Ballenger attributed his career in politics to his education at Amherst. “My education pretty well got me interested in politics,” he said. According to Ballenger, he felt he was afforded many opportunities because of Amherst; among them was the opportunity to start his own manufacturing company and then change careers to politics. “If you get an Amherst education, it opens doors everywhere,” he said.
In general, Ballenger spoke affectionately of his years at the College and is especially appreciative of the teaching and the education he received. “Amherst did not tell me what to think; it taught me how to think,” he said. Ballenger also has a familial connection to the area: his wife and daughter graduated from Smith College, and he has several cousins who also attended Amherst.
Like father, like son-in-law
It seems that a familial connection introduced Ballenger and his wife, Donna, a Smith College ’51 graduate, into their humanitarian work. They first became involved in aiding underdeveloped countries because of her father. “My wife’s father sold his company and became very rich and very bored, and he joined the International Executive Service Corps,” said Ballenger. The International Executive Service Corps is a group that volunteers its expertise and skills to companies in underdeveloped nations.
Ballenger and his wife visited his father-in- law in El Salvador and befriended many of the natives driving through El Salvador and Guatemala. Ten years later, when a major earthquake hit Guatemala in 1975, Ballenger’s wife was inspired to go to Guatemala and help rebuild a destroyed hospital. Traveling in San Juan Sacateqequez, Guatemala, Ballenger’s wife worked at the hospital site while Ballenger procured medical equipment. As a result, the clinic is known as the Clinica Medica “Donna Ballenger” and Ballenger was named an honorary fire chief in Guatemala City.
“That started it all,” said Ballenger. “My wife and I decided we couldn’t change the whole world, but at least we could do something in Central America.” This effort was the first of many in the Ballengers’ quest to provide help to the people living in poor countries like Guatemala.
One of the main focuses of the Ballengers’ humanitarian efforts has been in the construction of hospitals throughout the world. “[Counting] just hospitals alone, we have helped establish two in Guatemala, two in Nicaragua, one in El Salvador, one in Bolivia, one in Peru, one in Jamaica, one in Haiti, one in Malawi and one in Afghanistan,” Ballenger said. The number of people touched and affected by these efforts is inconceivable.
In addition to rebuilding hospitals, the Ballengers have been involved with the revival of various orphanages in Central America. It all began in the early 1980s when the Ballengers were called to action again by Chet Thomas, formerly of the Church World Service, to provide assistance to an orphanage in Honduras. Thanks to fundraisers and gifts of shirts, shoes and other items of clothing, the orphanage is almost fully self-sufficient and has tripled in size.
Ballenger was particularly moved while working with orphanages in Nicaragua. “The four orphanages in Nicaragua were the most inspiring, because we saw some really poor children, and were able to help them,” he said. When he and his wife first visited Nicaragua, the orphanages, which were founded in the 1940s by an Italian priest, were in an alarming state of disrepair, according to Ballenger. “We saw how bad off they were and started helping them,” he said. “There are now five orphanages and they are very successful.”
A general helping hand to Central American nations in need, the Ballengers have also done environmental work in Haiti, where they assisted in the planting of three million trees.
One of his most touching memories occurred after he and his wife had arranged for school furniture to be shipped to Ecuador. The furniture they provided was used to improve conditions at nine schools there. “[As a gesture of thanks,] the children sang to me the same song they sang to the Pope,” said Ballenger.
A new spirit of the law
But the Ballengers are not just involved with the fieldwork. When Ballenger and his wife initially began their humanitarian efforts, Ballenger was not yet involved in politics. Ballenger emphasized that his wife played an enormous role in his involvement in underdeveloped countries. “My wife really started the whole thing,” he said.
They are as prominent in the political world of these countries as they are in their everyday communities. “When we started, there was one democracy in Central America and that was Costa Rica,” he said. “Over the years, we’ve gotten involved in the politics of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama and Guatemala.”
According to Ballenger, his efforts have helped the stability of many governments. “None of these democracies is perfect, but there is only one non-democracy is the whole area, and that’s Cuba,” he said. “I would say we had a pretty strong effect.”
One of the most influential ways in which Ballenger became involved in the politics of these nations was through the International Republican Institute (IRI), which witnesses elections in any country that is willing to allow the IRI to do so. “We would go to the polls, make sure the ballots were counted properly and they made sure they were honest because we were there,” Ballenger said. In Mexico, the IRI has been especially effective, according to Ballenger. “[It’s now] the best system … they were so dishonest before and it needed to be changed,” he said.
As Ballenger grew interested in his role in politics in the United States, he likewise became more interested in international politics. “Politics got us more involved in these countries,” he said. He thus brings a special level of expertise and experience to his efforts in interactions in these countries, because of his role in and understanding of Central American politics.
Ballenger served in the North Carolina House of Representatives from 1974 through 1976, and was elected to Congress as a Republican representative from North Carolina in 1986. All of Ballenger’s efforts in Central and South America, in addition to his work in the House of Representatives, have allowed him the honor of serving as chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere in Congress. Recently, his position has been most concerned with events in Venezuela. “We are vitally interested in what is going on in Venezuela,” he said.
His involvement in the political instability of Venezuela has also extended to a more personal level. “We had Chavez in our house recently and I consider him a friend,” he said. While President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez was visiting, Ballenger took the opportunity to give Chavez a tour of his home state. “[I] took him around Hickory, North Carolina, and attempted to show him the advantages of our free-enterprise system, as opposed to the economics of Castro in Cuba,” he said.
Ballenger’s involvement with Venezuela has been very extensive. He and his wife recently arranged for “six containers full of furniture to reach Venezuela and help rebuild schools that were affected by the monstrous floods that hit Venezuela a number of years ago,” he said. “I would like to go down [to Venezuela] and see that things are going better.”
Change is definitely not always easy, and not necessarily always welcome. But, the Ballengers have sustained their efforts to bring democracy to Central and South America, as well as to improve the quality of life of there. “Where there have been problems, we have been there working … just last week we visited every country in Central America,” he said. “Among the biggest projects has been building democracy in areas where it didn’t have a chance.”
Additionally, and in a more prolonged sense, Ballenger has worked in fighting the drug war in Central America. Ballenger spoke extensively about the drug war and the United States’ efforts to eliminate the flow of drugs that runs from Latin America to the United States. “Colombia is the biggest provider,” he said. “They provide 80 percent of the cocaine and 75 percent of the heroin. Bolivia and Peru are also big providers of drugs, although Bolivia has almost completely wiped theirs out.”
Ballenger’s position does, in many ways, pose a threat to his physical safety. Recently, while in Colombia, a helicopter he had been traveling in was shot down the next day; luckily, he was not harmed. He has, however, had to travel with as many as 30 bodyguards at times.
The Ballengers’ work in Central and South America, as well as in other areas, has surely changed the lives of countless individuals. Their modesty and struggles should not go unrecognized, and their impact on the Latin American world has been remarkable.