About Amistad International

Amistad International began in 1980 when Karen Hanson Kotoske raised enough money from family and friends to provide food and medical care for several Huichol villages in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental. Since then Amistad has expanded their humanitarian and educational work around the globe, to India, Africa, and Asia.

An Interview with Amistad Director Karen Kotoske

Our Philosophy

We are committed to:

  • Assisting a limited number of worthy projects, run by creative, compassionate people with a high degree of responsibility and accountability.
  • Stretching the money we receive to help as many as we can, using only a minimal amount for foundation expenses.
  • Maintaining personal relationships with both donors and project leaders.
  • Communicating to our donors frequently about the effect their gifts are having on both recipients and workers.
  • Letting our donors help us to solve problems and work together with us on rewarding projects.

We enable community leaders to teach, develop and empower the rural poor so that they can participate effectively in their own development. We help leadership  carry out their ideas and vision, knowing their wisdom has been gained through experience and challenge. Our goal is to help local communities reach economic self-sustenance through culturally-inspired and appropriate ways. This is done primarily through primary education of children, empowerment of community leadership, water and agriculture training, and trade school programs.

Some of the programs we support cannot attain economic sustainability because of the nature of their outreach. Among these are elementary schools for impoverished children, orphanages and a home for HIV+ children.

How We Began

As I watched the small four-seat Cessna lift off from the dirt mountain airstrip in May of 1980, I couldn’t imagine how the few hours I’d spent in this Huichol Indian village would change the course of my life and work. Up to this point I’d been content with my rather ordinary suburban life with my husband Tom in California and my work as a dental hygienist.

I had been invited to join a group of medical students from Universidad Autonoma/Guadalajara providing medical care to poor Huichol farmers and their families living in the rugged Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. Due to the Huichols’ remote location, these students provided the only medical and dental care they had access to. But that day, the Huichol didn’t ask for medical care. They asked for food.

A prolonged, deadly drought had made them desperate for food and they asked our pilot, Bill Baxter, if there was any way he could bring them a 50-pound sack of dried corn so they could make masa, their daily staple.

Bill and the medical students flew off to look for the corn, leaving me behind. They would need my seat to hold the bag of corn should they find it.

Well, I didn’t know a single word of the Huichol language and only a few words of Spanish, and the villagers didn’t speak Spanish at all. But despite the language barrier, their difficulties were clear to me. They needed food to survive. Since communication was not an option, I had plenty of time alone to think. An inner voice told me very clearly that I couldn’t just walk away from this situation and go back to my comfortable life. I had to do something. I had to help these people by helping the students with their flying clinic.

I returned home with a passion to do whatever I could for these people who were so removed from civilization that the world had forgotten them. (Even the area in which they lived was blank on the map.)

I soon had Amistad Foundation registered as a charity and began collecting donations. (Our name was later changed to Amistad International.) Soon, resources began flowing to the medical students enabling them to continue their work and keep the clinic operating. When those students graduated, Amistad Foundation was able to recruit new volunteer doctors and a professional pilot and the Huichol Indian outreach continues to this day.

I learned about Oregonian Paula Leen who had been volunteering her time to help orphans and the ill and impoverished in Zimbabwe. Her dream was to build an orphanage to provide ongoing help to the region. Amistad became a partner in those efforts.

In 2003 my friend, Buddhist scholar Dr. Vesna Wallace, told me about a humble teacher in Varanasi, India who was trying to provide an education for beggars’ children who were not able to go to school. 60 impoverished students crowded into a few makeshift classrooms built on her family’s small city lot.  Amistad began supporting Buddha’s Smile School, helping her build new classrooms and a day care center. From that humble beginning the school has grown to over 200 students, and over 100 of them have gone on to high school.

Through a growing network of friends, donors, and volunteers, Amistad has been able to support many other worthwhile causes including an orthopedic surgery program and orphanages in Haiti, programs to fight female genital mutilation in Kenya, and numerous sustainable agriculture and craft skills training programs. In Mongolia, Amistad helped to build two schools in the yurt district of Ulan Bator and purchase livestock for nomadic families to replace animals lost during killer freezes. In South Africa we provided support to a home for children afflicted with HIV+. As our work expanded, we changed our name to Amistad International to reflect our broader global reach.

I will always be grateful for that eye-opening day in the rugged mountains of Mexico that changed my life and set me on a path that would ultimately touch many lives all around the world.

Karen Kotoske
Founder/Executive Director