Bolivian Mission Changes Mid-Amateur Liias' Life
October 4, 2015 | Vero Beach, Fla.
By David Shefter, USGA
Endel Liias gazes around the venue for the 35th U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship and has to pinch himself. Everything about the John’s Island Club, from the golf courses to the locker room and dining areas, is first class.
“Look at this place,” says Liias, who carded an 82 on the North Course in Saturday’s first round of stroke play. “I’m so grateful for it. We’ve been given this wonderful opportunity in life and I’m driven to give back.”
Those statements come from a man with deep perspective. Liias, 34, of Washington, D.C., is certainly focused on his performance and hopes to finally make match play in this national championship for golfers 25 and older. Yet his heart is thousands of miles from Florida’s Treasure Coast in a place where such amenities are a pipedream.
The town of Cochabamba lies in the central part of Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, where most of its children grow up without the modern conveniences many Americans take for granted.
During a 10-day visit 11 years ago, Liias witnessed those impoverished conditions first-hand. With the ink still fresh on his master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and unsure how to launch his career, Liias decided a trip to South America might offer an epiphany.
So eye-opening was the trip that when his father, who was an Anglican priest at the time, offered him a chance to serve a one-year mission in Bolivia, Liias jumped at the opportunity. Just a few days after his beloved Boston Red Sox had won the World Series for the first time in 86 years, Liias made a life-altering decision.
The mission trip would provide a chance for him to learn Spanish while living with a Bolivian family, and to assist young children in need.
What he didn’t know was that the mission would lead him to create Niños con Valor – Children With Value – a nonprofit charity that provides homes and care for high-risk youth. The children aren’t orphans, but they come from broken homes where there has often been physical abuse, drug use and alcoholism. Liias saw childen who required loving care, and he wanted to enrich their lives.
It started with one home for boys and has since expanded to three – one for boys, one for girls and a transitional house for those who have reached the age of 18.
“The last four or five months I was there, I thought I should start something that could not just support this one home [where I was working],” said Liias. “[At the time] my church was helping to support them with basics like school supplies and money for food. But I realized that when I left, that money was going to go with me.”
While in Bolivia, Liias befriended Canadian-born Tyson Malo, who had married a woman from Bolivia and was attending the same church as Liias. As they talked, the business model for Niños con Valor took shape. A board of directors was formed, with Malo serving as the executive director. Even though Liias founded the charity, he gives Malo the credit for growing it.
Today, Niños con Valor’s funding comes from U.S. churches, a few grants and more than 175 individual sponsors. The staff of 15-20 includes tias – which means aunt in Spanish – who live in the homes and care for the children. Medical care also is provided.
“The whole idea of Niños con Valor is not just to be a place where kids come,” said Liias, who currently serves as head of the child sponsorship committee. “There are plenty of children’s homes that try their best and do great work, but it’s to be really holistic in the approach to the child. We have psychologists working with them as well as food and education. They attend a local church so there are the Christian values. It’s a model home and it’s like a [big] family.”
Some of the children have been adopted. Liias described one boy who came to the program as an malnourished infant with several immunity-deficiency issues. Doctors didn’t give him much of a chance to live. He was placed in intensive care, and with the assistance of Niños con Valor, he survived and was adopted last year. Liias said the child is now 5 years old and flourishing.
“For the people who run this [charity], it is tough,” said Liias, who is working on a plan to purchase land so the charity can build three houses instead of renting. “The kids come in with all sorts of issues. But it’s a real blessing to work with them. Tyson has made this successful through his vision.”
Liias estimates he spends 5 to 8 hours a week working on Niños con Valor. The rest of his time is occupied by his position as an impact investor. His company, the Carpenters Fund, identifies Christian-led organizations and businesses throughout the world that are looking to expand. Thus far, the fund has five investments averaging $1-$2 million, including a pharmacy in Kenya and churches in Brazil and the Philippines. Liias also consults for Global Health Visions, a company started by his older sister, Nejla.
He also got married in August to the former Kate Raymond, whom he met at his Northern Virginia church.
Despite his hectic schedule, Liias finds time for golf. As a youngster, he won the New England Junior Open and once dreamed of playing professionally, but soon realized that his game was never going to measure up. He played for three years at the University of Pennsylvania and was twice an All-Ivy League performer. He majored in environmental biology with the thought of becoming a golf course architect, and wrote his thesis on golf course sustainability. But he abandoned those dreams not long after his mission in Bolivia.
“I always say my degree just taught me how to think,” said Liias. “It’s not the specifics or the details. I just [fell in] love [with] international stuff.”
Liias qualified for his first USGA championship – the 2001 U.S. Amateur Public Links – while at Penn. He also qualified for the 2009 U.S. Mid-Amateur and represented the District of Columbia in last year’s USGA Men’s State Team Championship. But as the 2015 U.S. Mid-Amateur approached, his game wasn’t sharp. The sectional qualifier happened to be at his home course, the Country Club of Woodmore in Mitchellville, Md., and Liias went into the 18-hole event with no expectations.
He ended up sharing medalist honors with a 71 to earn his spot at John’s Island Club. His goal is to finally make match play.
No matter how he finishes, Liias won’t fret. Those Bolivian children remind him of how lucky he is.
“I always think, ‘Why did we get to be born in this country?” said Liias. “I’m overwhelmed by how blessed we are.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.