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Making a Difference

She’s played soccer all over the USA, in Trinidad & Tobago and New Zealand, and is part of the USA’s historic first-ever team to compete in a U-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup, but the biggest impact U.S. U-17 midfielder Kate Bennett has made just might be in a country she has never visited.

U.S. Under-17 WNT midfielder Kate Bennett is your typical teenage girl.

The 16-year-old from Clyde Hill, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, likes to go to movies, hang out with her friends, raise $120,000 for an organization to extend small business loans to poor people in the Dominican Republic in hopes of helping them eventually becoming self-sufficient, and watch America’s Next Top model.

Wait…back up one.

Raise $120,000 for a humanitarian cause? That doesn’t sound like typical teenage behavior, but then maybe Bennett is not so typical.

About a year ago her brother Scott, a senior at Bellevue High School, where she is a junior, was inspired by a teacher to get involved with microfinance.

Microfinance, explained for someone without a degree in economics, is basically providing financial services, including loans, to low-income people who don’t normally have access to the world of banking.

Small loans and financial services for those living in poverty in third world countries are not always available, as banks usually don’t service clients with little or no cash income. The theory of microfinance is that small loans can help poor people start or maintain their businesses, becoming self-sufficient over time and help the communities in which they live, while paying the loans back at very low interest rates.

Enter the Microfinance Club of Bellevue High School. It was an idea and a cause that struck a chord with Scott and Kate Bennett, as well as the other founder members, Ryan Odegard and twins Brett and Alex Mennella. They soon started recruiting members for their club.

They put together a well-researched and detailed power point presentation and went seeking corporate donations. First stop: Microsoft.

“That was pretty intimidating,” said Bennett. “But they gave us some great advice about how to improve our presentation, and I guess they were impressed enough that they made us an offer. If we could raise $50,000, they would match it.”

With that kind of motivation, they set about getting more corporate sponsors and held a fundraising event with parents in her local community. Banner Bank donated, as did Trilogy, a venture capital company, and several other individuals.

Amazingly, after a few months, they had put together about $70,000. They went back to Microsoft, which added its $50,000, and after seven months of hard work, they had raised the $120,000.

“We were all surprised at how fast it grew,” said Kate, who along with the other members of the club worked with the organization Esperanza International to distribute the money to those in need in the Dominican Republic. “People helping other people is a good thing. We all wanted to make a difference and that was kind of our calling.”

The mission of Esperanza International is to free children and their families from poverty through initiatives that generate income, education and health, restoring self-worth and dignity to those who have lost hope.

“Hope is a powerful thing,” said Bennett. “My parents definitely make me think about things like that and help me not take the life I live for granted. I’ve been fortunate enough that we’ve traveled a bit to see other parts of the world. I think my parents are really globally aware and they’re really concerned with the well-being of the world.”

Bennett tells the story of a woman who owned a cow and was able to buy a thermometer through the small loan. Because of the thermometer, she was able to control the temperature of the milk, thus producing milk of higher quality and gaining more customers, and when she starts making a profit, can eventually pay off the loan.

“Some people will run little stands that will sell lunches to people in the factories or some people start a school,” said Bennett. “It’s small things like that which can make a big difference in people’s lives.”

At the end of the last school year, about 25 members of the club traveled to the Dominican Republic to meet the people who were benefitting from their work. Kate couldn’t go. No surprise that she was at a national team training camp, but the pictures and stories they brought back touched her.

“A lot of kids came back and were moved by their experiences down there,” said Bennett. “Where I live, we are from an affluent community and I feel like a lot of kids, myself included, sometimes don’t know the value of a dollar. Going to a place that is completely opposite is a special opportunity.”

On the theme of special opportunities, Bennett is one of 21 players on the U.S. roster participating in the first U-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup. She mostly plays attacking midfield but can play in several positions, and true to her giving nature, is ready to pitch in and do what ever she can to make the team successful.

“I wish I could have gone down to the Dominican Republic, but I always try to keep reminding myself how fortunate I am to get to travel all over world, play soccer, meet new people and even play in a World Cup,” said Bennett. “We tend to take things for granted in the U.S. I think it’s really good to look outside your comfort zone and realize that it’s not a big deal if you have a bad soccer practice or are having a bad hair day. There so many people around the world who don’t even have enough money to feed their families.”

The Microfinance Club is kicking into gear again this fall with the hopes of raising at least another $75,000 and perhaps working with Esperanza to expand the program into other third-world countries.

“If kids ask me what they can do to get involved, I would tell them to just figure out what you are interested in and focus on your core beliefs,” said Bennett. “Whether it’s global warming or the environment, or whatever is important to you, focus on what you are passionate about and take action.”