: metastasized stage-4 cancer of the liver and lungs.

Driving to the Whidbey house in the early afternoon before other board members arrived for that retreat, Don was overcome with the realization that the most important thing in life is to love and be loved. It was a powerful truth that gripped his life and set the course for the next year and three months.

Concurrent with discovering the cancer, he found a new and intimate love for Jesus. New insight from scripture leapt out at him. He shared those insights with friends far and near. Those close to him witnessed a re-making of the man. For the entire 15 months, God was daily chiseling away and shaping Don into an entirely new being.

His love for his wife Heather deepened immeasurably. As with so many men who accomplish so much in life, he was not an easy man to be married to. The cancer opened his eyes to how he had let so many other things cut into his relationship with Heather.

He also saw his two boys, Johnny and Bo, with new eyes. He was eager to spend time with them, to rejoice in their successes, and to teach them the marks of mature manhood. He had long wanted to write a book for his boys that would contain all a father would want to say to his sons. This wish had its unplanned realization in a blog he began to write in October 2006 through a site (donvalencia.com) designed by a close friend from Starbucks days. His blog entries, written and video, described his “dancing on the edge of heaven,” and were filled with remarkable candor and transparency. People who did not even know him were inspired by his entries, written straight from the heart.

For the first three years of his Agros board tenure, Don was an irregular participant. His job as Senior Vice President for Research & Development at Starbucks consumed his time and thinking. In the fall of 1998 he decided to go on a University Presbyterian Church service team trip to an Agros project in Guatemala, thinking he would then resign from the Agros board after the trip. But his encounter with the rural poor both broke and captivated his heart, and he resigned instead a year later from Starbucks, and began to pour his efforts into Agros.

In 2000 he agreed to assume a co-chairman role with me. I cannot say enough about what a great partner he became to me, as we divided up the responsibilities of the chairman’s position. He preferred the “inside” chores of helping our President, Greg Rake, build the organization’s infrastructure, capacity, professionalism and accountability, and gladly left the more “public” aspects of the chairmanship to me. We had complete trust and confidence in one another, and for six years we traveled together and communicated almost daily by phone, email, text message or face-to-face times about Agros and a number of other business, non-profit, and community ventures. Aside from my law firm, there was little I was involved in of any significance that Don was not part of in an integral way.

Before the organization was able to hire a top-flight CFO like Jean Ingebritsen, Don oversaw the design and implementation of budgeting and financial tracking systems that were light years ahead of legacy systems the organization used when its budget hovered around $65,000 per year.

He was always willing to travel on short notice. Our national staff and board members in the various countries with Agros villages came to love and respect “don Don” for his analytical mind and his love for the poor.

What a man – scientist, artist, businessman, follower of Jesus and friend of the poor. He was blessed with a top-flight mind early, and a burning compassion for the poor later. Those of us privileged to know him have been deeply touched by a life well lived, and capped by a magnificent finish.

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