Tag Archives: Louise Nielsen


My wife was looking through some old files recently and came across an article that she thought I might appreciate.  She was right.

The article was taken from the December 10, 1983 edition of “The Minneapolis Star and Tribune” newspaper, and the title was, “A ‘Friendly Bur’ Helps Poor of Central America.”  Its author, Henry Bellows, had succeeded in doing something that lesser reporters had not: he convinced Harold Nielsen to sit for an interview.  And so, some 33 years after the fact, a portrait of Harold Nielsen, co-founder of Winds of Peace Foundation, reappeared.  It reminded me why the Foundation and I  miss him so much.  (I have also borrowed quotations from One Couple’s Gift, by Steve Swanson.)

The second day [in Central America] you wake up at 3:00 A.M. and start to cry,” he said. “You don’t have to go to the university to see something is wrong…  You don’t have to study.

We visited the worst slum I had ever seen- filth, terrible housing, no roads, bridges or infrastructure.  Nothing.  As I stood looking at this mess, something encircled one of my legs.  There at my knee was a little fellow, about 2 years old, naked as a jaybird, his arms wrapped around my leg, hug fashion.  and looking up at me with a big friendly smile.  He ran off then, and was out of my life forever.  But he has been in my thoughts ever since.”

That image may have been the flame that kindled the fire which burned in Harold and his wife, Louise, over the years, as they developed the vision for putting their resources to work in Nicaragua.  Harold possessed both the sensitivity to recognize the injustices of deep poverty, but also the vision to see how he might  be an unwitting contributor to that condition, as well as part of its solution.  By the time he had completed his first trip into Central America, Harold was quick to admit to being a “rampant capitalist.”  But he also recognized that he had become hopelessly “infected.”

Harold had mused hard and long about his experiences.  He shared some of those thoughts when he addressed the employees of his company, Foldcraft, upon announcing his intention to sell the firm to them in an ESOP.   Harold spoke about:

“…our corrupted capitalist system of which I had unknowingly become a part.  I devoted the bulk of my career to succeeding within that system, and now, I find myself disenchanted with the system- the same system in which the company had succeeded  So now I sell a portion of it to you who, in turn, become capitalists yourselves.  Hopefully, a long time before most of you reach my age, you’ll have come to some of the awareness that I gradually have come to.”  

Harold’s conscience not only infected him, but quietly and thoroughly worked its way under the skin of those around him and challenged one’s sense of fairness and morality.  He had not only become infected, but contagious.

With gratitude, many of us came down with the symptoms.  My own journey eventually led me from Harold’s company to Winds of Peace.  And while that “bur” aspect may have dissipated since Harold’s death in 2013 at age 95, the same focus on the poor of Nicaragua still drives the organization which Harold and Louise founded.  Since its inception, the Foundation has learned a great deal about development in Nicaragua, and even many perspectives since his passing.  But curiously, most often it is driven by the image of that little boy who Harold described so emotionally.

Harold says that he hates getting attention for his giving.  Several times during the interview he said he didn’t want to talk about what he is doing, ‘unless it benefits the kids of Central America.’  And while his neighbors’ feelings toward him are important, Nielsen said that he doesn’t care about the politics of the people he is trying to help. ‘Politics is secondary to survival in Central America.  Here, people are worried about who is going to move in next door.  There, they are worried about how they are going to get enough to eat.  They don’t care about politics as long as they can stay alive.”

Harold’s analysis may not have been perfect, but his sensitivities were.  How else might one explain the decision which he and Louise made thereafter, to use essentially all of their assets to fund Winds of Peace and its beneficiaries.

Harold  was adept at being  a voice of social conscience within his church and broader community, but he was also an architect for building an initiative, one that could help to create sustainable change in the organizations of the peasant communities.  This committed capitalist became a generous steward, a fierce voice for social and economic justice, and an irritant to the comfortable thinking of those who heard him.

I did not need a newspaper article from the archives to recall what Harold and Louise Nielsen were all about.  I am blessed to have worked with Harold for 39 years, to have witnessed his transformation and to have been infected with my own.  But every so often, it’s nice to look back upon someone else’s amazement at the impact of just one “ordinary” person on the lives of so many.  I re-read the article with my own renewed sense of wonder, appreciation and love….



Dear Harold

Winds of Peace co-founder Harold Nielsen passed away one year ago, on November 11, 2013.  We thought a remembrance of Harold would be in order, in addition to a reflection on what has transpired during the past year.  The following is dedicated to the memory of both Harold and Louise, and their presence in the life of the Foundation- a presence that we miss daily.

Dear Harold:

Seems like yesterday that we said good-bye.  In fact, it was one year ago today.  It’s hard for me to believe that Winds of Peace has another year of experiences since we last spoke.  I thought I’d give you an update on how things are going, what we’ve encountered and what might lie ahead.

You’d be disappointed to learn that our government continues to pretend that the economy is healthy following the great recession.  It has continued to drive deeper into debt, print money as a salve and create statistics that have almost no semblance of reality.  It really has been, as we used to observe, a case of “the emperor’s new clothes.”  It has made the management of Foundation funds an uncertain activity at best.  Sometimes markets can be anticipated in their movements; manipulations cannot.

Speaking of government, I’d have to report that Nicaragua continues to transition into a one-party autocracy that continues to tighten its grip on the country.   The democratic structures remain in place, but pretty much in form only.    It’s pretty hard for Nicaraguan people to obtain justice when everything is tied to party affiliation.  Lots of funding agencies from around the world have left, meaning that our presence has become even more important than before.

We’re finishing up a year that has been pretty good in terms of work with our partners.  The coffee cooperatives have faced their usual litany of difficulties, some weather-related, some systemically difficult and others due to organizational dysfunction.  (I’m afraid that we still encounter so-called “leaders” whose only desire for leadership is self-aggrandizement.)  We continue to seek partners who understand that only through full transparency and member participation- women as well as men-  will they achieve the “strength in numbers” that will best ensure their collective success.  Just as in the U.S., who would have guessed that opening the books and encouraging people to look out for their own well-being would be such a tough sell?

We’ve undertaken a great deal more research than even a few years ago.  Our collaboration with colleagues in Nicaragua has provided insight and direction with regard to our funding impacts, especially in our work with the rural cooperatives.  It feels more like we’re following a map to our destination, supplied with the realities of historical and cultural roadblocks that exist along the journey.  I know how much you always valued objective information in your decision-making, and we have more of that than ever before.  I wish you could read some of the website blog entries posted by our Nica sources!

Our partners have responded well in honoring the loan repayments they have promised, and our rate of default is still less than 2%, even after the recent years of coffee plant damage due to the coffee rust plague. That rate is still pretty amazing, given the lack of credit experience for most of our partners  and the uncertainty of peasant producer life.   And most of these organizations have, indeed, worked to implement a true cooperative spirit of engagement.  Do you remember the funding we authorized for translating The Great Game of Business into Spanish?  One partner coop not only received the book with interest, but even proudly referenced its application some months later when we met.  It’s having an impact.

You will certainly remember several years ago, just after Louise passed away, and you talked about wanting to do something significant in a new arena.  When we proposed a focus on improving the education opportunities, you endorsed the initiative immediately.  Well, just this year alone we have underwritten scholarships for candidates in the Master’s Degree in Teaching at the University of Central America (UCA) in Managua, funded teacher training and evaluation initiatives at IDEUCA,  supported vocational and technical training at AMCC and Fe y Alegria, sponsored the Nobel Peace Prize Forum and disbursed funds for the purchase of library books for elementary kids across Nicaragua.  I don’t know exactly how many students or teachers we have touched, but it’s in the thousands.  You wanted us to do something special in Louise’s name; I think we are doing that.

Our work with the Indigenous has been more difficult.  These original peoples continually struggle with a desire to maintain their traditions and culture, against a temptation to succumb to political party influences and money, as I mentioned above.  One of our longest Indigenous relationships is undergoing just such an upheaval currently.  It looks more and more as though we may part company for the time being, until and unless they can regain their footing on behalf of all of their people.  But you know all about making difficult decisions that nonetheless trouble the heart.

The Indigenous youth cooperative is still functioning with openness and a refreshing embrace of solidarity.  But  even the youth are being pressured by outside sources to reflect the party line in their activities.  Hopefully, their observations of party influences  have given them with a sort of negative modeling of how not to organize and interact.  I hope they can hold fast to the instinctive notions they have about collaboration.

I hope you’re still feeling patient with the development of the Synergy Center.  Mark and I continue to strategize and explore possibilities with a wide range of education institutions.  We’ve met with quite a few people from around the entire country to describe the opportunity and potential benefits for both a U.S. university and people in Nicaragua.  I think that many of our contacts intuitively sense the value in establishing cultural and educational bridges with Nicaraguan students and rural populations; it can be truly hands-on learning and life-changing interaction.  I’m having another discussion with several educators in the Twin Cities on December 4, so don’t count the idea out yet!

Well, I have to close for now and post this letter.  In signing off, I want to reaffirm that we take very seriously the development legacy that you and Louise entrusted to us, to promote  economic, social,
and environmental just relations for impoverished Nicaraguans. Your vision of a more just and peaceful existence  is still driving our actions and objectives.  Your passion for that still drives our own hearts.

But make no mistake about it, Harold, we miss your insights and wisdom every day.  I look forward to the next time we have the chance to sit and talk about human nature….

After the Tears and Laughter

The remembrances and fond memories of Harold Nielsen were shared by scores of family and friends last Sunday in a celebratory service that would have made Harold very self-conscious.  He never felt comfortable accepting recognition for anything he had done, unless in some way he thought it might further assistance or awareness for the people he sought to serve.  But the afternoon was filled nonetheless with both tears and happy reflections for the man who influenced so many niches of life for so many.

In the aftermath of the service, as the conversations swelled with stories of Harold and Louise and their adventures, one question surfaced several times, to my great surprise.  The question essentially was, what changes might be expected in the months ahead for WPF?  I felt surprise at the question because I had not anticipated it.  And I had not anticipated it because I foresee very few changes to the Foundation due to Harold’s passing.  Allow me to elaborate. Continue reading After the Tears and Laughter

Harold R. Nielsen, Selfless Servant

Harold NielsonToday, we lost our founder and force.

Harold Nielsen had been struggling in recent months with a chronic respiratory difficulty and this morning passed away from its relentless grip.  He was 96.  The world now has lost one of its most remarkable people.

Harold Nielsen’s name will not be recognized by most people.  That is precisely the way he wanted his life and work to be: anonymous and without fanfare.  He wanted his work to speak for itself in terms of what he believed and the humanitarian perspectives that came to define his life.  But Harold’s character, manner and demeanor gave definition to the notion of servant leader long before the term entered the modern lexicon; his work and perspectives literally changed the lives of those who knew him, and the lives of so many who did not. Continue reading Harold R. Nielsen, Selfless Servant

Teaching and Learning, 101

For the past year and a half, Winds of Peace has engaged in some creative thinking about education.  Not only education in Nicaragua, where we have funded a number of initiatives to both train teachers and help kids stay in school, but also in the U.S., where the education task takes on a much different form and function in creating awareness of Nicaraguan realities.  There have been a number of components that we have dreamed about over these months and the ideas are exciting to play with, because they each hold promise of an impact.  And the entire topic of education-particularly of young women- was a priority in the thinking of Louise Nielsen, one of the founders of Winds of Peace.  Thoughtfulness on the subject eventually has led us to the notion of a new Nicaragua facility to serve as a center for promoting and enhancing education.  But the education is not just for Nicaraguans.

The facility we have had in mind would likely belong to some educational entity from the U.S., a partner to own and operate the venture.  The Foundation would provide significant funds toward the building of a structure that would provide food, lodging and conference space to facilitate the synergy between the university-partner’s work and the historical and new work of the foundation, specifically: 1) experiential educational programming, aimed at the US educational community and public in general, under the auspices of the university but taking advantage of the contacts of the foundation; 2) WPF office and place for meetings; 3) place where professors with their students can come to do research, and where new educational products could be developed, that would bring the reality of Nicaragua into the classroom in the US. This would be a place where the work of the university and the work of the Foundation could interact for the betterment of both institutions and learners in both countries. It would also become a place of reference for any institution of higher learning interested in Nicaragua.  On top of it all, the facility would be intended to serve as lodging quarters for any travelers to Nicaragua seeking comfortable accommodations while in Managua.

You see, the problem of education in Nicaragua is not limited to the meager opportunities afforded to most  young people in that country.  Funding projects that raise the frequency of attendance and success in Nicaraguan education is an important role for WPF to play, to be certain.  But there is an equal if not greater amount of learning to be done in Nicaragua by those of us who reside elsewhere.  Teaching is about providing knowledge or insight to others who, by virtue of circumstance or limited experiences,  have not yet developed their inherent capacities for understanding the world around them.  Such a definition certainly applies to young Nicaraguan boys and girls who frequently are forced to drop out of the education process due to lack of funds or the need to work in supplementing family income.  But it also pertains to those of us from lives of relative affluence and insulation from harsher realities of substandard living.  The perspectives attained by people who have lived lives of neglect and few opportunities may be among the most important teachings that the rest of us will ever receive; they are perspectives that we simply cannot develop on our own.

The Nicaraguan facility project increasingly feels like a unique and innovative concept in the name of education of all sorts.  Already, it has acquired the feel of a “synchronicity center,” a place where the realities of Nicaraguan schools can be addressed, where lessons from within country as well as other education models can be introduced, and where basic funding for the most impactful initiatives might be found.  But the potential of its reach is even greater than these objectives.  The synchronicity center contains in its genetic makeup the capacity to engender a deep, cross-cultural understanding among people from very different experiences and views, not only among students but also among other unsuspecting adults.  The doors of education in this enterprise will swing both ways, and the lines between teacher and student will be intentionally blurred to enhance the insights gained one from the other….



Getting Schooled

I mentioned here a while back that a portion of my recent visit in Nicaragua had been focused on the education initiative which Winds of Peace started last year.  Our agenda for the week permitted a lengthy visit to Roberto Clemente School in Ciudad Sandino, a 1400 student house of joy.  The school is one operated by Fe y Alegria, one of WPF’s partners in working on the education initiative.  By the end of our tour and conversations, it was very clear that the students weren’t the only ones getting schooled that day.  My own education became elevated that day in ways that I had not expected.

If I tell you that Nicaragua’s statistics on education reflect poor progress, that the average student only receives about five years of classroom participation, that a third of students don’t make it out of primary school, that the country dedicates only 3% of GDP to education funding (when 10% is considered the minimum necessary), that of the kids who start first grade only half will reach grade five, then you might reach the reasonable conclusion that Nica schools leave a lot to be desired.  But you’d only be partially correct, because the presence of Roberto Clemente School belies the truth of an educational system in dire need.

My education on tour day included the expected elements:  accompaniment by Leslie Gomez from Fe y Alegria, meeting Berta Vasquez, Director General ofthe school who seemed to know the name of every child there, a walk-around of the premises, peeking into classrooms, observing kids between classes, in a few instances actually visiting with some of the students, and generally being conspicuous amidst a sea of uniformed scholars.  It’s an experience that I’ve had previously, in U.S. schools, so I thought that I knew what to expect in terms of the pupils’ behaviors, demeanors, sounds and interactions with me.  It turns out that I was quite wrong.

First, I noted the sounds of the school.  An open courtyard surrounded by classrooms may have amplified what I heard, but there was no mistaking the nature of the noise: I can only characterize it as joyful, vibrant, excited.

And I’m not talking about the pre-school classrooms, where one might expect little kids to be having fun because they don’t yet recognize what they may eventually come to regard as the drudgery of school.  I’m including the classrooms of the middle and upper-age students, high schoolers whose Western peers frequently exude sardonic sarcasm and languid disaffection about their

time in the academy.  Here, though, only pride and school “ownership” were on display.  Everywhere we went, in each of the classrooms, the buzzing of true, energetic fun sounded all around the building; it is not a sound that can easily be faked, and the attentive faces behind the sounds attested to its reality.

Then there was the look and content of the classrooms themselves.  The uniforms which the students wear created a sense of organization in each class, uniformity that suggested the responsibility that each young person owed to the others; no visual outliers, no fashion statements here.  The walls reflected the learning being done, with bright colors and lessons and children’s names to be seen everywhere, tangible statements of “I can.”  Absent were the trappings of technology and modern distraction.  What mattered on these walls and in these rooms were the outputs of the kids.  The computers and the electronics were all housed elsewhere, and for another time of the day.

Despite what might be viewed as regimentation at the school, there is a large waiting list of families desiring for their children to attend; kids really want to be at this school.  There is also a cost for attending, as students have to cover the cost of their uniforms and some materials consumed.  Many families simply cannot afford the 80 Cordobas ($3.43) per month that is required for attending.   I was pleased to learn that the financial assistance provided by Winds of Peace via Fe y Alegria had covered scholarships for 68 students.  Wow!

When we dared to interrupt and enter several of the classrooms, the reactions were consistently stirring. Each time, the several dozen students rose to attention beside their desks, as if on cue, and the smiles directed at their visitors unequivocally affirmed the sounds and the sights described above.  I know the energy and vitality that young kids breathe into life (I’ve raised four of my own!), yet the impact of the collective energyand enthusiasm in these studentsstruck me in a way quite different from other school visits I’ve  had.  At one classroom stop we were privileged to meet William, the president of the school student body.  The conversation was eye-to-eye anddirect; he displayed great self-confidence in describing his responsibilities and his charge of leadership and role modeling.  As I stood transfixed by this young man’s bearing, the vice-president of the student body, Debora, emerged from the classroom to introduce herself and respond to more of our questions.

During the whole of our discussion, not once did I see a dropped gaze or a self-conscious stare at the ground.  By the time the third member of this student leadership trio, Danny, joined our impromptu lesson on student government, I had become completely disarmed by the poise and self-assurance being cultivated among the members of this school.  And as if to accentuate the fact thatour interaction had not been only for show, each of the three took my own notebook and entered their respective e-mail addresses and Facebook connections as a means for continued conversation.  I was as impressed and impacted as I could possibly have been.

As if this entire excursion had not amazed me beyond my expectations for the morning, as I approached the truck to depart I had the lovely encounter with little Yareli, described in my blog here of May 5.  Her sweet “blessing” was icing on a cake of immense meaning and proportion, and a treat that will stay with me, likely, forever.

If the state of education in Nicaragua is truly needy (and it is), such need is not comprised of youth who are without motivation or inherent capacities.  A short visit to Roberto Clemente School will quickly disabuse any skeptic of that notion.  Rather, the deficit is one caused by a lack of priority and discipline in facing the future needs of an entire nation.  In short, it’s the adults who are failing in the classrooms, in favor of other perceived primacies that are shorter-term and supported by louder lobbies.  As a result, the beautiful music of students having the opportunity to embrace the ownership of their own futures plays much too infrequently and softly.

Leaving the school grounds, students waved at us.  I remember mentally thanking Louise Nielsen for her special concern for kids and their education and for the work that we now do in this field in her name….

One Couple’s Gift

One Couple's GiftOne Couple’s Gift, by Steve Swanson, is the chronicle of Harold and Louise Nielsen’s awakening to the needs of the world’s poor and how they sought to make a difference.

The book covers their lives in creating Foldcraft Co. and their subsequent commitment to using their own resources for the benefit of others.  You can get the book at Amazon.com.

In May of 2009, the Kenyon Leader newspaper published a story on the book in an article titled ‘One Couple’s Gift’ is giving.

You Could Write A Book…

And finally, someone did! I have worked with Harold and Louise Nielsen since 1974.

Harold NielsonlouisenielsonI served as Foldcraft Co.’s first human resources manager, succeeded Harold as the Company’s second-ever CEO and was provided the opportunity to lead Winds of Peace Foundation, the private foundation begun by Harold and Louise.  In between all of that, I served on the Board of Miracle Ranch Children’s Home, a private orphanage established by the Nielsens.  I served on the Board of the Nielsen’s  Third World Friends Thrift Store in Kenyon, MN, where tons of donated clothing is either sold or sent to Third World locations to benefit the poor.  Harold and Louise have always been entrepreneurs, innovators, people who are willing to try new ideas and most often on behalf of others.  When you are around individuals like that, things happen.  Exciting things.  Unexpected things. Naturally, I love to talk about these things.

One Couple's GiftAnyone who has ever met either of the Nielsens is ready to tell a story, including me.  It might be about how they grew their company, or how they came to start the foundation, or about some act of generosity that seems to be their trademark.  Every occasion I’ve had to speak publicly about any of the organizations created by the Nielsens has generated queries about these two innovators.  Few people have ever met this selfless couple and NOT been moved by their down-to-earth nature and their quiet spirit of caring.    The questions are generated by curiosity about what moves these everyday people to act in ways that so consistently impact the lives of others, even around the world.  And now, I have a means to provide at least some of the answers.

Steve Swanson is a retired Lutheran clergyman and professor of English at St. Olaf College.   He has written many books for both adults and children, and he continues to write and preach as opportunities arise.  But his most recent book, One Couple’s Gift (Nine Ten Press, Northfield, MN), is the result of a long-developing relationship with Harold and Louise, and his growing admiration and amazement at the lives of these two visionaries and the initiatives which they created.  I had the chance to contribute in some very small ways to the book since I’ve had the privilege of an “inside look” at so many of the Nielsen’s endeavors.  But the book and the observations are really Steve Swanson’s and it’s a wonderful story that he tells.

The timing of the tale could not be better, in my opinion.  These rather dark economic days have given rise to deeper introspection by many of us, an occasion to examine our lives, our priorities, what’s truly important and necessary versus that which is peripheral and transitory.  One Couple’s Gift provides a powerful message through a simple but remarkable story.  It gives me at long last a resource to partially explain the fertile environment in which I have found myself working since 1974, leading me to explorations into such worlds as business ethics, employee ownership, servant leadership, microlending, the plight of the poor, and, ultimately, human love and compassion.

What I have been surrounded with for all of those years is now  reflected in Harold and Louise’s moving story, and in a book that I can share with others.  I just wanted you to know….