While we all grapple with the news and impact of the novel coronavirus, I would like to take a moment to share an inspiring story and an incredible milestone in the history of the What If Foundation.
March 19th marks the 20th anniversary of the community food program (or Lamanjay, as it’s called by our friends in Ti Plas Kazo), which gave birth to the What If Foundation. To commemorate the occasion and the nearly five and a half million meals that have been lovingly served in the last two decades, I’ve asked our founder, Margaret Trost, to share her reflections and what she has learned along the way. Below are the highlights of my conversation with Margaret.
With my deepest gratitude to all our donors and hope for the children we serve,
Interim Executive Director
Tell us the story of why you started the What If Foundation.
When I returned from my first trip to Haiti 20 years ago, I was deeply impacted by the hunger I’d seen and prayed for a way to respond. During the trip, I met Father Jeri Jean-Juste and heard his vision for a community-based food program for children in the Ti Plas Kazo community. I wanted to help, and a miraculous series of events led to me receiving a $5000 check that I sent to Father Jeri to pay for meals.
I remember the first email Father Jeri sent me letting me know that the check had arrived and the food program had begun almost immediately. I was amazed as I read his words: “The program is wonderful! From 200 children last Sunday, it has doubled today…Children are pouring on us and many youngsters want to help…”. Then he wrote a sentence that still gives me chills when I read it: “There is great hope.” Knowing that I was part of helping provide “great hope” in the midst of suffering was what fueled my heart to spread the word and to take steps to create a 501 c3 nonprofit organization.
What are you most proud of?
On a personal level, I’m proud that I listened to my heart and asked the question, “What if I could help make Father Jeri’s vision for a food program become a reality?” Even though I was unsure of how things would unfold, or where the money would come from, I took steps to put that question into action. And, “piti piti na rive”, little by little we are here 20 years later with over five million meals served, three thousand scholarships provided, a new k-12 school built, and thriving after-school and summer camp programs. These initiatives have made a difference in the lives of countless children. They’ve also supported the local economy and have been a steady source of income for the teachers, cooks, and others who run the programs.
I’m also very proud of our partnership with Na Rive. It’s based on mutual respect, trust, and a shared commitment to the children and their future. It is an important example of a healthy international partnership that knows that the best way to create sustainable change is from the inside-out, with love leading the way.
What are your hopes for the What If Foundation in the next 20 years?
My hope and prayer is that the programs continue to flourish; that meals continue to be served to the hungry and quality education is always available to hundreds of children at the Fr. Jeri School. Over the last 20 years, there’s never been a time where What If’s resources have surpassed Na Rive’s vision and capacity to implement life-changing programs. With this in mind, I’d love for the What If Foundation to grow so that it has resources that it can direct towards Na Rive’s growing efforts. For many years, I’ve had the vision that one day the What If Foundation will have an endowment that will provide funding for the Fr. Jeri School so that there’s a deep level of sustainability that ensures support for education and meals continuing well past my lifetime.
How has the What If Foundation changed your life and the way you approach things?
What If Foundation gave me the opportunity to learn from the wisdom and life experience of Haitians, to absorb their teachings and to expand my mind, my heart, and my understanding of life. The Haitian proverb, “piti piti na rive” has been one of my greatest teachers. Father Jeri taught me this proverb and demonstrated the value and importance of taking small steps towards a vision — even if the steps go backwards sometimes, even if they don’t seem like enough. He taught me to believe in possibility, to keep on learning and growing, and to not let the inevitable challenges (internally, locally, globally) overwhelm me into thinking that small steps don’t make a difference, because they do. When he shared this teaching with me years ago, we had been talking about the vision of a neighborhood school and I remember he closed by saying, “One day, maybe not during my lifetime, but one day, we will get there.” And he was right.
What do you think Fr. Jeri would say if he were alive today?
I hear his laugh and feel his smile and encouragement whenever I think of him. I think he’d tell us how happy he is about the Fr. Jeri School and all it is offering the children, especially during this tumultuous time in Haitian history. He’d express gratitude to all the What If Foundation donors, to its staff and board, and to everyone at Na Rive for their devotion and generosity over all these years. He’d say what he believed so fervently, and we have seen come true: you can never underestimate the value of even one meal given to a hungry child, or one year of school to a student. He’d reinforce the truth that “lespwa fe viv”: hope makes life. And he’d tell us that love is the greatest power.